In outer space

> Astronaut protection
> Benefits of bacteria during long space missions

Spacecraft are exposed to cosmic radiation, originating mainly from the sun and the stars, with a strength a hundred times higher than that on earth. It is, therefore, of the utmost importance to know at all times the doses astronauts and the space capsule are exposed to. SCK•CEN has developed dosimeters that take measurements both inside and outside the spacecraft during space missions.
We also support space exploration by studying the behaviour of bacteria during space missions and monitoring the health of astronauts. This research is conducted both in space and on earth, where we can simulate similar conditions.

Astronaut protection

Space travel affects the astronauts’ immune system. Various factors play a part in this process, i.e. weightlessness, cosmic radiation, isolation and the inevitable stress. At the request of European, American and Russian space agencies, SCK•CEN tests the blood of astronauts when they return from a long space mission. We perform analyses using advanced biochemical and molecular techniques.

Long-term exposure cannot be avoided during long distance missions, e.g. to Mars – for which the return flight takes 18 months. Sensitivity to cosmic radiation varies considerably between people, and consequently also between astronauts. Chronic exposure can lead to adverse health effects and greatly increase, for example, the risk of developing cancer. It is important, therefore, to gather as much information as possible. Again SCK•CEN plays a significant role in this process.

We have already conducted experiments into skin sensitivity to cosmic radiation, in which human skin cells were placed in a low space orbit for 12 days. We also study the influence of weightlessness on human cells. Simulations have demonstrated that it can have a powerful effect on cell shape and development.

Arteries are also sensitive to space conditions; there is an increased risk of bleeding. SCK•CEN is participating in an experiment to study the impact of weightlessness on human arteries in more detail.


Benefits of bacteria during long space missions

During long space missions, e.g. several years, it is impossible to take sufficient oxygen, food, drinking water and water for personal hygiene. Together with a number of partners, SCK•CEN is developing biological solutions to recycle waste (waste water, carbon dioxide and organic matter) into drinking water, oxygen and food.

Various bacteria are used in bio reactors to break down organic matter and convert it into other usable nutrients and minerals. The bacteria are analysed in great detail in our laboratories. We study their behaviour and metabolic functions under conditions of weightlessness and when exposed to high radiation doses.

To this end bacteria are not only sent on actual space flights. We also simulate space conditions in our laboratories by using various radiation sources and specialist propagation techniques. To protect astronauts and equipment from unwanted bacteria during space flights, we need to monitor which bacteria and moulds are present in space capsules. Various space agencies are employing our know-how for experiments and measurements.



Brochure on space research

Microbiological research

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