The world beyond the atmosphere
Astronauts explore the universe for us. This increases our knowledge of what goes on beyond the atmosphere. Still, this entails risks. In space, astronauts are subjected to extreme conditions: cosmic radiation, prolonged weightlessness and social isolation. These factors cause stress, affect our eyesight, make our bones more brittle, etc. They even increase the risk of cancer and heart diseases. A good understanding of these factors is crucial to protect astronauts against today’s or tomorrow’s challenges.
Space missions to Mars
The game-changing research of SCK CEN is a springboard to the coveted planet Mars. For this research, SCK CEN works together with international partners. Space research is very diverse: from analysing cosmic radiation over establishing radiation doses to closely monitoring the health of astronauts. The research centre also pays special attention to bacteria. How do they behave? Can astronauts use them in space to produce oxygen, water and food? The research activities are performed both in space and here on earth.
Three cornerstones of space research
SCK CEN is an important space research player in the field of radiation dosimetry, human biology and microbiology.
Astronauts and scientific experiments are exposed to cosmic radiation. Human senses cannot perceive this radiation. Therefore, SCK CEN sends dosimeters to the ISS space station, which circles in an orbit around the earth at a 400-kilometre altitude. These dosimeters map the radiation doses precisely. Moreover, SCK CEN develops radiation dosimetry solutions for space that are also of interest for radiation protection of aviation personnel.
At the request of the European, American and Russian space agencies and in cooperation with national and international partners, SCK CEN analyses the blood of astronauts after a long space travel. Through these blood analyses, SCK CEN aims to find out how radiation affects the immune system and which mechanisms play a part in this. We also help in ensuring a healthy space habitat environment by developing biocontamination strategies.
A space trip to Mars takes about two years. One of the biggest challenges to completing such a long space journey is that an autonomous oxygen, water and food supply is crucial. How can astronauts recycle their own oxygen and water and produce food in space? SCK CEN has extensive knowledge, special research equipment and top scientists who are researching this. We are gradually finding the answers to these big questions.
Although not often visible to the naked eye, we are surrounded by microbes. Microbes are small prokaryotic organisms that can be found almost everywhere on earth and impact us more than you think. Some are detrimental, most beneficial.
Astronauts: guinea pigs for medicine
Space is a hostile environment for the human body: factors such as cosmic radiation and weightlessness undermine, a/o, the immune system, brains and skin. The processes taking place in astronauts are similar to disease processes on earth. What is the difference with patients? Astronauts take off in an excellent condition. This enables scientists to perform examinations before and after. What is the effect of radiation? How does our body react to it? How does radiation affect our healthy tissue? How can we protect healthy tissue? With these insights, SCK CEN can set to work. Within the scope of its NURA programme, the research centre develops effective cancer therapies, whereby healthy tissue receives as little irradiation as possible, as well as techniques that strengthen the different systems of the human body. In other words, space research gives medicine a boost and supports cancer patients and patients with dementia, skin problems or an immune disorder such as AIDS.