University experiments in zero gravity

Wednesday 18 September 2019
Over millions of years, man has constantly adapted his organism to the conditions of the earth in order to function properly and survive. If the prevailing conditions change, e. g. gravity, this can lead to considerable perceptual disturbances. Astronauts in particular are confronted with such circumstances and are exposed to additional risks when travelling through space or during operations on space stations. Scientists from Hochschule Bonn-Rhein-Sieg are now working with Canadian colleagues to investigate the effects of weightlessness on human perception.
Hochschule Bonn-Rhein-Sieg
Prof. Michael Jenkin (York UNiversity, r.) and Dr Nils-Alexander Bury (H-BRS/York University) with VR headsets for the test series in weightlessness

In collaboration with Canadian colleagues, scientists of H-BRS are now investigating the effects of weightlessness on human perception. In the past, astronauts repeatedly reported that the perception of their own movements and the estimation of distances changed considerably in weightless space. This makes collisions with vehicles or other moving objects more likely and poses an additional source of danger for man and machine. In order to develop measures to combat this disorientation, H-BRS scientists, in cooperation with researchers from the York Centre for Vision Research (CVR) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), are conducting experiments in microgravity. When gravity is almost completely suspended, the SMUG experiment (self-motion under gravity) in parabolic flight is intended to investigate the influence of gravity on one's own motion and to help optimise training methods for astronauts.

In order to simulate the conditions in space, the scientists led by Professor Dr Rainer Herpers of H-BRS are taking part in scientific parabolic flights organised by DLR's Space Agency. During parabolic flights, gravity is temporarily suspended by controlled dive flights. In these phases, the test persons involved complete a series of visual tests that are compared with the results of the same series of tests on Earth. If differences are detected, the scientists can use the data to determine the extent to which self-perception is influenced by weightlessness. The first flight took place in September.

SMUG is related to the long-term microgravity project VECTION. It is funded by the Canadian Space Agency CSA and is part of the Human Research Program of the American Space Agency NASA, which investigates the risks of altered perception in space missions. The practical phase of VECTION runs until 2023 on the International Space Station (ISS) and will be complemented by the results of the SMUG study.

Relevance for geriatric medicine

In addition to the benefits for space travel, the scientists also hope to gain new insights for medicine. Previous observations suggest that the symptoms of age-related perception disorders are similar to the effects of space sickness caused by weightlessness. The test results could thus help to better understand, for example, the disorientation of sick patients and improve medical treatment.