What happens to our body in space?: The effects of microgravity and radiation

CEO’s Office

What happens to the human body in space?: The effects of microgravity and radiation

Human body in space


NASA’s Human Research Program has been unfolding answers for over a decade about what happens to the human body out there. Since the birth of the Space Age 60 years ago, astronauts have progressively gone into space for longer periods of time since the International Space Station has been in operation. 

Today, the “privatization” of space has raised aspirations towards other celestial bodies, there are even talks of having permanent human settlements on the moon, Mars, and other planets of the solar system in future decades, initially for experimentation, mining, and with time “colonize space”. 

This entails a deeper understanding of the human body, of the interaction of our body’s magnetic field, the earth’s magnetic field, and its relationship with gravity; what happens to our bodies when we are in weightlessness, what happens with cosmic radiation, and, finally, what happens with artificial radiation from our own devices, which are already causing health problems on earth today.

Key questions:

Is the earth’s magnetic field part of our body’s electromagnetic balance? If so, what happens when we, as a species, travel through the solar system? And when we reach other planets with magnetic fields of different intensity, what is the effect? In a state of weightlessness in space, are we more vulnerable to artificial non-ionizing radiation emanating from our electrified transmissions and devices? Preliminary studies on astronauts show us that there are palpable biological effects for astronauts, are those part of the many negative biological effects produced by electrosmog emissions from telecommunications transmission equipment of the space station?

It is highly possible. And given the evidence and the types of biological effects described by NASA in its astronauts, we can find similarities in the observations of medical studies carried out on non-ionizing radiation from artificial sources, which are evident in more than 4,000 scientific papers.

As NASA would say “Space is a dangerous, unfriendly place”. Once you are out there, you’ll be isolated from family and friends, exposed to a type of radiation that could increase your lifetime risk for cancer, surviving on a diet high in freeze-dried food, requiring daily exercise to keep your muscles and bones from deteriorating, and mandatory confinement with very few people in a metallic tube.

Today’s astronauts are going deeper into space on longer missions, and, with the entry of private industry into the sector, space tourism could soon allow regular vacationers to experience microgravity. Orbiting the Earth, the Moon and even Mars will be possible soon, so we could say the future of space travel is bright. But what about the effects of space travel on the human body? 

Astronauts, the only ones who have experienced these conditions so far, face many hazards in space that can do strange things to the human body; and different experiments in them have shown that radiation, lack of gravity, and isolation can all have negative impacts on the body. 

Effects on body functions

NASA offers several warnings for people who are preparing for space travel based on what researchers know about the human body in space. A lack of gravity doesn’t only cause bone and muscle loss, but transitioning to different gravity fields can also affect spatial orientation, head-eye, and hand-eye coordination, balance, and locomotion. It can even cause motion sickness.

As NASA cautions, if you don’t exercise and eat right, you will lose muscle strength, endurance, and experience cardiovascular deconditioning since it does not take effort to float through space. Fluids are another tricky factor since bodily fluids shift upwards in space, which can make your legs temporarily skinny and put pressure on your eyes that cause vision problems.

Brain effects

According to an article published by Space.com, astronauts have reported issues with vision after traveling to space and some medical evaluations on Earth have revealed that their optic nerves swell and some experience retinal hemorrhage and other structural changes to their eyes. Scientists suspect that these vision issues are caused by increased “intracranial pressure,” or pressure in the head, during spaceflight. 

Chelsea Gohd, from Space.com, interviewed Dr. Larry Kramer, a radiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, who stated that researchers found evidence that this pressure does increase in microgravity. “In this study, the team performed brain MRI (magnetic resonance imaging, a technique that uses specialized scanners to image parts of the body using magnetic fields) on 11 astronauts (10 men and one woman) both before and after they traveled to space and for up to a year after their return. These MRI images showed that, with long-duration exposure to microgravity, the brain swells, and cerebrospinal fluid, which surrounds the brain and spinal cord, increases in volume. 

Additionally, Kramer and his colleagues found that the pituitary gland also changes with exposure to microgravity. They found that the gland became compressed, it changed in height and shape which is a sign of increased pressure in the head. 

Finally, the article states that the researchers also found that the swelling of the brain alongside the compressing pituitary gland and the pressure in the head, was still present a year after the astronauts returned from space. That duration suggests that these effects could be long-lasting. 

Long-term effects of space radiation on health

The most dangerous aspect of space travel, according to NASA, is space radiation. For example, a vehicle traveling to Mars and a habitat on Mars will need significant protective shielding, but even building the strongest walls, they are futile against some types of space radiation. 

“On the space station, astronauts receive over ten times the radiation than what’s naturally occurring on Earth. Our planet’s magnetic field and atmosphere protect us from harsh cosmic radiation, but without that, you are more exposed to the treacherous radiation”, states NASA in their Human Research Program spreadsheet. 

So, above Earth’s protective EMF shielding, radiation exposure potentially increases the cancer risk. This type of radiation can also damage the central nervous system, with both acute effects and later consequences, manifesting itself as altered cognitive function, reduced motor function, and behavioral changes. 

At last, space radiation can also cause nausea, vomiting, anorexia, and fatigue. Astronauts could develop degenerative tissue diseases such as cataracts, cardiac, and circulatory diseases. 

A summary of the effects and an unexplainable fact

The researchers highlight six biological changes in all astronauts during space flight: oxidative stress (an excessive accumulation of free radicals in the body’s cells), DNA damage, mitochondrial dysfunction, changes in gene regulation, modifications in the length of telomeres (the ends of chromosomes, which shorten with age), and alterations in the intestinal flora.

As reported by the MIT Technology Review, “Of these six changes, the biggest and most surprising to scientists was mitochondrial dysfunction. Mitochondria play a fundamental role in the production of the chemical energy necessary to keep cells functional and, by extension, tissues, and organs. The researchers found irregular mitochondrial functioning in dozens of astronauts and were able to describe these changes extensively thanks to new genomic and proteomic techniques.”

Afshin Beheshti, a NASA bioinformatician and lead author of one of the studies, believes that mitochondrial suppression explains how many of the problems astronauts experience (such as immune system deficiencies, disrupted circadian rhythm, and organ complications) are related to each other holistically, as they all depend on the same metabolic pathways.

The MIT Technology Review states that there are other investigations focused on the problems observed at the genetic level. For example, the study of the Kelly twins showed that Scott’s telomeres had lengthened in space before returning to normal or even shorter lengths shortly after their return to Earth. Telomeres are supposed to shorten with age, so lengthening makes little sense, and the study of twins did not provide enough data to draw real conclusions about why that happened and what the effects had been.

What does this mean for future space expeditions?

According to Mark Springel, a research assistant in the Department of Pathology at Boston Children’s Hospital, with our current technology, a manned mission to Mars would take more than two years, and by conservative estimates, simply getting to Mars might take 6 to 8 months. Radiation measurements recorded by NASA’s Curiosity rover during its transit to Mars suggest that with today’s technology, astronauts would be exposed to a minimum of 660 ± 120 millisieverts (a measure of radiation dosage) throughout a round trip. Because NASA’s career exposure limit for astronauts is only slightly greater at 1000 millisieverts, this recent data is cause for great concern.

“The recent radiation data aside, the longest consecutive stay by a human in space is only 438 days, and it’s not completely understood how the human body might respond to a trip to Mars and back. The effects of long-term spaceflight may be very nuanced, and this calls for new disciplines that can address the issue of adapting humans to conditions that we were not intended to endure. Frequent exercise, proper nutrition, and pharmacological therapy are three strategies used to combat the deconditioning process, yet some reduction in fitness is inevitable”, stated Springel in the Harvard University blog

Scientists who design future space missions have a big challenge ahead: develop new technologies that can overcome the physiological limitations of humans traveling in space for indefinite periods. “Much emphasis on research today is to develop technologies to get to Mars faster, generate artificial gravity, and reduce radiation exposure. While pop culture’s depiction of space travel may largely be fictitious, it may be science fiction that one day enables humans to venture deeper into “the final frontier”, finished Springel.

My conclusions 

To achieve successful and longer manned expeditions to outer space, we still have to research and develop the proper technologies to guarantee the safety and well-being of the astronauts while being exposed to microgravity and space radiation. As Springel would suggest, fiction movies and our current fantasies could be the first step to start exploring our possibilities, to find out new things, and start working on developing what we consider impossible now. 

Also, we still have to find out how to control the artificial emissions generated by the current technologies used by astronauts in order to avoid any further issues on their health, considering they are not protected by the natural earth’s EMF, which keeps the balance and the natural conditions our bodies are used to. We have to consider that, even inside the earth’s natural magnetic fields, humans are experimenting several biological effects, genotoxic damages, and severe oxidative stress due to these artificial radiation. So, have you wondered how could these effects be in the absence of a magnetic field such as the earth’s? That’s a big question!

For example, radio waves are the only way to communicate with a spacecraft out there, so antennas and propagation are two core elements in spacecraft engineering. We have to keep in mind that radio waves are used for a wide spectrum of applications in space exploration, like telecommunications, observation, and radio-navigation. To accomplish all of these purposes without implying bigger problems to astronauts, we need to think about designing special antennas, properly measure the propagation effects, and find a possible way to shield them from those waves.

As technology keeps going further, It’s very likely that new spacecraft models use higher microwave frequencies and, as the data to transmit is bigger and heavier, they are more oriented to use millimetre waves. This means that new astronauts, including the ones who traveled in SpaceX ‘s Falcon 9, will be surrounded by more microwave connectivity  instead of simple radio signals, like in previous vehicles and rockets. Simultaneously, Bluetooth technology is likely to be used to interconnect several systems inside spacesuits. So, summarizing, we have a scenario where artificial EMF exposure in astronauts is very different to what we have already experienced before, and we don’t know the possible consequences yet. 

According to the European Space Agency, electromagnetic compatibility has long been a crucial performance issue; and, as our previous article stated, electromagnetic interference might become more important with the introduction of next-generation broadband telecom satellites that incorporate multiple spot beams operating at higher frequencies, like the project of installing 4G on the moon.

These are all things we have yet to discover, and we are probably many years away from discovering the best ways to protect our space explorers and get the desired results on manned expeditions. But to keep going forward on our space ventures safely, more investigation, developing, and willingness to try different solutions are totally worth it.

Definitely, I think there’s a way to develop more rigorous standards in electronic and electrical engineering to ensure that the ALARA (As Low As Reasonably Achievable) principle is, indeed, applied. On the other hand, I think it’s necessary to keep researching, learning, and developing more around technologies like SPIRO to work with a new scientifical vision of materials that can work as passive filters that don’t block transmissions but make them better and biocompatible.

Once again, I think we need to create a reasonable and strict standard for all the companies that are joining the spatial race, so they could develop technologies with an electro-clean vision and electrosmog-free systems.

Joaquín Machado

CEO NOXTAK. EMF specialist and researcher. Advisor on green technologies, IoT, and smart cities.

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