Tag Archives: astronauts

“The Trip to Mars Starts Right Here”

NASA’s One-Year Mission in progress aboard the International Space Station is focused on manned deep-space missions beyond low Earth orbit: namely, a trip to Mars.

As explained in this NASA video, research being conducted on the space station will help physicians, scientists, and engineers better understand how to protect the human crews who will someday make the journey to the Red Planet.

“It’s a fabulous destination for us to explore,” Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, says in the video. “It has so many scientific questions that we could answer, and it might actually be the first place where we find life beyond the atmosphere of our own Earth.”

The historic One-Year Mission revolves around NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian Federal Space Agency cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, whose one-year mission of living and working on the space station began on March 27.

Tests under way on the space station involve myriad health concerns, such as fluid shifts into the chest and head, including fluid shifts suspected of negatively impacting vision; the loss of muscle and bone strength; and the psychological effects of spending months in space in cramped, isolated quarters.

The One-Year Mission is also studying how long-duration weightlessness affects fine motor skills and sleep — and how Kelly and Kornienko will re-adapt to the Earth’s gravity.

“Humankind is not going to limit itself with just near-Earth orbit,” Kornienko says in the video via English translation. “We need to explore new planets, our solar system. It is inevitable. And the one-year mission is the first step in that direction.”

Twin Studies on Twin Astronauts

With all eyes on eventually sending human crews to Mars, NASA’s One-Year Mission provides a rare opportunity to conduct parallel studies on identical twin astronauts: “one twin flying and one twin on the ground,” Craig Kundrot, deputy chief scientist of NASA’s Human Research Program, explains in this NASA video.

As detailed by the Human Research Program, the investigations conducted on twin brothers Scott and Mark Kelly — Scott is flying a one-year mission on the International Space Station, and Mark is being observed on Earth — “will provide NASA with broader insight into the subtle effects and changes that may occur in spaceflight as compared to Earth-based environments.”

NASA’s Human Research Program, at www.nasa.gov/twins-study/reseach, details the four main research areas on which a total of 10 investigations on the identical twin brothers are being focused:

  • Human physiology: These investigations will look at how the spaceflight environment may induce changes in different organs like the heart, muscles or brain.
  • Behavioral health: This investigation will help characterize the effects spaceflight may have on perception and reasoning, decision making and alertness.
  • Microbiology/Microbiome: This investigation will explore the brothers’ dietary differences and stressors to find out how both affect the organisms in the twins’ guts.
  • Molecular/Omics: These investigations will look at the way genes in the cells are turned on and off as a result of spaceflight; and how stressors like radiation, confinement and microgravity prompt changes in the proteins and metabolites gathered in biological samples like blood, saliva, urine and stool.

The Eye’s Nonvisual System

Photo courtesy of NASA Identifier: 420686main_4 Researchers around the world are following the rocket science of lighting technology: the astronaut-friendly LED lighting being developed and tested for the International Space Station. “If it’s good enough for the space station,” says circadian neuroscientist Steven W. Lockley, “it’s good enough for your house.”

NASA Identifier: 420686main_4
In the accelerating world of electric and natural light research, most fascinating of all is the rocket science of lighting technology: the astronaut-friendly LED lighting system being developed and tested for astronauts aboard the International Space Station. “If it’s good enough for the space station,” says circadian neuroscientist Steven W. Lockley, “it’s good enough for your house.”

Scientists’ journeys are a never-ending process of discovery. And the findings don’t get any bigger than that of a new photoreceptor system in not just the human eye, but in the eyes of all mammals.

As I have learned from my interviews with numerous scientists over the past three years, the most exciting new frontier in light research has to do with this photoreceptor system: the eye’s nonvisual system, which performs the critical job of detecting the wavelengths of light that drive our biology and behavior through the resetting of the master 24-hour — the circadian — clock in the brain.

Circadian neuroscientist Steven W. Lockley explains: Unlike the visual system, this non-image-forming system provides a measurement of environmental light-dark cycles. It tells the brain whether it’s night or day, or winter or summer, which the brain uses to control our daily and seasonal biology.

The workings of this nonvisual system are shaping health and light research around the globe, from medical technology in hospital and healthcare settings, to lighting for professional athletes and sports team facilities, to comfort in our homes.

And then, most fascinating of all, there’s the rocket science of lighting technology: the astronaut-friendly LED lighting being developed and tested for the International Space Station. This highly sophisticated LED wavelength technology is designed to improve astronauts’ sleep, alertness, safety, and work performances in conjunction with the nonvisual light-sensing system of the eye.

A talk I gave in August 2014 at the Better Lights for Better Nights Conference in Dripping Springs, Texas, focused on this groundbreaking research that holds huge implications for lighting applications on Earth.

The bulk of the materials for my presentation were provided by Lockley, an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and a neuroscientist in the Division of Sleep Medicine and Departments of Medicine and Neurology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital; and Dr. Smith Johnston, then-director of the Aerospace and Occupational Medicine Clinics at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Lockley, a circadian rhythms and light researcher, is a lead adviser of LED lighting for the space station. Everywhere electric light is used, Lockley says, we can do a better job of it. “We’re at the start of a revolution for the application of light,” Lockley told me in a phone interview. “If it’s good enough for the space station, it’s good enough for your house.”

Brand-New Look at an Ancient System

NASA Identifier: sts092-367-035 In the 21st century, for the first time, scientists are studying the workings of the eye’s ancient photoreceptor system, which evolved before vision. The origins of the nonvisual system possibly date back at least 500 million years. New research about the eye’s light-sensing system is driving high-precision light technology being designed for the International Space Station.

NASA Identifier: sts092-367-035
In the 21st century, for the first time, scientists are studying the workings of the eye’s ancient photoreceptor system, which evolved before vision. The origins of the nonvisual system possibly date back at least 500 million years. New research about the eye’s light-sensing system is driving high-precision LED light technology being designed to improve the health and safety of astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

Unlike the eye’s visual rods-and-cones system, which produces images, the nonvisual system provides a measure of environmental presence and intensity of light. It is composed of photosensitive retinal ganglion cells, which get their light-measurement abilities from a light-sensitive photopigment called melanopsin.

Melanopsin, not to be confused with melatonin or melanin (a pigment that gives color to skin and eyes), shows a peak sensitivity to short-wavelength blue light: the light that most readily activates the brain, suppressing melatonin — the chemical expression of darkness, as termed by pioneer melatonin researcher Russel J. Reiter — and preparing the body’s physiological and psychological systems for daytime activities.

In the 21st century, for the first time, scientists are studying the workings of this ancient photoreceptor system, which evolved before vision. Researchers believe the origins of the nonvisual system possibly date back at least 500 million years, to the branch of animal evolution featuring sea stars and sea urchins. But this photoreceptor system — discovered just over a decade ago, in 2002 — is so small that generations of scientists overlooked it during centuries of research on the eye’s visual processes.

“The discovery of a new sensory apparatus in the human eye after hundreds of years of careful research on the visual system serves as a reminder of how easy it is to miss critically important physiology,” neuroscientist George C. Brainard wrote in the 2005 research article “Photons, Clocks, and Consciousness” (Brainard, John P. Hanifin, Journal of Biological Rhythms).

Brainard, director of the Light Research Program at Thomas Jefferson University whose decades of research helped lead to the discovery of the eye’s nonvisual system, explained in the article that the science of human circadian phototransduction — the process in which light, via detection by the eye’s light-sensing system, is transformed into electrical signals for the brain — was still in its infancy. “Expanding the frontiers of this field will teach us how to better use light for the benefit of humanity,” Brainard wrote.

Brainard is playing a huge role in expanding those frontiers: The neuroscientist continues to work with NASA in developing light for long-duration space travel, including the International Space Station.

One Big Ticking Clock

NASA Identifier: globe_east Life on Earth evolved in a natural dark-light cycle. Light is an absolutely fundamental part of our biology. And light, as detected by the eye’s remarkable nonvisual light-sensing system, is the most important environmental time cue for resetting our circadian clocks.

NASA Identifier: globe_east
Life on Earth evolved in a natural dark-light cycle. Light is an absolutely fundamental part of our biology. And light, as detected by the eye’s remarkable nonvisual light-sensing system, is the most important environmental time cue for resetting our circadian clocks.

Light, circadian neuroscientist Steven W. Lockley has explained to me, is a fundamental component of our biology. We need the daily 24-hour light/dark cycle to stay properly synchronized with the world around us. Light, Lockley says, is the most important environmental time cue for resetting our circadian clocks each and every day. That’s why the workings of the eye’s nonvisual light-sensing system are so important.

Light travels to the brain’s 24-hour clock, housed in an area of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus. The SCN is made up of about 50,000 cells, each of which is an individual oscillator, or clock. Together, these cells work to control our physiological and behavioral functions that affect, among many things, alertness, performance and reaction times, heart rate, temperature, glucose and insulin levels, and many genes. Lockley explains that the clock naturally runs at a period close to, but not exactly 24 hours (on average about 12 minutes longer, or 24.2 hours), and has to be reset to 24 hours each day by light.

In recent years, researchers have also discovered circadian clocks in the body’s tissues and major organ systems — the heart, the lungs, the liver, the stomach, the ovaries, the pancreas and many more, which, Lockley beautifully details, act as members of the body’s orchestra, keeping time in the peripheral tissue but under the guidance of the conductor in the SCN.

Essentially, the body is one big ticking clock: For the human machine to run as smoothly as possible, we need properly timed exposure to environmental light. In an ideal world, we would be on natural Earth time, resetting slightly differently each day and through the seasons, not on our constant clock time.

A Sci-fi-esque Light-Sensing System

NASA Identifier: iss002-702-085 On Earth, we experience one sunrise and sunset in a 24-hour day. But in a flood of the full spectrum of light, International Space Station crews see about 16 sunrises and sunsets in that same time frame. This sunrise view was taken by the Expedition Two crew in 2010.

NASA Identifier: iss002-702-085
On Earth, we experience one sunrise and sunset in a 24-hour day. But in a flood of the full spectrum of light, International Space Station crews see about 16 sunrises and sunsets in a 24-hour period. This sunrise view was taken by the Expedition Two crew in 2010.

The light sensitivity of the eye’s daytime color vision system evolved later than nonvisual light detection systems and so is not optimized for detecting light to reset the brain’s master circadian clock. On the visible light spectrum, the sensitivity of the three-cone photopic visual system peaks in the mid-wavelength green range, at 555 nanometers. But the nonvisual system contains the photopigment called melanopsin, which has a peak sensitivity at 480 nanometers in the short-wavelength blue range.

In animal models, and studies of different types of blindness, if the visual rods-and-cones system was removed from the cell layers of the eye, or is non-functioning, the nonvisual system works perfectly fine on its own, sending clock-setting light to the brain.

While there is some interaction, circadian neuroscientist Steven W. Lockley explains, the visual and non-visual photoreceptor systems can function independently and have their own photoreceptors, neural pathways and effects on the brain.

It’s crucial that we understand human physiology and our complex relationship with light given how important light is to sleep, circadian rhythms, and health. The eye’s nonvisual retinal system — a sci-fi-esque mechanism of which ophthalmologists largely remain unaware 13 years after the system’s discovery — represents a distinct photoreceptor systems with its own photopigment, neural pathway and function from the photoreception system that we use to see.

Neuroscientist George C. Brainard, director of Thomas Jefferson University’s Light Research Program, was one of the first scientists to study the effects of light wavelength on circadian photoreception. In 2001, his was one of two laboratories that made the major finding about the human eye: the melatonin suppression response — one of the non-visual responses to light — had a peak sensitivity in the blue light range that did not match the light sensitivity pattern of the rods and cones used to see.

Earlier work had shown that total visual blindness did not change circadian light responses, but these papers (Brainard et al., 2001; Thapan et al., 2001) provided more formal functional evidence of a non-rod, non-cone photoreceptor in the human eye.

This discovery, coming on the heels of colleagues’ research showing that the mammalian eye contains a light sensor separate from the visual rods-and-cones system, set up neuroscientist David Berson’s monumental finding in 2002: the mystery photoreceptor and a light-sensitive molecule called melanopsin, discovered in 1998 in the camouflaging skin cells of the African clawed frog, were one and the same.

Unfortunately, the conversation about light wavelengths gets stuck on the short end of the spectrum. It is true that the eye’s nonvisual light-sensing photoreceptor system is most sensitive to short-wavelength blue light, but as Lockley explains, all visible light can affect circadian rhythms. Any light source after dusk can be considered unnatural, including the light necessary to do shiftwork but also the light inside our homes, such as from TVs, cellphones, computers, and other electronic devices, which keeps us awake at night and disrupts our sleep and circadian rhythms.

Light after dusk, as relayed by the eye, tells the brain it’s daytime. And if the brain thinks it’s day, not night, it will induce daytime physiology as it thinks that we are awake at the wrong time. Consequently, light at night shifts the clock, suppresses melatonin, increases heart rate and temperature and alerts the brain — all of which are associated with daytime in a day-active species like humans.

But short-wavelength blue light — a stimulant, as opposed to relaxing, long-wavelength yellow/red light at the far end of the visible light spectrum — is also medicinal light. It can be used to improve alertness, reset disordered clock rhythms, or alleviate seasonal depression.

It’s the natural color of a brilliant, midday sky pouring in through the windows of assisted-care facilities for the elderly, improving patients’ moods, sleep, and cognitive symptoms of dementia.

And it’s a crucial component of the LED lighting wavelength model being tested for the International Space Station.

Space Station Twilight Zone

NASA Identifier: iss002e5413 Night and day don’t exist on the International Space Station, where astronauts live in the equivalent of a twilight zone: Repeated exposure — or lack of exposure — to the wrong wavelengths of light at the wrong time disrupts their biological clocks and circadian rhythms. Still, the views are beautiful: This sunset view with the space station’s solar array in the frame was taken by the Expedition Two crew in 2010.

NASA Identifier: iss002e5413
Night and day don’t exist on the International Space Station, where astronauts live in the equivalent of a twilight zone: Repeated exposure — or lack of exposure — to the wrong wavelengths of light at the wrong time disrupts their biological clocks and circadian rhythms. Still, the views are beautiful: This sunset view with the space station’s solar array in the frame was taken by the Expedition Two crew in 2010.

The International Space Station orbits the Earth every 90 minutes, creating incredible photography opportunities for astronauts who see approximately 16 sunrises and sunsets in a 24-hour period. Night and day don’t exist on the space station, where astronauts live in the equivalent of a twilight zone: Repeated exposure — or lack of exposure — to the wrong wavelengths of light at the wrong time throws their biological clocks out of whack and disrupts their circadian rhythms. The astronauts are cut off from the natural light-dark cycle and therefore have to create their own.

Astronauts typically only get about six hours of sleep in a 24-hour period due to a number of factors, including circadian misalignment. They suffer from insomnia and fatigue: dangerous conditions in space where they are required to work slam shifts — the performance of critical, time-specific operations, such as docking. Sleep loss can severely impair the astronauts’ cognitive functions within a few days, increasing the risk of mission errors and putting their health and safety at risk.

So electric light is coming to the astronauts’ rescue to help with both circadian misalignment and providing an acute stimulant to reduce fatigue in the form of a programmable LED wavelength system being designed and tested by a specialized lighting team of neuroscientists and NASA engineers.

The LED lighting system being designed for the space station will far exceed the sophistication of the aging fluorescent lights now in place. The lighting system is scheduled to be installed in phases, starting in fall 2016 in the U.S. crew quarters and eventually expanding to the entire U.S. module of the space station.

Image courtesy of NASA This educational LED lighting model was prepared to illustrate the full-color spectrum of light that the new, programmable system will provide astronauts — a system that will allow for greater lighting control with the manipulation, or fine-tuning, of color wavelengths.

Image courtesy of NASA
This educational LED lighting model was prepared to illustrate the full-color spectrum of light that the new, programmable system will provide astronauts — a system that will allow for greater lighting control with the manipulation, or fine-tuning, of light’s wavelengths.

No, says neuroscientist Steven W. Lockley, the new LED lights (above) won’t really resemble disco lights. The new, programmable system will provide greater lighting control with the manipulation, or fine-tuning, of the wavelength and intensity of light to either stimulate, when alertness or circadian resetting is required, or not stimulate, for example prior to sleep, the circadian photoreception system. A system of multiple LEDs, he explains in talks, can produce thousands and thousands of combinations of light.

As a countermeasure for fatigue and circadian disruption, and to improve vision, health, safety, and performance, the astronauts will actually see variations of white light, designed to enhance or minimize stimulation as required.