Dubai, United Arab Emirates — The newly formed U.S. Space Force is deploying troops to a vast new frontier: the Arabian Peninsula. Space Force now has a squadron of 20 airmen stationed at Qatar’s Al-Udeid Air Base in its first foreign deployment.
The force, pushed by President Donald Trump, represents the sixth branch of the U.S. military and the first new military service since the creation of the Air Force in 1947.
It has provoked skepticism in Congress, satire on Netflix, and, with its uncannily similar logo, “Star Trek” jokes about intergalactic battles.
Future wars may be waged in outer space, but the Arabian Desert already saw what military experts dub the world’s first “space war” — the 1991 Desert Storm operation to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Today, the U.S. faces new threats in the region from Iran’s missile program and efforts to jam, hack and blind satellites.
“We’re starting to see other nations that are extremely aggressive in preparing to extend conflict into space,” Col. Todd Benson, director of Space Force troops at Al-Udeid, told The Associated Press. “We have to be able to compete and defend and protect all of our national interests.”
In a swearing-in ceremony earlier this month at Al-Udeid, 20 Air Force troops, flanked by American flags and massive satellites, entered Space Force. Soon several more will join the unit of “core space operators” who will run satellites, track enemy maneuvers and try to avert conflicts in space.
“The missions are not new and the people are not necessarily new,” Benson said.
That troubles some American lawmakers who view the branch, with its projected force of 16,000 troops and 2021 budget of $15.4 billion, as a vanity project for Mr. Trump ahead of the November presidential election.
Concerns over the weaponization of outer space are decades old. But as space becomes increasingly contested, military experts have cited the need for a space corps devoted to defending American interests.
Threats from global competitors have grown since the Persian Gulf War in 1991, when the U.S. military first relied on GPS coordinates to tell troops where they were in the desert as they pushed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait.
Benson declined to name the “aggressive” nations his airmen will monitor and potentially combat. But the decision to deploy Space Force personnel at Al-Udeid follows months of escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran.
Hostilities between the two countries, ignited by Mr. Trump’s unilateral withdrawal of the U.S. from Iran’s nuclear accord, came to a head in January when U.S. forces killed a top Iranian general. Iran responded by launching ballistic missiles at American soldiers in Iraq.
This spring, Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard launched its first satellite into space, revealing what experts describe as a secret military space program. The Trump administration has imposed sanctions on Iran’s space agency, accusing it of developing ballistic missiles under the cover of a civilian program to set satellites into orbit.
World powers with more advanced space programs, like Russia and China, have made more threatening progress, U.S. officials contend. Last month, Defense Secretary Mark Esper warned that Russia and China were developing weapons that could knock out U.S. satellites, potentially scattering dangerous debris across space and paralyzing cell phones and weather forecasts, as well as American drones, fighter jets, aircraft carriers and even nuclear weapon controllers.
“The military is very reliant on satellite communications, navigation and global missile warning,” said Capt. Ryan Vickers, a newly inducted Space Force member at Al-Udeid.
American troops, he added, use GPS coordinates to track ships passing through strategic Gulf passageways “to make sure they’re not running into international waters of other nations.”
The Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of the world’s oil flows, has been the scene of a series of tense encounters, with Iran seizing boats it claims had entered its waters. One disrupted signal or miscalculation could touch off a confrontation.
For years, Iran has allegedly jammed satellite and radio signals to block foreign-based Farsi media outlets from broadcasting into the Islamic Republic, where radio and television stations are state-controlled.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has warned that commercial aircraft cruising over the Persian Gulf could experience interference and communications jamming from Iran. Ships in the region have also reported “spoofed” communications from unknown entities falsely claiming to be U.S. or coalition warships, according to American authorities.
“It’s not that hard to do, but we’ve seen Iran and other countries become pretty darn efficient at doing it on a big scale,” said Brian Weeden, an Air Force veteran and director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, which promotes peaceful uses of outer space. “There’s a concern Iran could interfere with military broadband communications.”
Responding to questions from the AP, Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman at Iran’s mission to the United Nations, said “Iran will not tolerate interference in our affairs, and in accordance with international law, will respond to any attacks against our sovereignty.” He added that Iran has faced numerous cyber attacks from the U.S. and Israel.
Failing an international agreement that bars conventional arms, like ballistic missiles, from shooting down space assets, the domain will only become more militarized, said Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association. Russia and China have already created space force units and the Revolutionary Guard’s sudden interest in satellite launches has heightened U.S. concerns.
Still, American officials insist the new Space Force deployment aims to secure U.S. interests, not set off an extraterrestrial arms race.
“The U.S. military would like to see a peaceful space,” Benson, the director of Space Force troops stationed in Qatar, said. “Other folks’ behavior is kind of driving us to this point.”
Space is an almost perfect vacuum, full of cosmic voids. And in short, gravity is to blame. But to really understand the vacuum of our universe, we have to take a moment to understand what a vacuum really is — and what it’s not.
So, what is a vacuum, and why isn’t space a true vacuum?
First, forget the vacuum cleaner as an analogy to the vacuum of space, Jackie Faherty, a senior scientist in the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, told Live Science. The household cleaning machine effectively fills itself with dirt and dust sucked out of your carpet. (That is, the vacuum cleaner uses differential pressure to create suction. Suction cleaner might be a better name than vacuum cleaner). But the vacuum of space is the opposite. By definition, a vacuum is devoid of matter. Space is almost an absolute vacuum, not because of suction but because it’s nearly empty.
That emptiness results in an extremely low pressure. And while it’s impossible to emulate the emptiness of space on Earth, scientists can create extremely low pressure environments called partial vacuums.
Even with the vacuum cleaner analogy out, “understanding the concept of the vacuum is almost foreign because it’s so contradictory to how we exist, Faherty said. Our experience as humans is completely confined to a very dense, crowded and dynamic fraction of the universe. So, it can be hard for us to really understand nothingness or emptiness, she said. But in reality, what’s normal for us on Earth, is actually rare in the context of the universe, the vast majority of which is nearly empty.
Gravity is king
On average, space would still be pretty empty even if we didn’t have gravity. “There’s just not a lot of stuff relative to the volume of the universe in which you put that stuff,” according Caltech theoretical astrophysicist Cameron Hummels. The average density of the universe, according to NASA, is 5.9 protons (a positively charged subatomic particle) per cubic meter. But then gravity amplifies the emptiness in certain regions of the universe by causing the matter in the universe to congregate.
Basically, any two objects with mass will be attracted to each other. That’s gravity. Put another way, “matter likes to be around other matter,” Faherty said. In space, gravity draws nearby objects closer together. Together their collective mass increases, and more mass means they can generate a stronger gravitational pull with which to draw even more matter into their cosmic clump. Mass increases, then gravitational pull, then mass. “It’s a runaway effect,” Hummel said.
As these gravitational hot spots pull in nearby matter, the space between them is evacuated, creating what’s known as a cosmic void, Hummel said. But the universe didn’t start that way. After the Big Bang, the matter in the universe was dispersed more uniformly, “almost like a fog,” he said. But over billions of years, gravity has gathered that matter into asteroids, planets, stars, solar systems and galaxies; and leaving between them the voids of interplanetary, interstellar and intergalactic space.
But even the vacuum of space is not truly pure. Between galaxies, there’s less than one atom in every cubic meter, meaning intergalactic space isn’t completely empty. It has far less matter, however, than any vacuum humans could simulate in a lab on Earth.
Meanwhile, “the universe keeps expanding,” Faherty said, assuring that the cosmos will remain mostly vacant. “It sounds so lonely,” she said.
The International Space Station (ISS) is a unique laboratory operating in low-Earth orbit. Over the past 20 years, more than 3,000 investigations from researchers in 108 countries have been accomplished aboard the orbiting facility. In the early days of ISS assembly, research took place at a more modest level than today. Delays in the launch of the Zvezda Service Module to July 2000 slipped the overall ISS assembly sequence, including the arrival of the Destiny Laboratory module, the cornerstone of US research activities aboard ISS, to February 2001, with the first research facilities arriving shortly afterwards. To get a jump start on conducting research aboard ISS as early as possible, mission managers approved the use of limited resources on the STS-106 mission in September 2000 to launch the first three NASA-sponsored science experiments.
Left: ISS as it appeared to the STS-106 crew in September 2000. Right: The crew of STS-106, front left to right, Malenchenko, Wilcutt, and Altman; rear left to right, Burbank, Lu, Mastracchio, and Morukov.
Space shuttle mission STS-106 lifted off on the morning of September 8, 2000, with its seven-person crew of Commander Terence W. Wilcutt, Pilot Scott D. Altman, and Mission Specialists Edward T. Lu, Richard A. Mastracchio, Daniel C. Burbank, Yuri I. Malenchenko, and Boris V. Morukov. The mission was dedicated to resupplying and outfitting ISS ahead of the first expedition crew’s arrival and therefore had little extra time or space for science payloads. To ease the integration process, the three experiments chosen all had previous flight experience on space shuttle missions, required little crew time, and used little of the available stowage on ascent. One of the experiments would remain in the shuttle middeck throughout the shuttle mission as a so-called sortie payload, a second required only for a crewmember to transfer it to a quiescent location aboard ISS, and the third was passive stowage only, prepositioned on ISS to be operated once the Expedition 1 crew arrived.
Left: Morukov operating the CGBA in the shuttle middeck. Middle: Wilcutt operating the CGBA. Right: CGBA Isothermal Control Module.
The sortie payload consisted of a Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus (CGBA), a single middeck locker sized apparatus that had flown multiple times on previous space shuttle flights. The CGBA, built by Bioserve Space Technologies at the University of Colorado in Boulder, provided automated processing for biological experiments, minimizing crew interactions to activation, periodic health checks, and deactivation. On STS-106, the CGBA contained the Isothermal Containment Module (ICM) to provide temperature control to the two experiments within the unit. One experiment, Synaptogenesis in Microgravity led by Principal Investigator (PI) Haig Kashishian of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, used seven Gas Exchange-Group Activation Packs (GE-GAPs) to house and control the development of Drosophila melanogaster, or fruit flies. The ICM automatically controlled the GE-GAPs through a preset temperature profile during the mission. The experiment, previously flown on STS-93 in 1999, sought to better understand development of the nervous system of fruit flies in microgravity. The second CGBA experiment, Kidney Cell Gene Expression led by PI Timothy G. Hammond of the Durham Veterans Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, used a single Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus (GBA) in the ICM. The purpose of the experiment, previously flown on STS-90 in 1998, was to study how microgravity affects the gene expression of proteins in cultured kidney cells. The CGBA functioned normally throughout the flight, but unexpected temperature excursions in the two experiments made interpretation of the results problematic.
Left: Student preparing samples for the PCG-EGN Dewar experiment. Middle: Still from a video of Lu transferring the PCG-EGN into the Zarya module. Right: PCG-EGN Dewar stowed in Zarya.
The first passive science experiment placed aboard ISS was the Protein Crystal Growth-Enhanced Gaseous Nitrogen (PCG-EGN) Dewar. Alexander McPherson of the University of California at Irvine was the PI for this experiment that had flown seven times during the Shuttle-Mir Program. The day before launch, flash-frozen samples of 21 different protein solutions in capillary tubes provided by four investigators were loaded into the Dewar, a vacuum-jacketed container similar to a large thermos bottle with an absorbent inner liner saturated with liquid nitrogen. Middle and high school students from Alabama, California, Florida, and Tennessee helped load about 150 of the 500 samples. The Dewar rode into orbit in the shuttle middeck, and once the hatches to ISS were open, Lu transferred the Dewar to a quiescent place in the Zarya module. Over time, the liquid nitrogen boiled off, the frozen samples thawed, and the proteins crystallized out of solution. Without the disturbing influence of gravity, investigators hoped to grow larger and purer crystals to allow more detailed understanding of their structure. The Dewar was returned to Earth by the next space shuttle mission to visit ISS, STS-92 in October 2000, after spending 46 days in space. The PCG-EGN Dewar experiment subsequently flew four more times aboard ISS.
Left: MACE-II experiment floating in the Unity Node 1 module. Middle: Shepherd operating MACE-II in Unity during Expedition 1. Right: Helms operating MACE-II during Expedition 2.
The third experiment launched on STS-106 was the Middeck Active Control Experiment-II (MACE-II) led by PI R. Rory Ninneman of the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with a collaborating team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, led by David W. Miller. The experiment, previously flown as MACE-I on STS-67 in 1995, sought to demonstrate algorithms that future satellites can use to reduce certain stresses such as vibrations experienced during launch or during orbital maneuvers. The multi-body platform test article, the structure of the MACE-II hardware that was tested, had four 1-inch-diameter struts connected to five nodes. During operations, it was free-floating but loosely tethered in the module. The entire platform had 20 separate sensors that monitor vibration. During STS-106, the MACE-II experiment launched as passive stowage in the Spacehab module and the crew transferred it into the Unity Node 1 module to await the arrival of the Expedition 1 crew. That crew’s commander, William M. Shepherd operated MACE-II near the end of his mission and since he wasn’t able to complete all the required sessions, managers decided to leave it on orbit for Expedition 2 Flight Engineer Susan J. Helms to complete the experiment. The hardware returned to Earth aboard STS-105 in August 2001.
It was a bright spot in the long, dark tunnel that has been the year 2020. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe, SpaceX made history on May 31 by launching NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in its sleek, modern Crew Dragon spacecraft.
While much of humanity yearned simply to go to a restaurant or just leave the house, two humans left the Earth, starting a new era of space travel. The mission called Demo-1 was the long-awaited demonstration of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, a partnership of the space agency, Boeing and Elon Musk’s SpaceX with the aim of kicking off a new era of human space exploration. Beyond being the first crewed space launch from US soil in nine years, the program will provide a big boost to science in orbit.
For more than six decades, space programs run by the US, other countries and now private companies have been developing technologies and making new discoveries in the service of solving hard problems. Some advancements, like satellite-based communications, are well known, and others, like a NASA-supported method of disarming landmines, might surprise those who see big space exploration budgets (NASA’s 2020 budget is $22.6 billion) as a waste of money. But these solutions usually end up having applications that improve the day-to-day lives of Earth-bound humans, including breakthroughs that just might help save us from the ongoing pandemic and other major problems we face.
“On the International Space Station, researchers are taking advantage of microgravity to produce human tissue and develop new vaccines,” says NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “Because things behave differently in space, these are medical advancements that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.”
The inauguration of the Crew Dragon spacecraft, which seats up to four more astronauts than the three-person Russian Soyuz craft NASA has used exclusively to ferry crews into orbit since 2011, also brings a research boost. More seats means more hands available to do more hours of science in space. And that science could have real-life implications.
“There is the expectation that the amount of time allocated for conducting science on station will approximately double,” Patrick O’Neill, spokesperson for the International Space Station US National Laboratory, says of the coming Commercial Crew era.
Some of those added crew hours may go to less life-critical experiments with commercial partners like Adidas, which has been studying how particle foam molding in microgravity could affect the performance and comfort of its shoes. (There’s a Space Jam joke to be made there somewhere.)
More importantly, more astronaut hours could assist the US government’s multibillion-dollar effort to secure millions of doses of experimental coronavirus vaccines from big pharmaceutical companies like Sanofi Pasteur. The French multinational drug-maker has been working with NASA and the ISS National Laboratory to investigate how human immune cells change in the microgravity environment aboard the International Space Station. And with worldwide demand for doses of a vaccine to protect against COVID-19, insights from space could be the key to making the process cost-effective and delivering the vaccine to the masses sooner.
Rachel Clemens, innovation manager of the ISS National Lab, wrote in March that life sciences research into how various cells and systems respond in microgravity could be particularly useful. The studies could lead to better methods of vaccine production and improved vaccine efficacy.
“Cells in culture change their physiology in interesting ways in microgravity,” Clemens wrote. “While scientists are not studying COVID-19 in space, research on the International Space Station (ISS) does tell us a lot about microbes.”
The dawn of Commercial Crew and the return of crewed launches to American shores is a culmination, of sorts, of a quiet renaissance in cutting-edge research that’s been happening about 250 miles above our heads. Over the past decade, new, high-tech facilities available to both public and commercial interests on the ISS have driven a big increase in life sciences research.
Some of the newer resources on the space station include DNA sequencing, bio fabrication and autonomous equipment that supports research with minimal supervision from the crew. Recent research includes sending genetically edited “mighty mice” with almost twice the muscle mass of normal mice into orbit to help scientists investigate ways to fight muscle wasting and aging. Another effort aims to better understand human disease with the help of tissue-on-a-chip platforms that mimic human tissues and organs to study their reaction to microgravity.
There are even new robots on the ISS, including a humanoid helper named R2 in true Star Wars style and a cute/creepy smiling assistant on a screen named CIMON-2 that will remind space enthusiasts of a certain age of a certain HAL.
But the long, rich and sometimes surprising history of technology transfer from space to life below started more than 60 years ago, even before humans left the Earth for the first time. We continue to heavily rely on the advancements like satellite-based connectivity, Earth observation and global positioning systems. They all grew out of a singular desire to keep up with (and spy on) the Soviets during the Cold War era.
These are obvious examples, and there are many more.
“Space is part of the solution set, and when you deal with big problems, you want to have access to as many solution sets as possible,” says Rich Cooper, vice president for strategic communications and outreach at the Space Foundation, a nonprofit education and advocacy group.
NASA labs later pioneered the use of water hyacinths and other plants as a much more cost-efficient (and shockingly attractive) way of treating sewage, an advancement that major cities began adopting in the 1980s. You also can thank the space agency for your scratch-resistant lenses, cordless tools, Tempur-pedic mattress, LASIK eye surgery, and the insoles in many running and hiking shoes, just to name a few.
Science aboard the ISS will ramp up when the first operational Commercial Crew mission sends four astronauts to the station in October.
“Space is a force multiplier across every infrastructure, industry and community,” Cooper says. “That creates opportunity as much as it creates inspiration.”
The European Space Agency uses its Earth observation satellites to monitor all sorts of changes happening on our planet, from volcanic activity to oil spills, deforestation and urban development. Or as ESA Downstream Gateway Officer Donatella Ponziana described it, “We take the pulse of the Earth.”
This year, ESA is measuring the planet’s vitals to help officials glean new insights into the COVID-19 pandemic. That agency and the European Commission created the Rapid Action on Coronavirus Earth Observation dashboard that shows the pandemic’s impact on dozens of economic, environmental and agricultural indicators such as construction activity, harvests and air quality.
Hardware originally developed for space is also assisting in the fight against COVID-19 on the ground.
Cobham Advanced Electronic Solutions, an Arlington, Virginia-based company that’s created circuits and other spacecraft components for a few decades, wants to bring its space solutions back to Earth.
“Space applications require a fairly significant complexity in the design. They also require certainty of results — what you design actually has to do what it’s supposed to do and it has to do it for a long time in space,” says Chris Clardy, Cobham’s vice president for space business development, strategy and technology. “And they typically are in very tight form factors. Size, weight and power matters, and they have to be very low-power.”
Cobham designed the first breathing regulator used by John Glenn during Project Mercury, which sent the initial batch of US astronauts into space in the early 1960s. Today its components are on the ISS and power robotic probes scattered around the solar system, including NASA’s Juno spacecraft circling Jupiter, the Parker Solar Probe and Osiris-Rex. Cobham components are also used in industrial settings, like airports, hospitals and other medical facilities for everything from scanning luggage to mining.
The application-specific integrated circuits, or ASICs, the company has modified for hospital equipment like computerized tomography scanners need to be reliable and hardened enough to survive constant exposure to radiation, just like spacecraft. They’re now being used to detect and sequence the genome of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
“As a space technology developer, we select technology and we design all the way down to the transistor level to survive these radiation effects,” Clardy says. “These contributions by our customers have been essential in the world’s fight against the coronavirus.”
Cobham and Clardy are also turning their attention to the future, when the company’s space-proven technology will have the potential to help shape the future of communications, the internet of things and other areas where it matters that components are small, low-power and resilient.
Forget the sky. Imagination is the limit
It’s not just robotic probes and projects in orbit that deliver benefits for us humans. Planned deep-space expeditions should bring about some innovations as well.
“As has been the case throughout NASA’s history, investments in NASA and our ambitious missions, like the Artemis program, will lead to new technological capabilities for our nation and the world,” Bridenstine says. The Artemis mission aims to land the first woman on the moon in 2024 and lay the foundation for a permanent presence on our natural satellite.
Take, for example, a current NASA challenge that asks university students to help solve the problem of highly abrasive lunar dust, which can wreak havoc on both astronauts’ lungs and equipment. It’s easy to imagine how working to solve this problem could lead to new ways of dealing with pollution and other airborne irritants on Earth.
And advancements won’t come just from humans, either. I’ll certainly be in line to own anything inspired by NASA’s shape-shifting robot concept that looks even cooler than any Star Wars droid. The system is really a series of robots that can fly, swim, float and tumble over any terrain, abilities that could help locate victims trapped in debris because of natural disasters or other emergency situations.
A drone called Quantix, introduced in 2018, allows farmers to scan their fields and identify different plant health issues. AeroVironment’s chief marketing officer, Steve Gitlin, told NASA Spinoff this year that the agency’s requirements for ruggedness “certainly taught us much about reliability in harsh environments, which serves our customers in the military and on the farm.”
Space will save Earth… and humanity, too
Incremental improvements to life on Earth are one thing, but with climate change and the threat of future pandemics facing the planet, saving both it and our species are much more complicated. But two men with about a quarter trillion dollars in net worth between them have audacious plans to leverage space and their wealth to take them on.
Musk and SpaceX are planning to travel far beyond the ISS, aiming to build a city on Mars and make humans a “multiplanetary” species, just in case some catastrophe should befall our home planet. This grandiose vision invites the quick retort that we ought to be solving climate change and the other big problems facing Earth before we go messing up another planet. But the process of making Mars habitable will almost certainly yield insights and innovations that will help make Earth more sustainable.
“Very little that pertains to living on Mars in the early years will involve off-the-shelf equipment and supplies from Earth,” wrote Stephen Petranek in his 2015 book How We’ll Live on Mars.
Petranek imagines that new systems may be needed to extract the water and oxygen for supporting human life in the Martian environment. One such experiment is on its way to the red planet aboard the Perseverance rover. The instrument known as Moxie, for Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resources Utilization Experiment, aims to pull oxygen from atmospheric carbon dioxide. It’s easy to imagine how insights gleaned from this effort might be put into use on other worlds where there’s an excess of CO2, like say… Earth.
Amazon CEO and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos has his own vision for using space to save Earth. Rather than going all the way to Mars, the sometimes-richest-human-on-Earth wants to move as many polluting industries as possible into orbit, onto asteroids and to the surface of the moon. The goal is to preserve Earth for life and to put activities that can hinder it somewhere else.
Of course, billionaires can afford to think big, and both visions are still a long way off. But the launch of a brand new spacecraft like Musk’s Crew Dragon is a step forward and a welcome dose of uplifting news in trying times. Keeping an eye on the prize of technological progress might just help end this pandemic a little sooner, and give us fancy new space-foam shoes to wear when we can start eating out again.
Mice without the gene for myostatin, a protein that limits muscle growth, retained more bone and muscle mass during spaceflight than normal mice that do carry the gene. The larger of the two mice pictured here has been genetically modified to lack myostatin and, as a result, has larger muscles.
Super-muscular mice may now reveal a way to keep astronauts from losing muscle and bone in the microgravity of space, a new study finds.
A major challenge astronauts face during prolonged space missions is the simultaneous loss of bone and muscle, which weaken and atrophy due to disuse outside the constant pull of Earth’s gravity. Previous research found that in microgravity, astronauts can lose up to 20% of their muscle mass in less than two weeks.
The husband-and-wife team of Se-Jin Lee and Emily Germain-Lee thought they might have found a way to fight bone and muscle loss when Lee and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins University helped discover myostatin, a protein that normally limits muscle growth, in the 1990s.
“Back then, we showed that mice in which we deleted the myostatin gene had dramatic increases in muscle mass throughout the body, with individual muscles growing to about twice the normal size,” Lee, a geneticist now at the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine in Farmington, Connecticut, told Space.com. “This immediately suggested the possibility that blocking myostatin might be an effective strategy to combat muscle loss due to a wide range of diseases. This also suggested the possibility that this might be effective for astronauts during extended space travel.”
For the past 20 years, the researchers have wanted to see what effects blocking myostatin would have in mice sent to space. “We finally got the opportunity to do so last year,” Lee said.
In December, the scientists launched 40 mice from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to the International Space Station aboard SpaceX’s CRS-19 cargo resupply services mission. “We were so impressed by the dedication, focus and enthusiasm that everyone brought to this project, and it was a privilege to have the opportunity to work with all of them,” Lee said.
While 24 of the 40 mice were normal, eight of them were missing the myostatin gene and eight others were treated with a molecule that suppressed both myostatin and a protein known as activin A, which has similar effects on muscle as myostatin.
Normal mice — those that carried the myostatin gene and received no protein-inhibiting treatments — lost significant muscle and bone mass during the 33 days spent in microgravity. In contrast, mice that were missing the myostatin gene and had a muscle mass about twice that of a regular mouse, largely retained their muscles during spaceflight.
In addition, the scientists found the mice that received the molecule suppressing myostatin and activin A saw dramatic increases in both muscle and bone mass. Moreover, mice treated with this molecule after returning to Earth experienced more recovery of muscle and bone mass when compared with untreated mice.
These findings suggest targeting myostatin and activin A “could be an effective therapeutic strategy to mitigate muscle and bone loss that occur in astronauts during extended spaceflight, as well as in people on Earth who suffer from disuse atrophy as a result of being bedridden, wheelchair-bound or elderly,” Germain-Lee, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine in Farmington, told Space.com.
Although the researchers find their results exciting, “It is important to remember that these studies were done using mice,” Lee said. “Although mice have very similar physiology to humans, sometimes what we learn from mice does not translate exactly to humans. There is still a lot of work that would need to be done to develop treatments for humans, but we believe that this type of strategy holds great promise.”
Lee, Germain-Lee and their colleagues detailed their findings online Sept. 7 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Follow Charles Q. Choi on Twitter @cqchoi. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.
Scientists have found a radiation-resistant bacteria can survive at least three years exposed in orbit, suggesting simple life forms could manage the long journey between between Earth and Mars unprotected.
The Japanese scientists behind the research said Wednesday the finding lends credence to so-called “panspermia theory”, which posits that microbes can travel from one planet to another, seeding life on arrival.
To test the theory, the researchers deposited a bacteria called Deinococcus radiodurans outside the International Space Station at an altitude of 400 kilometres (250 miles) from the Earth.
Despite enduring the harsh environment of outer space and exposure to strong UV and large temperature changes, the bacteria was still alive in parts after three years.
“I knew it would survive after carrying out various experiments in the lab, but when it came back alive, I was relieved,” Akihiko Yamagishi, study author and emeritus professor at Tokyo University of Pharmacy and Life Sciences, told AFP.
The results show that the bacteria could weather a journey between Mars and Earth, and opens up intriguing possibilities, he said.
“Everyone thinks the origin of life started on Earth, but the new findings indicate that other planets could also be where life began.”
Yamagishi and his team hope to carry out similar experiments outside the Van Allen radiation belt, which would expose the bacteria to even more radiation.
Scientists believe that more than three billion years ago Mars was much warmer than today and was covered in rivers and lakes, conditions which could have led to simple microbial life.
The discovery, published Wednesday in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, comes with Mars back in the headlines as three missions head for the Red Planet.
They include the Hope probe from the United Arab Emirates, the Tianwen-1 from China and Mars 2020 from the United States, all of which are taking advantage of a period when the Earth and Mars are nearer to each other than usual.
The International Space Station (ISS), in Earth orbit at hundreds of kilometres altitude, is not perfectly airtight. Every day, the cabin loses a minute amount of air, monitored carefully so that a liveable atmospheric pressure can be maintained, and to identify leaks.
Now the latter has come to pass, just two years after the last leak. The rate of air loss on the station has risen above a level that can be explained by the normal ISS day-to-day, according to a NASA blog post.
Mission control first noticed something awry in September of 2019, but the increase in air leakage was slight – not enough to cause serious concern. Now that rate has increased, so they’re buckling in to find out where the extra air is escaping.
The current ISS crew are not in any danger, but NASA astronaut Commander Chris Cassidy and Roscosmos cosmonauts Ivan Vagner and Anatoly Ivanishin will have to hole up in the Zvezda Service Module for the weekend while mission control searches for the source of the leak.
“All the space station hatches will be closed this weekend so mission controllers can carefully monitor the air pressure in each module,” NASA’s Mark Garcia wrote. “The test presents no safety concern for the crew. The test should determine which module is experiencing a higher-than-normal leak rate.”
The last leak on the ISS took place two years ago, identified by ground control at 23:00 UTC (19:00 EDT) on 29 August 2018. At that time, the same measures were taken – the crew moved to the Russian segment, and the space station modules were sealed off and their atmospheric pressure examined.
An earlier leak was identified and patched in 2004, in a vacuum jumper cable used to equalise air pressure across a window in the Destiny laboratory module.
Tracking down such leaks can be challenging because of the normal air pressure fluctuations inside the space station. In addition to the normal leak rate, the pressure also changes due to temperature fluctuations, as well as routine station operations, such as spacewalks and the arrival and departure of resupply spacecraft.
During their weekend in the Zvezda module, the ISS crew will continue their normal duties as much as they are able. Once the leak has been traced to a specific module, the crew will be able to perform a more granular search to find the precise source.
“The US and Russian specialists expect preliminary results should be available for review by the end of next week,” Garcia wrote.