Particle physics experiments

Discover SpaceX Inspiration4 Experiences


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On Saturday, four explorers descended off the coast of Florida after spending three days circling the planet. Like the crews that have circled the Earth before them, they spent part of their time taking advantage of the rare opportunity to study how the human body – their bodies – reacted to an exotic environment characterized by gravity. reduced and high cosmic radiation.

But unlike previous orbital crews, the members of the Inspiration4 mission, operated by SpaceX, are not professional astronauts who have spent careers preparing for the experience. Rather, they belong to an emerging class of travelers, variously referred to as space flight participants, space travelers, or space tourists. These adventurers are distinguished by a combination of wealth and luck.

Otherwise, however, the first private orbital crew consists of normal people, offering researchers a unique opportunity and a singular challenge. For the first time, investigators had the chance to find out how ordinary people adapt to space. But in order to do that, they had to design experiences that anyone could and would do while on vacation out of this world.

“We are looking to the future of private non-professional people going to space, so we need to find that balance between easy-to-implement, easy-to-execute and low-load science,” says Jimmy Wu, Engineer biomedical at Baylor. The Translational Research Institute of the College of Medicine for Spatial Health (TRISH), which organized the research activities of Inspiration4. “It’s definitely a change from working with professional astronauts who are paid to do it. “

A battery of tests

TRISH investigators had a host of questions they hoped the Inspiration4 team, made up of billionaire Jared Isaacman, medical assistant Hayley Arceneaux, data engineer Chris Sembroski and geoscientist Sian Proctor, could help. to respond during their stay in orbit. Scientists have designed a handful of research projects to address some of the most pressing concerns.

Before and after the flight, the crew used a tablet with an accelerometer to see how well they could balance. The inner ear system that keeps the body oriented relies on gravity, and its disruption could be linked to the plague of any space traveler: space sickness. Oddly enough, the researchers found no connection between astronauts who have motion sickness and those who have space sickness, so the scientists at TRISH are casting a wider net.

[Related: SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission and launch in 9 photos]

“We haven’t seen a good correlation between what is happening on Earth and what is happening in space,” Wu said. “We just need a lot more data to understand this and connect with the general population. “

Inspiration4 participants also used tablets to perform ten tests to measure their reaction times and overall cognitive function. When astronauts performed such tests on the International Space Station, researchers did not detect any mental fog. But maybe that’s because the tests are too difficult to detect subtle drops in the already high performance of elite pilots and the like. If space travelers from more diverse backgrounds are experiencing larger declines, researchers would like to know.

Real-time health monitoring

A major challenge of spaceflight is to keep the crew healthy in the absence of hospitals and doctors. The explorers of Star Trek had a “tricorder” device to monitor the general condition of their bodies. In a small step towards that future, the Inspiration4 crew tested two devices to study their health in real time.

One was a portable ultrasound device to track how water moves through the body when it is not being pulled down by gravity. Technicians perform ultrasounds in hospitals, but the Inspiration4 device uses artificial intelligence to look at the images and guide a novice user accordingly. “This allows more unskilled operators to do ultrasound, rather than having to undergo several months of training to do it,” Wu explains.

The crew also took pin-prick saliva and blood samples, which another device analyzed instantly for signs of stress, inflammation and immunity. Members brought the samples back to Earth to be kept as the first entry into a long-term scientific endeavor: building a “biobank”.

These samples will remain at Baylor College of Medicine for research into the body’s space flight phenomena. It wasn’t until after astronauts began spending long periods of time on the space station that NASA began documenting still mysterious changes in their vision, for example. A large biobank could help researchers study other as yet unidentified health effects, especially as more people venture into space.

“Twenty years from now, it would be nice to be able to look back” and answer the question, “Did this happen with the very first civilian spaceflight?”

A crash course in research

But before they could begin to amass this wealth of information, the researchers at TRISH had to design the experiments as simple as possible and train the space pilots to perform them. While professional astronauts have years to prepare for a mission, the Inspiration4 crew were only a few months old. And much of that time was spent learning how to deal with life and death emergencies, such as what to do if the spaceship window shattered.

[Related: SpaceX Starships keep exploding, but it’s all part of Elon Musk’s plan]

Professional astronauts oversee a wider range of experiments, many of which are automated, but the Inspiration4 team had yet to study the planned research program. TRISH researchers taught a SpaceX employee how the experiments worked, and this employee trained the crew on site. Now that the spacecraft and its passengers have returned to Earth, TRISH, who has paid an undisclosed sum of money to pilot their research, is waiting to hear how successful their plans have been.

“We’ve done our best to make them ready and able to do science, but the nature of it all is that they’re self-sufficient,” Wu said.

More space flyers to come

Determining whether the experiments and the training program were simple and effective enough will be a major research result in itself, as Inspiration4 likely marks the start of a new wave of space travel.

On average, less than a dozen astronauts have orbiting Earth each year since human spaceflight began in 1961. SpaceX is already on track to match that number in its first year of private flights, according to Wu, and could easily overtake it if the company starts launching missions every month or two. In the space of a few years, what has always been a slow dissemination of health information could turn into a deluge.

And TRISH intends to record everything. The institute has already made contact with specific crew members who will participate in upcoming missions, announced and unannounced. “TRISH is aggressive in engaging all potential missions because we don’t want to miss the opportunity to collect this data,” Wu said.

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