News Stories

Dumpster Divers in Space?

Astronauts returning from challenging long-duration missions face one more challenge when they get back to Earth: standing up and walking. And while they're IN space, they need to dodge some of the debris out there.

The threat from orbital debris is a growing international concern. It's not like the astronauts are throwing beer cans out of the windows of the ISS. It's orbital debris from defunct satellites. NASA's Brian Weeden says, "Orbital debris is a global problem that poses a threat to the use of space by all States. Actively removing orbital debris is part of solving this problem, but it is by its nature a global solution that requires international cooperation and transparency." Can we get convicted international criminals to do Community Service by picking up space trash? Removing just a handful of objects per year could be enough to stabilize the growth of orbital debris. According to Weeden, "The next step in active debris removal is to figure out which objects should be initially targeted and how best to remove them."

Perhaps private trash collection is the key: Weeden says, "A particular point of discussion has been the economic mechanisms that could provide free market incentives for debris removal." One concept discussed was that of a "deposit" paid on satellites when they are launched, similar to the deposit on cans and bottles. According t oWeeden, "If a satellite owner-operator or third party then removed the satellite from orbit, it gets the deposit back."

Meanwhile, Spaceweather.com reports that a strange object that may actually be a piece of space trash is about to fly only a very short distance between the Earth and the moon. It has an orbit that lasts almost exactly 1 year, raising the possibility that it might not be a natural object, but rather a piece of some spacecraft from our own planet (or from somewhere else?)

Upon returning to normal gravity, astronauts often suffer from balance problems that lead to dizziness and difficulty standing, walking and turning corners. NASA's Jacob Bloomberg is trying to develop techniques to help astronauts adapt quickly to a new gravity environment and to overcome balance disturbances. This concept will also have benefits for non-astronaut populations such as the elderly or people with balance disorders.

In order to perform everyday activities, the brain interprets information provided by the body's sensory systems: the eyes, the inner ear balance organs, the skin and muscle movement receptors. Bloomberg says that problems for astronauts occur during the transition period in which the brain is trying to adapt to a new gravity environment, either while returning to Earth or (in the future) adjusting to lunar or Martian gravity.

"In space, information from the sensory systems is different, particularly when you take away gravity. The brain reinterprets that information, makes adjustments and allows you to do the activities you need to do in space," Bloomberg says. "The down side to that is when you return to Earth, the sensory systems are not used to a normal gravity environment."

He uses a treadmill called an Adaptability Training System, which is mounted on a base that can be actively moved in different directions to simulate balance disturbances. The treadmill has a projection screen in front of it that shows an image of a room or hallway that moves as the user walks. Disturbances are simulated by tilting the treadmill in one direction as the image is tilted in another. Bloomberg says, "At first, people find it difficult to walk on the treadmill since its movement and images are out of sync. But over time, they learn to walk on it efficiently."

To learn more, click here and here.

Art credit: Dreamstime.com

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