Astronaut Spacesuit Creators Use a Waterbed to Simulate Zero Gravity

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King’s College / ESA

Long stays in space can have some pretty adverse effects on astronauts’ bodies. One of the side effects that zero gravity has on space travelers is that it tends to lengthen their spines.

That might be a good thing if they’ve always wanted to dunk a basketball, but left untreated this microgravity growth can cause severe back pain. That’s why researchers at King’s College in London and the European Space Agency have been testing a “Skinsuit” that would halt spine lengthening by using a special waterbed.

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No, this team of scientists aren’t trying to relive the Eighties. These wiggly mattresses are meant to simulate zero-gravity environments so the team can accurately test their newly-developed body suits.

Researchers at King’s College London, UK employing a novel simulation of microgravity: adding magnesium salts to a half-filled waterbed. They were inspired by the Dead Sea, where swimmers float on the surface because of the high salt content. This Hyper Buoyant Facility is used to test a new Skinsuit design, which adds gravity-like loading to the bodies of astronauts in orbit.x

ESA, King's College London, UKSA

The researchers filled this oversized water ballon half way and added magnesium salts. This mimics what it’s like to swim in the Dead Sea, where swimmers can easily float on the surface because of the high salt content. It’s also coincidentally a great simulator of zero gravity.

Using MRI scans, the study compared the effects of the water bed on students’ spines with and without the full-body suit. Philip Carvil, a PhD student involved in the research, says that their tests have been successful.

“The results have yet to be published, but it does look like the Mark VI Skinsuit is effective in mitigating spine lengthening,” said Carvil in a statement. “In addition we’re learning more about the fundamental physiological processes involved, and the importance of reloading the spine for everyone.”

Earth’s gravity compresses our spines when we’re going about our day. That compression keeps water and other molecules out of the discs between our spinal bones. When gravity isn’t present to squish the liquid out of these discs, they can begin to bulge and becoming swollen, which causes some bad aches.

The evolution of the SkinSuit developed by Kings College London with ESA to generate gravity-like loading in weightlessness, from the Mk III to the current MK VI.

Kings College London/Philip Carvill

The Skinsuit would simulate gravity’s spinal compression to make sure future astronauts aren’t suffering from back pain on the job… and it would make them look like a intergalactic gymnastics team.

Solving problems with style, all in a day’s work for science.

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