Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Concept: Space exploration


Artificial muscles hold promise for safe and powerful actuation for myriad common machines and robots. However, the design, fabrication, and implementation of artificial muscles are often limited by their material costs, operating principle, scalability, and single-degree-of-freedom contractile actuation motions. Here we propose an architecture for fluid-driven origami-inspired artificial muscles. This concept requires only a compressible skeleton, a flexible skin, and a fluid medium. A mechanical model is developed to explain the interaction of the three components. A fabrication method is introduced to rapidly manufacture low-cost artificial muscles using various materials and at multiple scales. The artificial muscles can be programed to achieve multiaxial motions including contraction, bending, and torsion. These motions can be aggregated into systems with multiple degrees of freedom, which are able to produce controllable motions at different rates. Our artificial muscles can be driven by fluids at negative pressures (relative to ambient). This feature makes actuation safer than most other fluidic artificial muscles that operate with positive pressures. Experiments reveal that these muscles can contract over 90% of their initial lengths, generate stresses of ∼600 kPa, and produce peak power densities over 2 kW/kg-all equal to, or in excess of, natural muscle. This architecture for artificial muscles opens the door to rapid design and low-cost fabrication of actuation systems for numerous applications at multiple scales, ranging from miniature medical devices to wearable robotic exoskeletons to large deployable structures for space exploration.

Concepts: Energy, Density, Fluid dynamics, Muscle, Fluid, Robotics, Space exploration, Exoskeleton


Manned space flight induces a reduction in immune competence among crew and is likely to cause deleterious changes to the composition of the gastrointestinal, nasal, and respiratory bacterial flora, leading to an increased risk of infection. The space flight environment may also affect the susceptibility of microorganisms within the spacecraft to antibiotics, key components of flown medical kits, and may modify the virulence characteristics of bacteria and other microorganisms that contaminate the fabric of the International Space Station and other flight platforms. This review will consider the impact of true and simulated microgravity and other characteristics of the space flight environment on bacterial cell behavior in relation to the potential for serious infections that may appear during missions to astronomical objects beyond low Earth orbit.

Concepts: Bacteria, Antibiotic, Microorganism, International Space Station, Space exploration, Human spaceflight, Spaceflight, Satellite


Understanding high-velocity microparticle impact is essential for many fields, from space exploration to medicine and biology. Investigations of microscale impact have hitherto been limited to post-mortem analysis of impacted specimens, which does not provide direct information on the impact dynamics. Here we report real-time multi-frame imaging studies of the impact of 7 μm diameter glass spheres traveling at 700-900 m/s on elastomer polymers. With a poly(urethane urea) (PUU) sample, we observe a hyperelastic impact phenomenon not seen on the macroscale: a microsphere undergoes a full conformal penetration into the specimen followed by a rebound which leaves the specimen unscathed. The results challenge the established interpretation of the behaviour of elastomers under high-velocity impact.

Concepts: Sample, Medicine, Biology, Polymer, Elastomer, Space exploration, Specimen, Ethylene-vinyl acetate


Spaceflight affects numerous organ systems in the body, leading to metabolic dysfunction that may have long-term consequences. Microgravity-induced alterations in liver metabolism, particularly with respect to lipids, remain largely unexplored. Here we utilize a novel systems biology approach, combining metabolomics and transcriptomics with advanced Raman microscopy, to investigate altered hepatic lipid metabolism in mice following short duration spaceflight. Mice flown aboard Space Transportation System -135, the last Shuttle mission, lose weight but redistribute lipids, particularly to the liver. Intriguingly, spaceflight mice lose retinol from lipid droplets. Both mRNA and metabolite changes suggest the retinol loss is linked to activation of PPARα-mediated pathways and potentially to hepatic stellate cell activation, both of which may be coincident with increased bile acids and early signs of liver injury. Although the 13-day flight duration is too short for frank fibrosis to develop, the retinol loss plus changes in markers of extracellular matrix remodeling raise the concern that longer duration exposure to the space environment may result in progressive liver damage, increasing the risk for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

Concepts: Protein, Metabolism, Cirrhosis, Liver, Fatty liver, Metabolomics, Systems biology, Space exploration


The International Space Station (ISS) is a unique built environment due to the effects of microgravity, space radiation, elevated carbon dioxide levels, and especially continuous human habitation. Understanding the composition of the ISS microbial community will facilitate further development of safety and maintenance practices. The primary goal of this study was to characterize the viable microbiome of the ISS-built environment. A second objective was to determine if the built environments of Earth-based cleanrooms associated with space exploration are an appropriate model of the ISS environment.

Concepts: Carbon dioxide, Natural environment, International Space Station, Space exploration, Mir, Human spaceflight, Outer space, Space Shuttle


This paper demonstrates the significant utility of deploying non-traditional biological techniques to harness available volatiles and waste resources on manned missions to explore the Moon and Mars. Compared with anticipated non-biological approaches, it is determined that for 916 day Martian missions: 205 days of high-quality methane and oxygen Mars bioproduction with Methanobacterium thermoautotrophicum can reduce the mass of a Martian fuel-manufacture plant by 56%; 496 days of biomass generation with Arthrospira platensis and Arthrospira maxima on Mars can decrease the shipped wet-food mixed-menu mass for a Mars stay and a one-way voyage by 38%; 202 days of Mars polyhydroxybutyrate synthesis with Cupriavidus necator can lower the shipped mass to three-dimensional print a 120 m(3) six-person habitat by 85% and a few days of acetaminophen production with engineered Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803 can completely replenish expired or irradiated stocks of the pharmaceutical, thereby providing independence from unmanned resupply spacecraft that take up to 210 days to arrive. Analogous outcomes are included for lunar missions. Because of the benign assumptions involved, the results provide a glimpse of the intriguing potential of ‘space synthetic biology’, and help focus related efforts for immediate, near-term impact.

Concepts: Solar System, Mars, Moon, Spacecraft, Space exploration, Human spaceflight, NASA, Robotic spacecraft


Humans' core body temperature (CBT) is strictly controlled within a narrow range. Various studies dealt with the impact of physical activity, clothing, and environmental factors on CBT regulation under terrestrial conditions. However, the effects of weightlessness on human thermoregulation are not well understood. Specifically, studies, investigating the effects of long-duration spaceflight on CBT at rest and during exercise are clearly lacking. We here show that during exercise CBT rises higher and faster in space than on Earth. Moreover, we observed for the first time a sustained increased astronauts' CBT also under resting conditions. This increase of about 1 °C developed gradually over 2.5 months and was associated with augmented concentrations of interleukin-1 receptor antagonist, a key anti-inflammatory protein. Since even minor increases in CBT can impair physical and cognitive performance, both findings have a considerable impact on astronauts' health and well-being during future long-term spaceflights. Moreover, our findings also pinpoint crucial physiological challenges for spacefaring civilizations, and raise questions about the assumption of a thermoregulatory set point in humans, and our evolutionary ability to adapt to climate changes on Earth.

Concepts: Receptor, Thermoregulation, Ligand, Receptor antagonist, Space exploration, Schild regression, Spaceflight, Normal human body temperature


BACKGROUND: Arabidopsis plants were grown on the International Space Station within specialized hardware that combined a plant growth habitat with a camera system that can capture images at regular intervals of growth. The Imaging hardware delivers telemetric data from the ISS, specifically images received in real-time from experiments on orbit, providing science without sample return. Comparable Ground Controls were grown in a sister unit that is maintained in the Orbital Environment Simulator at Kennedy Space Center. One of many types of biological data that can be analyzed in this fashion is root morphology. Arabidopsis seeds were geminated on orbit on nutrient gel Petri plates in a configuration that encouraged growth along the surface of the gel. Photos were taken every six hours for the 15 days of the experiment. RESULTS: In the absence of gravity, but the presence of directional light, spaceflight roots remained strongly negatively phototropic and grew in the opposite direction of the shoot growth; however, cultivars WS and Col-0 displayed two distinct, marked differences in their growth patterns. First, cultivar WS skewed strongly to the right on orbit, while cultivar Col-0 grew with little deviation away from the light source. Second, the Spaceflight environment also impacted the rate of growth in Arabidopsis. The size of the Flight plants (as measured by primary root and hypocotyl length) was uniformly smaller than comparably aged Ground Control plants in both cultivars. CONCLUSIONS: Skewing and waving, thought to be gravity dependent phenomena, occur in spaceflight plants. In the presence of an orienting light source, phenotypic trends in skewing are gravity independent, and the general patterns of directional root growth typified by a given genotype in unit gravity are recapitulated on orbit, although overall growth patterns on orbit are less uniform. Skewing appears independent of axial orientation on the ISS – suggesting that other tropisms (such as for oxygen and temperature) do not influence skewing. An aspect of the spaceflight environment also retards the rate of early Arabidopsis growth.

Concepts: Plant, Root, International Space Station, Space exploration, Satellite, Kennedy Space Center, Orbital spaceflight, Space debris


Despite the observed severe effects of microgravity on mammalian cells, many astronauts have completed long term stays in space without suffering from severe health problems. This raises questions about the cellular capacity for adaptation to a new gravitational environment. The International Space Station (ISS) experiment TRIPLE LUX A, performed in the BIOLAB laboratory of the ISS COLUMBUS module, allowed for the first time the direct measurement of a cellular function in real time and on orbit. We measured the oxidative burst reaction in mammalian macrophages (NR8383 rat alveolar macrophages) exposed to a centrifuge regime of internal 0 g and 1 g controls and step-wise increase or decrease of the gravitational force in four independent experiments. Surprisingly, we found that these macrophages adapted to microgravity in an ultra-fast manner within seconds, after an immediate inhibitory effect on the oxidative burst reaction. For the first time, we provided direct evidence of cellular sensitivity to gravity, through real-time on orbit measurements and by using an experimental system, in which all factors except gravity were constant. The surprisingly ultra-fast adaptation to microgravity indicates that mammalian macrophages are equipped with a highly efficient adaptation potential to a low gravity environment. This opens new avenues for the exploration of adaptation of mammalian cells to gravitational changes.

Concepts: Immune system, Macrophage, General relativity, Gravitation, Weightlessness, International Space Station, Space exploration, Columbus


The Mars500 project was conceived as the first full duration simulation of a crewed return flight to Mars. For 520 days, six crew members lived confined in a specifically designed spacecraft mock-up. The herein described “MIcrobial ecology of Confined Habitats and humAn health” (MICHA) experiment was implemented to acquire comprehensive microbiota data from this unique, confined manned habitat, to retrieve important information on the occurring microbiota dynamics, the microbial load and diversity in the air and on various surfaces. In total, 360 samples from 20 (9 air, 11 surface) locations were taken at 18 time-points and processed by extensive cultivation, PhyloChip and next generation sequencing (NGS) of 16S rRNA gene amplicons.

Concepts: Archaea, Ribosomal RNA, 16S ribosomal RNA, Spacecraft, Space exploration, Human spaceflight, Spaceflight, Space Shuttle