Monday, March 30, 2015

ISS astronauts to test new eye protection for future Mars missions

There are probably people alive on Earth today who will, at some point, set foot on Mars. As the possibility of a manned mission to the Red Planet becomes more plausible, we have to confront all the little things that can go wrong on the long journey there and back. For example, what if the astronauts we send to Mars can’t see anything when they get there? That would be a pretty big problem.

We’ve learned about a number of negative effects from being in a weightless environment for extended periods of time. For example, astronauts on the International Space Station need to exercise every day to maintain muscle mass and bone density that would otherwise decrease rapidly. It’s simple to just exercise that problem away, but the detrimental effects on human eyesight in space are more vexing.



The National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) recently awarded funding to three companies as part of its Vision for Mars program, which could lead to technologies that keep human vision sharp during long space expeditions. The three technologies are a retina-imaging ophthalmoscope, pressure-regulating goggles, and special glasses with interchangeable lenses to easily adjust prescriptions. All three are about to enter testing on the International Space Station over the coming months.


NASA has known for decades that the eyes change shape slightly in microgravity, and this can affect visual acuity. However, in recent years it has become apparent this problem might be neither temporary nor mild. Most ISS crew who were tested after their stints on the station ended were found to have some measurable degradation in their vision. Scientists currently suspect the cause has to do with an increase in cranial pressure while in orbit. Cerebrospinal fluid pools in the head more than it would on Earth where gravity pulls it downward. It’s unlikely they’ll find a way to prevent that, but mitigating or compensating for the damage is the next best thing.

The ophthalmoscope developed by Annidis Inc. would be able to image the retina in sharp detail without the need for invasive procedures. This is mostly a tool for tracking and studying the effects of weightlessness on the anatomy of the eye. The goggles developed by Equinox (seen at right) are designed to control and stabilize pressure in the eye, which could prevent damage from increased cranial pressure. Lastly, the glasses from Web Vision Centers Group could be quickly adjusted with varying prescriptions over time in the event visual acuity is damaged on the trip to Mars.

These technologies will be tested by NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, who are currently en route to the ISS for a historic one-year mission. This longer stay will be used to evaluate the effects of long term microgravity not only on vision, but on all aspects of human biology.

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