British scientists have helped develop a suit to prevent astronauts developing back problems while in space.
The European Space Agency’s (ESA) “Skinsuit” was developed to stop astronauts’ spines from lengthening by replicating the force usually provided by gravity to hold the vertebrae together tightly.
Without this force, visitors to space can grow in height by up 7cm, a process that gradually reverses once they return to Earth but also causing backache and a fourfold increased chance of slipping a disc.
The Skinsuit, created by the Space Medicine Office of ESA’s European Astronaut Centre and tested by scientists at Kings College London and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, effectively squeezes the body from shoulders to feet to prevent this problem.
‘We needed to create a suit that is both tight-fitting but comfortable to wear, while creating the right amount of force in the right places,’ said Simon Evetts, Medical Projects and Technology Unit team leader at the European Astronaut Centre.
The current prototype is made from spandex with a specially designed bi-directional weave to replicate the force of the Earth’s gravity but the scientists are examining the use of other materials for future versions.
ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen will be the first to wear the suit in space during his mission in 2015.
The Skinsuit also has potential for use on Earth as well as for astronauts, said Evetts. ‘If the technology is effective in space, it could help the elderly and many people with lower-back problems on Earth. Additionally, Skinsuit technology could improve the support garments currently used for conditions like cerebral palsy.’