In 2005 and 2007, the QinetiQ space team in Belgium was given the task of building two short arm human centrifuges (SAHC) for the European Space Agency (ESA).
Centrifuges are used to create centrifugal acceleration on a body – or what could also be called “artificial gravity” – and this can then be used to understand some of the risks astronauts may experience in space travel.
Some of the health issues due to microgravity that can be experienced include bone loss and reduction of muscle mass (with consequences for the heart); deterioration of the immune system; sight impairment; and orientation problems. The risks are obviously higher the longer the period of space travel and studies show that artificial gravity on a device such as the SAHC could help counteract the effects of microgravity.
The two QinetiQ-built centrifuges have provided excellent results and have demonstrated to be reliable pieces of hardware day after day. One of them can be found in the Institute of Space Medicine and Physiology (MEDES) in Toulouse. The second one is located in the DLR (German Space Agency) facilities in Cologne, where European astronauts train. Here, this centrifuge is able to subject four persons simultaneously, along with the needed equipment, to very accurate acceleration profiles.
Key information for the SAHC located in Germany include:
- It is almost 6 meters long in diameter;
- It weighs 3.5 tons;
- It can accelerate a total weight of 550 kg to a maximum of 6.5 g; and
- It runs at 40 revolutions per minute.
Now ESA has new plans for this SAHC and has asked us to upgrade it. The improvements will turn the centrifuge into an active one (versus an inactive centrifuge). That means that up until now, subjects on the centrifuge were only laying or siting. From now on, they will have the option of exercising during the centrifugal period. The SAHC will arrive at QinetiQ at the beginning of 2020 and will stay in our ‘grey’ room for approximately six months. Once done, the SAHC will be moved to Slovenia, where ESA plans to carry out bed rest studies. Bed rest studies are an excellent way of testing possible measures to counteract the negative effects of microgravity.
Following our blog about Life Support Technologies, this is yet another way QinetiQ is supporting human space exploration. As Neil Armstrong said fifty years ago, “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”.