In the Spotlight

From Space For Life to Health from Space

In the Spotlight

From Space For Life to Health from Space

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    Health from Space conference takes place on March 4 to 5, 2024 in Cannes, France, in presence of the European Space Agency, CNES and Thales Alenia Space. Space isn’t just about Universe exploration and environmental monitoring missions: it also serves life here on Earth and contributes to science experiments and important medical advances.

    Space, an environment with unique characteristics

    Space is a fantastic laboratory for scientific experimentation. Its unique environment, impossible to recreate on Earth, opens a whole new realm of research possibilities. Long-term exposure to microgravity, for example, enables scientists to study phenomena that don’t exist on Earth, where gravity affects most biological processes.

    Thanks to microgravity conditions, researchers can observe how fluids, gases and particles behave outside the terrestrial setting. These studies help us better understand heat transfer and combustion. Materials in microgravity solidify more uniformly, with far fewer defects. This allows researchers to study new materials for use in aerospace, electronics and medicine. Space also offers a unique vantage point for the study of cosmic rays, space weather and solar radiation. Understanding and studying these phenomena are crucial to protecting life and vulnerable systems on Earth, as well as astronauts on long-duration missions.

    Space experiments are a major resource for exploring fundamental scientific questions, advancing technology and furthering our knowledge of life on our planet.

    Thomas Pesquet in space

    © ESA/NASA

    Major advances in medicine

    Space research has led to a number of medical advances we benefit from today. Take the contribution of space experiments to the development of regenerative medicine, for example. Researchers have sent living human skin cells to the International Space Station to understand how exposure to the space environment influences human health and tissue repair. They’ve found that microgravity conditions in space can significantly improve stem cell function compared with cells grown on Earth. These discoveries hold great promise for the advancement of stem cell therapies and regenerative medicine.

    Space also offers an ideal environment for growing high-quality protein crystals, which help to determine the three-dimensional structures of proteins. Their study, essential for drug design and disease treatment, enables the development of more targeted therapies. On Earth, protein crystals often exhibit imperfections caused by convection effects. In microgravity, these effects are minimized, so protein molecules form more orderly, higher-quality crystals. These provide clearer images for X-ray analysis, helping researchers understand protein function and interactions. Protein crystal growth in microgravity offers a unique way to advance structural biology and drug development.

    Microgravity research also supports the development of vaccines and antibiotics. Experiments are being carried out today in oncology, osteoporosis, longevity, aging and muscle loss. Bone density loss, muscle atrophy and changes to the immune system in astronauts as a result of microgravity can be studied, enabling the development of medical treatments and preventive measures.

    As these examples show, space is a place of innovation, providing real support for terrestrial medical research, and will certainly be a pillar of tomorrow’s medicine.

    Better quality of life for astronauts in space


    International Space Station © NASA

    In recent years, quality of life and safety for astronauts have become essential components of space innovation. Space habitats designed for long-duration missions in low-Earth orbit, like on the International Space Station, have been expanded and now include features to ensure the comfort and safety of astronauts.

    Engineers have devised systems to control pressure, temperature and humidity in spacecraft, which are subject to extreme temperature fluctuations. At the same time, air quality management ensures efficient filtration, humidity control and elimination of carbon dioxide, all crucial parameters for astronauts' health.

    At Thales Alenia Space, our engineers built most of the pressurized volume of the ISS’ pressurized volume, including the iconic Cupola observatory module, the structure and environmental control system of Columbus’ laboratory, where most of the science experiments are performed by astronauts, and the Nodes, featuring key habitability elements as crew quarters, exercise equipment and regenerative life support systems. We also built all the pressurized cargo modules for the Cygnus resupply missions. Twice a year, Cygnus vehicles ferry tons of food, water, oxygen, fuel, repair parts and science experiments to the station. Leveraging this unique experience, our company has become the world leader in pressurized modules. We’re now a top-tier industry partner for the Lunar Gateway, a 40-metric-ton space station for which we are supplying the ESPRIT and I-HAB pressurized modules to ESA, and the HALO structure to Northrop Grumman. We’ve also been chosen to build two pressurized modules for Axiom Space’s commercial space station, which will feature interiors by French industrial architect and designer Philippe Starck. As prime manufacturer, our role is to build pressurized modules where astronauts feel safe and secure, especially during long-duration missions. Their comfort and safety matters to us : they need to live in space as if there were at home.

    Lunar Gateway cislunar space station

    Lunar Gateway © Thales Alenia Space

    Astronauts benefit from telemedicine services and psychological support, because long-duration missions can be demanding. To maintain their physical fitness, they’re offered personalized exercises to help combat muscular atrophy and bone density loss. At the same time, the nutritional quality of their diets has been greatly improved. Sleep quality is also crucial: modern spacecraft now feature comfortable rest quarters with adjustable lighting noise reduction devices.

    Wellness in future space infrastructure design

    Space infrastructure design is constantly evolving, with the aim of improving astronaut comfort during missions. As spacecraft and habitats continue to multiply, human needs are given priority, taking account of such factors as circadian rhythms, privacy and psychological wellness. Thanks to their human-centric design, these infrastructures, with their relaxation areas and green spaces, will ensure a more pleasant environment for astronauts.

    Future spaceships will incorporate smart areas and technologies to optimize the use of available space and enhance comfort, with adaptive lighting, adjustable furniture and personalized environments. New technologies will be key allies: AI-assisted automation will take care of routine activities, allowing crew members to focus on mission-critical tasks. Virtual, augmented and mixed reality will offer immersive experiences that facilitate maintenance and training, and reduce the sense of isolation.

    With comfort in mind, next-generation spacesuits will be lighter, more flexible and tailored to each astronaut. Astronaut wellness will be a central consideration in the design of future spaceships.

    Monitoring astronaut health is also a major consideration. Wearable devices will monitor their vital signs, sleep patterns and stress levels. Real-time feedback will help them adapt their behavior and maintain optimal health.

    It has been proved that the human body undergoes accelerated ageing in space. Scientists are looking for a way to reverse this cellular ageing in recent studies. These advances not only help improve living conditions for astronauts, they’re furthering our knowledge of cell regeneration and longevity on Earth and in space. Lastly, lightweight shielding materials will protect astronauts from ionizing radiation during long missions in deep space. Prediction of solar storms will improve, enabling astronauts to take shelter if necessary and don individual protective suits.

    Space technology and science are now combining to ensure astronauts the best possible conditions for every voyage.


    © ESA/Thales Alenia Space