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How a year in space changes bodies

Astronauts are spending a year aboard the International Space Station, and researchers are looking at what happens to their bodies at the molecular level.

In Earth orbit and beyond, gravity is counteracted by a constant state of freefall, and cosmic radiation intensifies. How do those conditions change the human body? To find out, NASA has entered a realm of bio-research known as “-omics”. According to NASA:

Omics refers to the collection of data on a medley of microcosms that regulate our bodies at a molecular level.

Craig Kundrot, Ph.D. in the Office of the Chief Scientist at NASA Headquarters, said:

We have launched a one-year study to understand the omics of space travel. Astronauts are spending a year on the International Space Station, and we are looking at what happens to them on the molecular level.

This NASA project is really two projects:

First, there is the Twins Study. Twin astronaut Mark Kelly (retired) is staying on Earth, while his twin brother, Scott Kelly, orbits Earth in the International Space Station (ISS). For one year, Mark and Scott will be poked, prodded, and questioned to learn if the omics of identical twins show more significant differences than normal aging would cause after one of them spends a year in space.

At the same time, Scott Kelly is involved in a separate project called the One Year Mission. Unlike previous expeditions to the space station, which lasted only 6 months, Scott Kelly is spending a full year onboard the station alongside Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko. This One Year Mission has its own battery of tests designed to reveal the physiological effects of long-term space flight.

Why one year? Kundrot said:

NASA knows a lot about what happens to astronauts after 6 months in orbit. Deep space missions are going to take much longer than that. A round trip to Mars, for instance, might take 30 months or more. This one-year experiment is the next, natural step in that direction.

In total, more than 30 research proposals have been approved for the Twin Study and the One Year Mission, and they are well underway. The experiments began on March 27, 2015, when Kelly and Kornienko blasted off onboard a Russian rocket for their year in space.

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Bottom line: Astronauts are spending a year on the International Space Station, and NASA researchers are looking at what happens to them on the molecular level.

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Eleanor Imster

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