Backgrounder

Canadian Health Technologies for Space and Earth

The longer an astronaut remains in space, the more significant the changes that occur. The human body adapts rapidly to space, with relatively mild side effects on short missions but potentially more serious consequences for long-duration expeditions. While current astronaut missions to the International Space Station (ISS) typically last six months, missions to destinations beyond Earth (such as the Moon or Mars) would be considerably longer. Extended exposure to weightlessness, space radiation, confinement and isolation in the extreme environment of space are all factors that could have substantial impacts on future space travelers.

In addition to being responsible for the health and safety of its astronauts, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) studies the inherent risks of human spaceflight to develop new strategies and technologies to mitigate their impacts. As part of its initiatives to optimize Canada's utilization of the ISS, the CSA is investing $1.12 million in five new studies to further assess potential space health technologies that could be sent to the ISS. These technologies could be used to better identify, understand and characterize the risks to human health, and validate new countermeasures. These studies will provide the CSA with information related to each project's capabilities, maturity, the costs and schedule required to design and build them, and the operational requirements. The CSA will use that information to plan future Canadian instruments for use on the ISS. Since many of the effects of spaceflight on the human body are excellent parallels for studying ageing and health issues on Earth (particularly in areas such as cardiovascular, neurological, vestibular and musculoskeletal research), these technologies are also expected to be beneficial in health and life sciences research on Earth.

Astroskin

Developed by Carré Technologies of Montreal, Quebec, Astroskin is a bio-monitoring "smart shirt" to continuously record, manage and analyze crewmembers' actual physiological data (general health, vital signs, sleep quality and activity levels) without interfering with their daily activities—something not currently possible on the ISS. Astroskin will be useful for better understanding the effectiveness of an astronaut's exercise program in space and providing general health data. Although Astroskin was designed with astronauts in mind, smart textile technologies hold great promise for patients on Earth who require close medical surveillance, especially those in remote communities far from their doctor; for monitoring athletic training programs; and for patients during recovery or therapy. Carré Technologies has partnered with CALM Technologies of Kingston, Ontario, to prepare a plan, including the costs and feasibility, for using Astroskin to monitor astronauts before, during and after space missions.

Canadian High-Energy Neutron Spectrometry System II (CHENSS II)

Exposure to radiation is one of the most serious health hazards faced by astronauts in space. Long-term effects can include cataracts, increased chance of cancer, and sterility. The radiation environment encountered during missions to the Moon and Mars is even more severe than that on the ISS. Since missions to these destinations would be longer, the risk would be even higher for future crews. Certain types of harmful rays, like neutron radiation, have not been well measured or characterized to date, but could represent up to 30% of the total biologically effective radiation exposure in low Earth orbit. Bubble Technology Industries of Chalk River, Ontario, has flown bubble detectors to measure space radiation on over 10 space missions since 1989, including the joint Canadian/Russian Radi-N2 experiment currently on the ISS. Their proposed radiation detection technology, CHENSS II, would take a more accurate inventory of the energy distribution of neutrons on board the ISS. Advanced radiation detection technology is essential for space exploration and has applications on Earth ranging from medicine to national security.

ISS Microflow Lab Concept

Traditional flow cytometers are used in labs and clinics to diagnose a variety of health disorders like blood cancers and immunological pathologies. However, their size, weight and underlying technology make them unsuitable for space. Following the successful test flight of the Microflow miniaturized flow cytometer on board the ISS in 2013, MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA) of Brampton, Ontario, is partnering with the National Optics Institute (INO) in Quebec City, and Dr. Richard Hughson of the University of Waterloo, on a concept design for ISS Microflow Lab. MDA and INO will outline a plan to integrate the ISS Microflow Lab, an enhanced version of its predecessor, on board the ISS. It will be able to prepare and process biological samples (saliva, blood and urine) for analysis by professionals on the ground or on board the ISS. This could revolutionize space life sciences and medicine by allowing the crew to test for medical conditions in space without having to send samples back to Earth for analysis. On Earth, the technology could easily be used in any situation where lab testing is inconvenient or time-consuming: remote communities, natural disasters, field work or developing countries.

ISS Wrist Magnetic Resonance Imager (MRI)

COM DEV Ltd. (Cambridge, Ontario) and Dr. Gordon E. Sarty of the University of Saskatchewan along with scientists from MRI-TECH Canada (Calgary, Alberta) will lay out the requirements for a MRI for non-invasive measurements of the wrist. The device could be used, for example, to track bone loss and muscle atrophy in astronauts aboard the ISS. While MRI technology is a common diagnostic tool in hospitals and clinics for imaging the brain, heart, muscle or internal organs, the machines themselves are large, heavy, and require strong magnetic fields—all of which make them ill suited for space. The ISS MRI will make use of Canadian-pioneered emerging technology that simplifies the MRI system to make it suited for space. This system could be adapted to a lightweight, portable full-body unit that could eventually be used on the ground in remote and isolated communities, disaster zones, or developing countries, and would be safer for children than ionizing x-ray imaging.

Osteo-X Cell Culture System

CALM Technologies, the developer of the Osteo series of space bone-cell culture systems, will define the required resources and costs to operate a cell culture system on the ISS. Astronauts lose bone at 10 times the rate of a woman with osteoporosis, making space an excellent testing ground to study the phenomenon of bone loss. With a total of 14 space experiments to date, Osteo cell culture systems have already advanced researchers' understanding of the effects of spaceflight on bone cells. The Osteo series of experiments led to the discovery that while bone-degrading cells were largely unaffected in microgravity, bone-forming cells are severely impaired in space. In 2007, the CSA flew eOsteo, one of the Osteo systems, as a contribution to a European Space Agency mission. Data from eOsteo allowed three Canadian science teams to test hypotheses about how specific cellular mechanisms contribute to bone loss in space. These results are highly relevant to bone loss on Earth as a result of ageing or extended periods of inactivity, for instance, people who have suffered spinal cord injuries or who are bedridden.