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How a Scientist on Earth Is Studying a Floating Astronaut’s Veins

Astronauts’ arteries undergo troubling changes in space. A Canadian scientist is trying to figure out why.

by Kate Lunau
May 27 2016, 9:00am

British astronaut Tim Peake of the European Space Agency. Image: ESA/NASA

On Friday morning, if all goes according to plan, Canadian researcher Richard Hughson will be overseeing an extremely remote medical exam—one that stretches all the way from Waterloo, Ontario, up into space.

Hughson is leading an ultrasound on British astronaut Tim Peake, who's zipping around Earth on the International Space Station, via a live video link from the University of Waterloo, where Hughson is a professor. Peake will be performing the ultrasound on himself in space with an on-board machine, while Hughson and a tech instruct him from the ground.

It's the first time a video link like this has been done from Waterloo to the ISS, Hughson told me. It's part of a new experiment that's trying to figure out why, exactly, astronauts' arteries tend to stiffen in space, and maybe even how to reverse it. If we can do that, the knowledge gained could help people on Earth who suffer from arterial stiffness, too—and all the health problems that might come along with it, like cardiovascular disease.

Astronaut Chris Hadfield participated in a related experiment called BP Reg. Image: Derrick Piontek/Canadian Space Agency

Hughson and the technician will walk Peake through how to do the ultrasound, step by step. Peake isn't a medical doctor or an ultrasound tech—he's a helicopter test pilot—so they'll tell him how to glide the probe over his neck (Hughson and his team want to know about his carotid artery and jugular vein, in particular) and his leg arteries, to see how the astronaut is being affected by life in zero gravity.

Peake is the first subject in a Canadian-run experiment called Vascular Echo, a continuation of Hughson's long-running project called Vascular, which found that astronauts in space experience an accelerating stiffness of their arteries. It happens on Earth, too, with physical inactivity and old age. But it seems to happen even faster in zero gravity.

The ISS, it turns out, is an excellent laboratory in which to study old age

Hughson hopes to recruit eight astronauts to this experiment altogether, which collects ultrasounds before, during and after flight, as well as blood samples. The next Canadian astronaut who's scheduled to fly, David Saint-Jacques, might be included in the study if it's still running in late 2018, when he launches, Hughson said.

The ISS, it turns out, is an excellent laboratory in which to study old age. Although astronauts are in peak physical condition when they fly, and they exercise every day on the station, floating around in zero gravity turns out to be pretty bad for the human body. Arterial stiffening is just one of the side effects, and might happen partly because there's no gravity to deal with up there, so fluids shift around inside the body, Hughson explained.

Up to one-third of astronauts get dizzy or even faint when they return to solid ground.

Understanding all this will help humankind safely fly to Mars and beyond, but it could also be a window into what causes cardiovascular disease and other health problems on Earth.

Hadfield in space participating in BP Reg. Image: CSA/NASA

The ISS will eventually have a robotic ultrasound machine, Hughson said, so this type of remote examination won't be necessary. "Rather than telling the astronaut how to move the probe," he said, "the expert on the ground will move it through robotic control."

Friday's exam will be a delicate dance between a scientist and an ultrasound tech, in Waterloo, and a world-famous astronaut aboard the ISS. Learning more about Peake's arteries, and how they're responding to life in space, will one day make for healthier astronauts on future missions—and healthier people on the ground.