Charité projects accompany mission to the International Space Station
Berlin, 11.11.2021 – German astronaut Dr Matthias Maurer is on board the „Cosmic Kiss“ mission, which started today with a space flight to the International Space Station ISS. Among the approximately 100 planned experiments are four projects that researchers from the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin are accompanying. They are concerned with monitoring body temperature and muscle properties in space, improved training against muscle degradation and altered contacts between cells under weightlessness. The individual experiments are coordinated by the national space programme of the German Space Agency at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) in cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA). DLR is funding the Charité projects with funds from the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) totalling over 1.5 million euros.
Ready for liftoff! On Thursday morning Central European Time, the SpaceX launch vehicle lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center, the spaceport of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in Florida, USA. The Cosmic Kiss mission will take the crew of four aboard a Crew Dragon space capsule to the International Space Station (ISS), where they are scheduled to remain until April 2022. ESA astronaut Dr Matthias Maurer is also part of the crew – as the 12th German in space and 4th German on the ISS – alongside three US astronauts from NASA. This is his first space flight, and he has been preparing for the mission since April 2020.
The 51-year-old materials scientist Dr Maurer has scheduled a series of experiments for the six-month stay. The German Space Agency at DLR is responsible for selecting and coordinating the experiments from Germany, which have already passed through many stations for testing – on parabolic flights, for example. The Columbus Control Centre of the European Space Agency (ESA), based at DLR, was responsible for planning and conducting the experiments that will take place in the European Columbus module on the ISS. Among the more than 100 experiments that Dr Maurer will carry out there are 35 with German participation. They range from basic research to application-oriented research in life, natural and material sciences. Also on board are four projects whose development the Charité was involved.
„Because of the prevailing weightlessness, the ISS offers us unique conditions. Here, biological and physical processes can be studied largely without disruptive effects, which would not be possible in any laboratory on Earth. We are excited about this opportunity and are very curious to see how the projects prove themselves,“ says Prof. Dr Hanns-Christian Gunga, Deputy Director of the Institute of Physiology at Charité and spokesperson for the Centre for Space Medicine and Extreme Environments Berlin (ZWMB).
The projects with Charité participation in detail:
The physiology of the human body is adapted to gravity on Earth, including the regulation of body temperature. Maintaining a constant core body temperature is disturbed in weightlessness, resulting in a permanent rise in temperature – so-called space fever. To prevent astronauts like Dr Maurer from overheating and endangering their health during sports or outboard missions, the Thermo-Mini project records the core body temperature and daily rhythm with a miniaturised thermal sensor on a headband. This so-called heat flow sensor enables reliable, fast and painless temperature measurement continuously over a longer period of time.
The data obtained in this way should clarify the extent to which the mini-thermosensor is suitable for long-term use in space. In the future, these measurements could be included in the standard monitoring of astronauts‘ health. But they could also be used in other extreme work situations – for example in mines or during fire brigade operations.
For the crew of the ISS, suitable muscle building training is indispensable in weightlessness in order to prevent muscle degradation and reduced physical performance. In order to be able to track and counteract signs of muscle degradation, the most important biophysical properties of the muscle are documented in the Myotones project. During the entire mission, as well as before and after, the astronaut’s muscle tone – i.e. the resting tension – as well as the stiffness and elasticity of the resting muscles are continuously monitored.
For the measurements, the astronaut uses the handy measuring device MyotonPRO, which is about the size of a smartphone. With its help, the biophysical measurement parameters of the underlying structures such as muscles, tendons and fasciae can be determined and stored in real time on about ten skin measurement points all over the body – by briefly placing a small measuring probe on them.
To support muscle training during the mission, the astronaut for the EasyMotion project wears a training suit specially qualified for space travel during training on the ISS. Through the integrated flat dry electrodes, the muscles are involuntarily stimulated – by so-called electro-myo-stimulation (EMS) with short low-frequency pulses – in addition to his routine training. In this way, it should be possible to optimise the training success in the preparation, during the space flight as well as afterwards, and to shorten the training times from currently about 2.5 hours per day.
Like the muscle properties, the effects of EMS on the muscles are measured every 60 days in connection with the simultaneously running Myotones experiment. The collected data will be transmitted promptly to an ESA ground station in Toulouse, France, and – together with ESA’s European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne – evaluated by the team at Charité’s ZWMB.
The cell contact between nerve and muscle cells at the so-called neuromuscular synapse is essential for the functioning of the muscles. The NEMUCO/ Cellbox-3 project is investigating the structural and functional changes in these cell contacts. For the first time, their regeneration in cell culture is being investigated under weightlessness.
For this purpose, three-dimensional cell cultures of isolated nerve cells are grown together with young muscle cells in a special fully automated microlab and kept for several days on the ISS under controlled culture conditions. The cells will be fixed while still in microgravity and the samples will be analysed in detail at Charité after being transported back to Earth. In addition to microscopic examinations, sequencing of the RNA and analyses of the proteome – i.e. the totality of the proteins – of the cells will also be carried out. The findings from these experiments should help to better understand the molecular processes involved in the supply of the muscles by the nerve cells.
Back on earth, the projects of the Charité should help, among other things, to optimise rehabilitation and training programmes in the future. „Muscle tone and stiffness are important indicators of muscle health and not least of the physical fitness and physiological performance of the human body – whether in space or on Earth,“ says Prof. Dr. Dieter Blottner from the Institute for Integrative Neuroanatomy and the ZWMB at Charité. „The non-invasive and easy-to-use digital technology we are using for our Myotones project could find application in the future, in addition to its use in sports medicine and physiotherapy – for example, in the clinical examination of people with movement disorders, skeletal muscle diseases or injuries. In this way, the digital technology could ensure an objective assessment of the current health status of patients and a monitoring of their therapy progress in everyday clinical practice.“
Project funding and partners
The experiments in the Thermo-Mini, Myotones, EasyMotion (EMS-TECH) and NEMUCO/ Cellbox-3 projects are funded by the German Space Agency at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) Bonn with funds from the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi). The scientific management of the projects is carried out by the Centre for Space Medicine and Extreme Environments Berlin (ZWMB) at the Institute of Physiology of the Charité. Thermo-Mini is scientifically led by Prof. Dr Hanns-Christian Gunga. The miniaturised sensor was developed by the company Dräger GmbH and the Charité and adapted for use in space by KORA Industrie-Elektronik GmbH. The Myotones and EasyMotion projects are scientifically led by Prof. Dr Dieter Blottner. The University of Southampton in Great Britain supports the Myotones project. The miniaturised sensor was developed by the Estonian company Myoton AS and adapted for use in space. EasyMotion is supported by the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) of ESA in Cologne. The EasyMotionSkin training system and the associated app were developed by EMS GmbH for use in space. OHB System AG has adapted the system for the mission. The Cellbox-3 cell experiment as part of NEMUCO is being scientifically led by Dr Michele Salanova from the Institute for Integrative Neuroanatomy at Charité, while SHAPE is another cell experiment led by Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main. Cellbox-3 will be carried out on the ISS in the fully automated microlabs of the company yuri GmbH.