Edition: International | Greek

Home » Analyses

Human life support in Space and the contribution of the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre

Interviews with Eric van Walle and Sarah Baatout

By: EBR - Posted: Monday, November 06, 2017

text size [–] [+]
Of course, there are a lot more scientific questions that need to be solved before any trip to Mars as astronauts aside from surviving also need to have a minimum quality of life. “Astronauts need to be able to do their jobs, enjoy their life and not suffer. Therefore, we are also investigating the psychological aspect of humans in space, for example how do we select them? Do we take very quiet people or the most sociable? Usually astronauts are very sociable” concludes Prof. Baatout.
Of course, there are a lot more scientific questions that need to be solved before any trip to Mars as astronauts aside from surviving also need to have a minimum quality of life. “Astronauts need to be able to do their jobs, enjoy their life and not suffer. Therefore, we are also investigating the psychological aspect of humans in space, for example how do we select them? Do we take very quiet people or the most sociable? Usually astronauts are very sociable” concludes Prof. Baatout.

MORE ON Analyses

by Margarita Chrysaki*

The Belgian Nuclear Research Centre, SCK-CEN plays a leading role in international research on the effects of exposure to ionising radiation on the human body and its environment. This research in radiation protection allows scientists to better understand how an astronaut’s body functions in space.

On the 6th October 2017 during the celebration marking the 25-year anniversary of both the beginning of Belgian space research and the first time a Belgian went into space, EBR had the opportunity to interview Eric van Walle, the Director-General of the centre and Sarah Baatout, the head of the of the SCK-CEN’s radiobiology department.

“We have the advantage that we are the one and only nuclear center in Belgium which means that we perform a lot of different research that can range from nuclear energy issues to developing better tools for radiotherapy treatment. We set up programmes in a very rapid and effective way” says Professor Van Walle. Moreover, SCK-CEN is also at the forefront for developing new research reactors that are more safe, produce less waste and can reduce the amount and kind of waste. Professor Baatout mentions: “Because we have nuclear reactors we can also produce all kinds of radionucleides that can be bound to certain probes to better target a tumor”.

This research reactor is quite important for Belgium but also for the whole world. Prof. Baatout explains: “Globally there are only a few reactors that can perform like our Belgian BR2 reactor and if one of them breaks down or doesn’t work well and has to be stopped, then the the world quickly needs another nuclear reactor to kick in. At SCK-CEN we produce about 25% technetium for the world and we can even reach 65% of the total world needs. Otherwise there would be a crisis regarding world demand because technetium is used for the diagnosis of various pathologies in millions of patients each year.”

Besides that, scientists in SCK-CEN carry out all the research on the health effects that radiation can have, with regard to long term stays in and out of the space station or future missions to Mars.

Only 30 laboratories globally can develop special dosimeters that detect cosmic radiation levels in space and can therefore protect the astronauts from a dangerous environment. SCK-CEN is one of them: “You can put on an electronic detector which starts beeping when you are in a dangerous area. Also, we have to consider all of these spacecraft materials which are getting radiated and if you are inside the spacecraft then you will also encounter radiation. Therefore, it is important to know how much radiation is present and predict the activation of present materials for long flights in order to produce even better materials” says Van Walle.

According to Prof. Baatout, you can develop different pharmacology substances that can be given to astronauts to protect them from radiation. Different projects have been undertaken on board the ISS. For example, one involves boosting the immune system of astronauts. The centre takes blood samples from the astronauts before they go on mission, then other blood samples when they are in space and then when they return.

“You can also screen the astronauts and select their radiation susceptibility. If they are sensitive to radiation, there is really no point sending them to space. They might develop pathologies and diseases while they are on the trip” Van Walle explains. SCK-CEN cooperates with the Russian space agency for all the blood testing and also with NASA for blood experiments.

“In the spacecraft it’s possible to create microbes that we don’t have down here, especially when you are isolated for a long period and of course you need to be sure that man can resist these to protect himself” mentions Van Walle. Trying to find out all parameters in space that are different from Earth is not easy, particularly when you must think of the long-term consequences. “This means that you have to be able to understand microbes” says Van Walle. Bacteria change very fast in space. Humans carry them under their immune system but being in microgravity can be quite virulent and might rouse them during the spaceflight. Moreover, the virulence of bacteria can be increased and be detrimental for long-term space missions.

Also, there are a lot of studies carried out on developing a life support system in space using different strains of bacteria. “It is very important to make sure that these bacteria will not stop working from the moment they are on microgravity” underlines Prof. Baatout. SCK-CEN studies the stability of these bacteria, and how they could be used to treat, regenerate and recycle. Cyanobacteria in particular can use the sun’s light to produce photosynthesis, so they can produce oxygen. 

“If you place them in a reactor with good light they can continuously produce oxygen. They could be very good producers of oxygen for long space missions”. Also, they are edible and contain high concentrations of vitamins, different proteins and antioxidants so they are the ideal food supplement to give to astronauts. “Spirulina is 99% protein. We have a project in Congo where we try to promote the use of Spirulina for children that are not well-fed and have no vitamins. Spirulina is a valuable additive to food in order to boost the immune system of astronauts!” adds Van Walle.

Just as Belgium is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its first mission to Space, Prof. Baatout hopes that the first mission to Mars could also become a reality. “I believe that the trip to Mars will happen but there are still a lot of issues for which researches are needed” she adds. For example, “bones age at a much faster rate in Space than on Earth, muscles shrink, and you really need to do a lot of intensive exercises to counteract this when you are on board the ISS”.

Also, problems related to the cardiovascular system can appear: “the heart becomes smaller, a little bit atrophic, disrhythmia of the heart can occur and also arteries and veins weaken. So it’s quite important to study that because you don’t want the astronaut to have a brain hemorrhage”.

Of course, there are a lot more scientific questions that need to be solved before any trip to Mars as astronauts aside from surviving also need to have a minimum quality of life. “Astronauts need to be able to do their jobs, enjoy their life and not suffer. Therefore, we are also investigating the psychological aspect of humans in space, for example how do we select them? Do we take very quiet people or the most sociable? Usually astronauts are very sociable” concludes Prof. Baatout.

Thanks to past and ongoing studies as well as the technological advances, the SCK-CEN contributes to the development of applications that will help achieve the future long-term goal of sending missions to space and perhaps one day sending humans to Mars.

Sarah Baatout will leave for a scientific mission at the Belgian Antarctic station Princess Elisabeth in December. She will study the impact of extreme conditions (confinement, stress, isolation, ...) on the human immune system, as well as the protective properties of spirulina as a nutritional supplement for astronauts.

*Margarita Chrysaki is a Brussels-based Scientific Journalist. She has a BSc and a MA in Political Sciences and was recently admitted for the Master of Space Studies in KU Leuven.

Europe

Children must be at the heart of debate on Europe’s future

Most people debating the future of Europe think in economic terms. But today we must think about how children in Europe are experiencing their childhood, as that will be the biggest determining factor of our future, writes Jana Hainsworth.

Business

Top airline expands service from Brussels - and flies the flag for onboard cuisine

Leading airline Emirates is doing best to dispel traditional myths about onboard food with an innovative and inventive approach to eating at 34,000ft

Editor’s Column

Is the end of the Merkel era within sight?

By: N. Peter Kramer

Now that the liberal FDP has pulled the plug from the German government negotiations, there is plenty of speculation about the future of Angela Merkel

MARKET INDICES


Live World Indices are Powered by Forexpros - The Leading Financial Portal.

Magazine

View 4/2017 2017 Digital edition

Current Issue

4/2017 2017

View past issues
Subscribe
Advertise
Digital edition

All contents © Copyright EMG Strategic Consulting Ltd. 1997-2017. All Rights Reserved   |   Home Page  |   Disclaimer  |   Website by Theratron