Space

Meet the British Woman Unlocking the Secrets of Microgravity

The UK Space Agency’s microgravity expert Libby Jackson discusses Britain’s new £500,000 wave of research and reveals some extraordinary facts about the wonders of microgravity.Monday, 11 December 2017

By Mark Bailey
In microgravity flames appear more rounded., as this flame on the International Space Station reveals.

“Whenever I see my job title I can’t believe this is what I get to do,” explains Libby Jackson, Human Spaceflight and Microgravity Programme Manager at the UK Space Agency, which has just announced £500,000 of new microgravity research. “We have a growing community of research scientists across the UK who use the International Space Station (ISS) and other platforms such as parabolic flights and drop towers to do research in a microgravity environment. I look after this community, help organise funding, and manage policy and strategy in these exciting areas.”

Jackson, who previously worked as a flight director in the Columbus Control Centre, was inspired to pursue her career by stories of pioneering women such as the Victorian computer visionary Ada Lovelace and Helen Sharman, the first British astronaut in space. “Historically this has been a very male–dominated area but women have been part of the story right from the start and this area is open to everybody.”

Libby Jackson in Mission Control.

The new research includes an analysis of muscle alteration in spaceflights which will involve sending worms into space. “These little worms called C (Caenorhabditis) elegans are a good model for human DNA so by seeing how they are affected we can learn things which may help humans in microgravity,” says Jackson. Other projects include an ultrasound analysis of changing muscle tone in space and an exploration of prevention strategies for spinal injuries suffered by astronauts.

The research will feed back into UK medical, industrial and commercial spheres. “We are not doing microgravity research for the sake of exploration itself but because it contributes to the overall advancement of scientific knowledge which is all about making our lives better,” says Jackson. “Our priority areas include life sciences and material sciences. We have new materials that are being developed up there, such as protein crystals with medical potential, and metallic alloy experiments which could influence manufacturing processes on Earth. Low earth orbit is also gaining commercial interest so the landscape is really changing.”

The long-term goal of microgravity research is grander still, with NASA aiming to send humans to Mars by the 2030s. “Mars is this horizon goal that all space agencies share,” explains Jackson. “Everyone is looking at whether there is life on Mars and answering those questions helps us to understand the evolution of life and our place in the solar system. The space station is funded to 2024 and may be extended. And as a member state of the European Space Agency we are also looking at the proposed Deep Space Gateway (a crew-tended space station in orbit around the Moon) which would allow us to explore science outside of the magnetic field of the Earth and allow us to perhaps return to the moon and test out technologies for getting humans to Mars.”

Libby Jackson in Houston, training to be a flight director.

As the ambitious research continues, here are some of Jackson’s insights into the wonders and challenges of microgravity.

1. Protein crystals grow bigger in space

Proteins play a key role in regulating the human body and in treating disease but protein crystals grown in microgravity are of a superior size, which makes them invaluable for medical research and the creation of new drugs. “Protein crystals can’t get beyond a certain size on Earth because of gravity and convection,” explains Jackson. “But in space you can grow huge protein crystals with much clearer definition which researchers can bring back to Earth for more experiments.”

2. Astronauts can suffer from altered eyesight

In the microgravity of the ISS, about two litres of fluid will shift from an astronaut’s legs towards their head. “The fluids in your body equalise because you don’t have gravity pulling them towards your feet,” explains Jackson. “The fluid rises up so we see an increase in inter-cranial pressure which can affect your eyesight. It is also why astronauts get puffy faces. Your balance also goes because your vestibular system has no reference for left, right, up or down.”

3. Water bubbles stick to your skin

“In microgravity the surface tension on water becomes the overriding force because you no longer have gravity pulling it down, so water just collects in spheres and sticks to things,” explains Jackson. “That’s why you see astronauts playing with bubbles of water. But any bubbles can be very dangerous. Luca Parmitano, an Italian astronaut, nearly drowned during a spacewalk because he had a water leak in his suit. The bubble started sticking to his eyes and ears so he couldn’t see or hear anything.”

Astronaut Luca Parmitano.

3. Water bubbles stick to your skin

“In microgravity the surface tension on water becomes the overriding force because you no longer have gravity pulling it down, so water just collects in spheres and sticks to things,” explains Jackson. “That’s why you see astronauts playing with bubbles of water. But any bubbles can be very dangerous. Luca Parmitano, an Italian astronaut, nearly drowned during a spacewalk because he had a water leak in his suit. The bubble started sticking to his eyes and ears so he couldn’t see or hear anything.”

4. Even fire burns differently in space

In microgravity flames appear more rounded than on Earth. “Researchers have discovered a new kind of combustion in space which is not what anyone expected,” explains Jackson. “Because you don’t have convection, flames look completely different.” On Earth the heated gases from a fire rise up, giving flames their distinctive teardrop shape. But in microgravity fire simmers through a slow diffusion of oxygen instead, resulting in rounded flames.

5. Carbon dioxide bubbles can be lethal

Astronauts naturally exhale carbon dioxide (CO2) which at high concentrations can cause dizziness and death. The safe dispersal of C02 is essential in any confined space, including the ISS, but microgravity adds more problems. “Gases (such as CO2) behave differently in microgravity because you don’t have convection and gravity,” explains Jackson. Because C02 is heavier than air, on Earth it falls away from the face when exhaled, and airflow disperses it. But in microgravity a ventilation system is needed to shift the CO2 away from the mouth and nose. “If you didn’t have air moving around you would suffocate because you would inhale the CO2 which would form an invisible bubble around your head.”

Exercise is vital in space for the health of the astronauts. This is Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata, equipped with a bungee harness, exercising on the International Space Station.

6. Astronauts must exercise to prevent chicken legs

“The longer you stay up there, the more your muscles and bones waste away,” says Jackson. “Astronauts must exercise every day to combat that. If they wanted to stay in space forever, they wouldn’t need to. But because the astronauts will come back to Earth – or one day maybe land on the moon or on Mars – they need to be able to function when they land. You also grow by about two inches because your spine relaxes in the weightless environment.”

Meet the British Woman Unlocking the Secrets of Microgravity

A Galaxy of Her Own: Amazing Stories of Women in Space by Libby Jackson is out now (Century, £16.99)

 

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