Astronauts can lose as much as 10% of bone density during six months in space, according to NASA, because there’s no gravity for their body to push against.
To offset the effect, they exercise for two hours a day, at least six days a week. But a London engineer says a machine he invented could reduce those gruelling workouts to just six minutes a day, by enabling astronauts to jump in zero gravity.
“It allows a person, when they’re repeatedly jumping, to load their skeletal system, their bones then start to lay down more bone density and more to the point prevent astronauts losing their bone density and muscle mass,” inventor John Kennett, who used to work on the Concorde aircraft programme, says.
“Nothing exist like this at the moment. Jumping is really important for helping to build bone density and muscle mass, but jumping in zero gravity is very difficult,” he adds.
His High Frequency Impulse for Microgravity machine has won grants from the UK and European Space Agencies.
Experts say the key advantage is that it is a single device that could replace several which astronauts currently use, which could be crucial in long, deep space missions where every inch of the craft will be packed with supplies and equipment.
“We’re not going to have the room or the mass or the ability to bring different exercise devices there,” says Libby Jackson, human exploration programme manager at the UK Space Agency.
“The machine that John has designed excited me because when I looked at it I could see that it had the potential to combine the cardio and the muscle conditioning that’s needed for astronauts to stay fit and healthy in a small footprint,” she adds.
Former NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao says that keeping fit in space is central to ensuring a successful recovery back on Earth, but he would welcome shorter workouts which could free up those on board to have more time for their core duties.
“We’d like to use as much of the time as possible for research work and of course there are maintenance repairs logistics work that has to be done as well, so two hours a day for exercise is a pretty big overhead,” he adds.
Mr Kennett says his machine has different settings so that it works equally well for both men and women.
King’s College London aerospace physiology PHD student Tess Morris-Paterson, who is one of those testing the device, says the short, intense workout gives her a full body benefit.
“When you’re jumping on this you can really feel it from your toes right through your shoulders, your bone mineral density right through your ankle, your knees, your hips, right through your spine as well, and from a muscular perspective you can really feel it working almost everything really,” she says.
Next year, Mr Kennett’s team will test the machine on board a zero-gravity flight.
He hopes to see it in use on a space mission in 2024.