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What did we learn from experiments on the International Space Station in 2020?

From space anemia to learning more about Parkinson’s, scientific research conducted on the space station this year resulted in some interesting findings

Astronaut Anne McClain is pictured in the cupola holding biomedical gear for the Marrow experiment. The study measures fat changes in the bone marrow before and after exposure to microgravity. (Photo credits: Nasa)

When it comes to scientific experiments, the International Space Station (ISS) is a busy place. Astronauts and researchers have conducted thousands of life-changing experiments on the ISS over the last two decades.

The research conducted in 2020 gave us more understanding on topics like Parkinson’s disease, combustion, muscle loss, microorganisms and even exoplanets. Here’s a look at some of these interesting experiments, and their results.

Space anemia

Over decades, researchers identified that astronauts who returned to Earth from space experienced anemia—a condition where your body does not have enough blood cells to carry around the required amount of oxygen. Now, through the MARROW (Bone Marrow Adipose Reaction: Red Or White?) study, which is sponsored by the Canadian Space Agency, researchers have found out that space anemia occurs after landing, when the reverse shift of fluids related to gravity changes is completed. According to Nasa, the study demonstrated that over the time periods observed, astronauts lose red blood cells proportional to the time spent in space. The recovery from space anemia could take anywhere between one and three months, depending on an astronaut’s mission duration.

Force feedback in microgravity

Just the way your video-game joysticks use force feedback to make the gaming experience more engrossing, the Kontur experiment, a study from the Russian space agency Roscosmos, used the ISS as the orbiter and Earth as the location of a tele-operated or remotely-operated robot to see if equipping a joystick with force feedback could be beneficial in microgravity conditions. This experiment was conducted to check whether force feedback could also make astronauts feel more in tune and control with the movements of a rover on another planetary body, a Nasa release explains. The results indicated that microgravity had an impact on motion control after six weeks.

Roscosmos cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky participated in the Kontur-2 experiment inside of the Zvezda service module on the International Space Station.(Photo credits: Roscosmos)
Roscosmos cosmonaut Oleg Novitsky participated in the Kontur-2 experiment inside of the Zvezda service module on the International Space Station.(Photo credits: Roscosmos)

More investigations on Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease

In the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Amyloid study, researchers compared the growth of amyloid fibrils in microgravity and Earth conditions for the development of new treatments for diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Amyloid fibrils are protein aggregations that are identified as pathological entities in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson’s. The findings, which were published in the journal Nature, revealed that the fibrils in microgravity grew slower than those on Earth, which show that the ISS is an ideal environment for future detailed investigations on amyloid formation. This study is intended to help researchers develop newer pharmaceutical interventions for the treatment of neurodegenerative conditions.

Microbial hitchhikers

A fascinating study conducted this year showed that scientists could track when a new crew member on the space station arrived and departed by looking at the microbes they left behind. Results published in the PLOS One journal from Nasa’s Microbial Tracking-2 study showed that the microorganisms living on surfaces inside the space station closely resembled those on an astronaut’s skin. Every time a new crew member arrives on the station from earth, they arrive with their own set of “microbial hitchhikers”. According to Nasa, this study could help in keeping astronauts healthy and spacecraft safe. Back on earth, these findings could be beneficial in understanding how microbes travel and survive in closed environments like, say, hospitals.

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