A Journey into Space: What it Means For Your Bones

Aditi Kaveti ’23

Figure 1: A close-up image of the deteriorated quality of an osteoporotic bone that can result from the microgravity environment experienced during long-term space exploration.

Since the first instance of space exploration in 1961, many long-term space missions have been accomplished that give us insight into the effect of the microgravity environment in space on the musculoskeletal system. Current research, however, does not provide enough solid evidence that allows scientists to predict the qualitative risk of deterioration and bone loss in a prolonged space mission. A lack of on-board measurements for assessing bone loss and muscle atrophy, as well as a weak understanding of the mechanism and counter measurements contribute to the gap in knowledge surrounding the musculoskeletal deterioration and its associated complications during space exploration. Dr. Yi-Xian Qin, the director of the Orthopedic Bioengineering Research Laboratory and distinguished professor at Stony Brook University studies the physical mechanisms involved in the control of tissue growth, healing, and homeostasis, especially bone adaptation and regeneration influenced by the mechanical environment. 

Qin and his team have been researching microgravity induced bone loss and noninvasive osteoporosis diagnosis, and proposed new methods in quantitative ultrasound (QUS) in order to directly estimate bone modulus. QUS offers the advantage of measuring not only bone quantity, but also bone quality, which estimates the mechanical property of bone. The team prepared calcaneus transmitted ultrasound images that were measured by the scanning confocal acoustic technology of ultrasound imaging. They compared the broadband ultrasound attenuation images for a 72 year old male with normal bone density and a 97 year old female with severe osteoporotic bones less. The combined ultrasound attenuation and wave velocity images for the two representative cases provided true images reflecting the respective bones structural and strength properties.

Ultrasound imaging may be applied to bone measurement in the future using many different fundamental physical mechanisms, like ultrasonic wave propagation velocity or speed of sound, in order to identify individuals at risk and age-related human osteoporotic bone density loss, which could be used to understand the rate and pattern of bone loss in a microgravity environment. These noninvasive technologies can aid astronauts in prolonged space missions and assess the bone quality and strength.

Works Cited:

1. Qin, Y-X. Challenges to the musculoskeleton during a journey to mars: assessment and countermeasures. J Cosmology, 12,3778-3780, 2010.

2. Image retrieved from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/germantenorio/17540697976


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