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Living in space is the ultimate adventure. For many, it is a dream that never comes true (or is realized in simulated environments) while a very select number of humans, get to experience the real thing.  However, its not all anti-gravity tennis and air swimming up there either. The astronauts who go up to live in space are often privy to some really important experiments that can not be conducted on the earth and NASA recently released a few intriguing preliminary finds from one such experiment.

To study how being in space affects our bodies (and no, it does not make you into one of the fantastic four superheroes) NASA astronaut Scott Kelly  spent one year in space, while his identical twin, Mark stayed back on the Earth. It could interest you to know that Mark is a former NASA astronaut himself. Kelly was sent to the International Space Station accompanies by  Russian cosmonauts Genaldy Padalka and Mikhail Kornienko for the duration of approximately 1 year.

Here are the twins:

NASA
Credits: NASA

Biological samples were collected from both the brothers, before, during and after the 340-day period of Scott’s stay in space. In doing so, NASA hoped to come to some definite if not conclusive results with regards to how elements like proteins and bacteria in the body behave when in space or when confined within our planet. Well, we pretty much already know the latter, so NASA hoped to point out the minuscule differences by comparing the large sample it gleaned from the twins.

At this point, you might be wondering about the necessity of the exercise. After all, we already know that humans can survive in space for extended periods of time. Why test it further? Well, the journeys of the future that are currently being considered by various organizations across the world, involve stays in space and other areas with gravities different from earth that could span months and years. A sojourn to Mars for example, would need astronauts to stay away from earth for periods of up to 3 years.

In order to ensure that the astronauts survive the journey and come back home in one piece, such studies that take into account the effect of space on the human physique are very important.

Meanwhile, we have already managed to glean that space is not the best thing for the human body. For one, muscles start wasting away. The effect is particularly pronounced for those that support the body’s posture against gravity. Not only do these muscles start wasting away, bones also become less dense. The head also suffers along with the rest of the body and the increased pressure in the skull leads to visual disorders. Finally, the amount of blood in the body also goes down by a substantial amount.

As if that wasn’t enough, the heart also gets smaller in size considering that without gravity it can pump blood more easily to the brain. And finally, being closer to the sun and the accompanying cosmic radiation can lead to an increased risk of cancer. What do astronauts do to counteract all this? Well, exactly what you would do to keep your body in shape on earth — exercise and follow a strict diet.

However, there are a lot of changes that happen at a molecular level. With this twin study for example, NASA is attempting to study omics. Did you know for example that DNA sequences have something called telomeres, or the “ticking clock of the cell” attached to their end. These telomeres protect cells from degrading and as we age, they keep getting shorter and shorter. So yeah, it is actually in our interest to ensure that they are long and healthy.

So guess what happens to these telomeres in space? Well, the twin study conducted by NASA found that in space, telomeres in white blood cells get longer. Interesting. So does that mean that living in the space could make us live longer? Well, that is something the future will tell. Meanwhile, it was initially thought that the strict diet and exercise regime was responsible for this change.

Susan Bailey’s investigation focuses on Telomeres and Telomerase. It is understood that when looked at over many years, telomeres decrease in length as a person ages. Interestingly, on a time scale of just one year, Bailey found Scott’s telomeres on the ends of chromosomes in his white blood cells increased in length while in space. This could be linked to increased exercise and reduced caloric intake during the mission. However, upon his return to Earth they began to shorten again.

Later though, interest also shifted to Einstein’s time dilation and whether that could be the real secret.

Time to take a break and look at the time

So, what exactly is time? We do know that it is a relative phenomenon and that it moves differently depending upon your position and your velocity. To cut a very long story short, lets agree to the fact that heavy bodies bend space-time around them so that the closer you are to a heavy mass, the slower time moves. And of course, as you move faster time would appear to be moving slower.

So yeah, if you were to start running at top speed in your basement, you just might gain a infinitesimally small fraction of a second worth of time over your brother who was lying on his bed on the first floor, reading a book. However, the effort required and the puny results keep us from engaging in such experiments.

There actually is a pretty famous experiment that folks, who decided to study higher physics are very likely to have come across at some point in the course of their journey.

Say there are two twins and one of them is sent on a journey on a spaceship traveling close to the speed of light (Yes, I know, but lets accept it for arguments sake) while the other twin stays on Earth. On the former’s return, he finds that the latter has aged years beyond him.

Of course, the Kelly brothers did not experience anything of the sort because we do not have spaceships that can travel anywhere near the speed of light — yet. However, scientists have confirmed the phenomenon by launching a working atomic clock into orbit and comparing it to its twin that stayed back on earth.The clock that made the journey to space was running slightly behind the one that stayed back.

So there you have it, space travel as we know it is not a way to age slower. Unless you are cool with gaining something like .1 second after spending a decade on the ISS, orbiting the earth. The biological data received from this experiment on the other hand, could yield some fascinating finds. The fact that telomeres in white blood cells get longer in space could be just the beginning.

Meanwhile, investigation is still ongoing and the space organization hopes to publish more detailed findings later this year. Well, let’s hope NASA manages to coax out some fascinating secrets from what is possibly the first experiment of its kind.

Stay Tuned!

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