Your mother probably told you to sit up straight or you'll end up a hunchback. But doing so in space without gravity to guide the way is another matter entirely. In order to keep astronauts' posture in check, researchers at the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) have designed a new type of suit to wear while up in space, called Skinsuit.
Simon Evetts, the lead of the Medical Projects and Technology Team at EAC, said that the Skinsuit exerts force on its wearer from the shoulders towards the feet. "It looks like a tight-fitting Lycra suit you might find at Olympic swimming pools," he told ABC News. "They're individually tailored, so that the right amount of force is provided to each astronaut."
Ultimately, it comes down to simulating the force an astronaut feels on Earth to keep their skeletons healthy. "When we're on Earth and we walk or run, we put weight on our bones that cause the different cellular processes to signal bone formation to occur," said International Space Station engineer Mamta Nagaraja. "Without gravity, there's an imbalance between [bone] formation and resorption, so astronauts lose up to 3 percent of their bone mass per month."
Nagaraja said that just as there can be multiple factors that can contribute to bone loss, there can also be multiple solutions. "We see the greatest bone loss in the hip, wrist and spine," she said. "It's worth trying these types of research-based efforts to counteract bone loss."
The Skinsuit won't be going up until 2015, when European Space Agency astronaut Andreas Mogensen will head up towards the ISS. However, Evetts sees the suit having a use on terra firma as well, particularly for patients receiving long-term hospital care.
"They're lying down for a long time and not using any of their stabilizing muscles," said Evetts. "With the Skinsuit active, they could put those stabilizing muscles to work."