Floating weightless in space sure looks like a lot of fun, but there are real dangers for astronauts with bone loss. Crew members who might spend six to nine months traveling to Mars, for example, are at a higher risk of experiencing a life-threatening or mission-compromising fracture once they land and surface operations begin. Astronauts can lose between one and two percent of their total bone mass for every consecutive month spent living in space.
That’s where the Bone Densitometer comes in. Developed by Greenville, Indiana technology R&D company Techshot, the Bone Densitometer will be the first X-ray system to be used aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The Bone Denistometer is hitching a ride to ISS aboard the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft that is scheduled to launch at 1:52 a.m. September 21.
“Along with muscle atrophy and radiation exposure, bone loss is one of the tall poles in the tent effecting crew health on long duration missions,” said Techshot Chief Scientist Eugene Boland, Ph.D. “It’s one of the key problems we must solve before we can confidently plan for the exploration of other planets by humans.”
It’s not just about astronaut health. Many of the conditions of spaceflight that adversely affect astronauts, like bone loss, have real-world applications back on Earth too. Researchers hope to develop medical technology that helps fight osteoporosis using what they learn from studying mice flown in space with the Bone Densitometer.
Because the effects of long-term spaceflight can mimic the effects of aging, the chief operating officer of The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) says he expects pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies to increase their participation in space-based research with rodents now that the Bone Densitometer will be aboard ISS.
“The Bone Densitometer developed by Techshot represents a huge win for potential users of the ISS,” said CASIS COO Duane Ratliff. “Through rodent research, the potential exists to better understand items of critical importance to us on the ground, including muscle wasting, osteoporosis and other disease models. This piece of hardware will be critical to the research needed to develop potential breakthroughs capable of improving life on Earth.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) awarded Techshot a contract in fall 2012 to design and build the Bone Densitometer as part of an effort to increase research aboard the station that uses rodents.
“NASA is our oldest customer,” said Techshot Executive Vice President and COO John Vellinger. “For more than 25 years, NASA has counted on us to develop tools it uses to conduct research in space. Nothing like the Bone Densitometer has ever flown before, and we deeply appreciate the trust that’s been placed in us.”
Approximately the size of a consumer microwave oven, the device employs a technology called Dual-Energy X-ray Absorptiometry (DEXA). Scientists can determine the density of a bone by how well two X-ray beams with different energy levels are absorbed by it. It also can determine soft-tissue density, lean/fat ratio and total animal mass (i.e., weighing mice in space).
“It’s gratifying to know that research using our device could one day lead to treatments that help a grandmother confidently stride to her mailbox and perhaps her astronaut granddaughter take one small step onto the surface of another world,” added Vellinger.
Learn more about the Techshot Bone Densitometer.