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‘Happy spacesuit’ could help astronauts fight depression

Image credit: Florida Polytechnic University

Researchers at Florida Polytechnic University are developing a ‘happy spacesuit’ which could monitor an astronaut’s health and adjusts their environment to improve their mood and comfort.

Due to the long periods of time trapped with limited space, sleep and exercise, with excessive light exposure and being part of a small crew, astronauts often suffer psychological problems. According to researchers from Florida Polytechnic University, this can include depression.

In order to provide as much comfort as possible to astronauts, this team of Florida researchers is creating a technology called ‘Smart Sensory Skin’ (S3) which uses wireless sensors to detect emotional and physical deficiencies. These sensors can then send real-time feedback on the astronaut’s state, which can cause the environment to be altered, such as by adjusting temperature, light exposure, light colour and oxygen levels in the spacecraft.

While some similar technologies already exist to monitor the pulse, blood pressure and joint angle of astronauts, this technology can be uncomfortable and is passive in its collection of data. This means that only after doctors based on Earth have reviewed the data can they make recommendations for changes to the environment.

“It’s vital for astronauts to be mentally healthy during missions and right now there’s no active, real-time solution to help them when they feel stressed or anxious,” said Professor Arman Sargolzaei, an electrical engineer at Florida Polytechnic University.

“This technology would provide them with immediate relief to their state of mind.”

The researchers hope that the final S3 could be incorporated into the clothing that astronauts wear during missions.

The development of S3 has been made possible with a grant from Nasa’s Florida Space Research Program. For years, Nasa has been investigating the effects of space on the human body and mind with their Human Research Program. In order to understand the psychological and social impacts of isolating a crew for long periods of time, there have been trials in China, the US and Israel to simulate space missions on Earth.

“The types of problems you may encounter are a decline in mood, cognition, morale, or interpersonal interaction. You could also develop a sleep disorder […] depression could occur. Fatigue is inevitable given that there will be times with heavy workload and shifting schedules. Still, periods of monotony may lead to boredom rearing its ugly head,” Nasa explains on its website.

“There’s the possibility of the third-quarter effect, where morale and motivation decline three-quarters of the way into a mission, regardless of how long the mission lasts. The more confined and isolated humans are, the more likely they are to develop behavioural or cognitive conditions, and psychiatric disorders.”

Looking after the psychological health of astronauts will be particularly important when the time comes in the future for longer manned missions, such as to Mars.

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