Image: Airway monitoring experiment for astronauts

May 2, 2018, European Space Agency
Credit: L. Karlsson

In recognition of World Asthma Day, here is ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst preparing to take preflight measurements for the Airway Monitoring experiment, which looks into inflammation of the airway.

Developed by researchers at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, the Airway Monitoring experiment measures ' breath to determine the health of their lungs. The potential findings will go towards developing better diagnostic tools for disease in patients on Earth.

How does the experiment work? The analyser measures the amount of nitric oxide in exhaled air. Too much nitric oxide suggests inflammation. Causes can be environmental, like dust or pollution, or clinical, such as asthma – at least on Earth, but what happens in space?

To find out, astronauts breathe into an analyser at normal pressure and then in the reduced pressure of the Quest airlock, which simulates the pressure of future habitats on Mars and lunar colonies. The measurements are then compared to the same reduced and ambient pressure data taken before flight to understand the effects of weightlessness on airway health.

Can you spot the gloves hanging from the ceiling? They are handy low-tech visual indicators of air pressure. "The gloves give simple, low-tech feedback on the surrounding pressure and grow with increased altitude/reduced ," explains Principal Investigator Lars Karlsson.

In space, astronauts are essentially fish out of water. Understanding how to track, diagnose and treat lung inflammation is important for their safety.

The experiment draws on a study of airway that ran on the Station from 2005 to 2008. Preliminary results have been surprising. As expected, nitric oxide levels were lower when astronauts were in space, but they found that the levels initially decreased just before flight. Researchers are not yet sure why this is the case.

If what is considered a normal level of in humans on Earth could, in fact, be a sign of for astronauts in space, then researchers have a more accurate standard to conduct further research on lung health in .

This information is key to ensuring the health and safety of astronauts on long missions taking them further from Earth.

The experiment began with ESA astronaut Samantha Cristofretti's 2015 mission and measurements have been gathered by eight astronauts so far, including ESA astronaut Tim Peake, and soon Alexander.

Alexander will hitch a ride to the Space Station in a Soyuz spacecraft in June for the six-month Horizons mission. Be sure to follow Alexander during his mission to see more on Airway Monitoring and other top science experiments planned for Horizons.

Explore further: Image: Testing astronauts' lung health

Related Stories

Image: Testing astronauts' lung health

April 21, 2017

The stellar views from the International Space Station are not the only things to take an astronaut's breath away: devices like this are measuring astronauts' breath to determine the health of their lungs. ESA astronaut ...

Monitoring astronauts' lung health

May 2, 2017

Astronauts in space are valuable sources of scientific data. Researchers collect blood and urine samples to understand what effects living in weightlessness has on their bodies. For one experiment, investigators are interested ...

Testing astronauts' lungs in Space Station airlock

March 10, 2015

Air was pumped out of the International Space Station's air lock for the first time in the name of science last week. Inside the cylindrical Quest airlock, ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti and NASA's Terry Virts monitored ...

ESA image: Team spirit

February 12, 2014

Spaceflight is all about teamwork. From the five space agencies that build and maintain the International Space Station to the mission control centres on Earth and the European, Japanese, American and Russian astronauts who ...

Recommended for you

Solving the jet/cocoon riddle of a gravitational wave event

February 22, 2019

An international research team including astronomers from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has combined radio telescopes from five continents to prove the existence of a narrow stream of material, ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.