Study subject heads to space station on York’s 50th birthday

A team of York University researchers has begun a groundbreaking study of how astronauts orient themselves in space, following yesterday’s successful launch of the rocket carrying their first subject to the International Space Station.

US astronaut Michael Barratt (right), the first of six study participants, lifted off for the International Space Station yesterday morning, aboard a rocket launched out of Kazakhstan’s Baikonur Cosmodrome.

The Bodies in the Space Environment Study (BISE) tracks how gravity affects astronauts’ perception of "up" and "down", as well as the effects of long-term microgravity exposure. Led by researchers from York’s Faculty of Health and Faculty of Science & Engineering, it aims to identify how astronauts orient themselves in space using more than just visual cues.

"Astronauts need to perform many detailed tasks where spatial orientation is crucial, but without gravity, the brain has difficulty telling ‘up’ from down," says Jim Zacher, project scientist and system administrator with York’s Centre for Vision Research. "Once we understand how and why this occurs, we can find ways to correct it."

Barratt and fellow participants – including Canadian astronaut Bob Thirsk – complete a series of tests before going into space, during the early and late stages of their stay aboard the space station, and upon returning to Earth. Thirsk is scheduled to join Barratt on the International Space Station at the end of May.

While in space, participants perform a letter recognition test, which rotates the letters "p" and "d" on a laptop screen. Recording the angle at which the letter "p" appears to change into the letter "d", tells researchers the direction astronauts perceive as up. By performing this test with various body orientations and while viewing differently oriented visual backgrounds, researchers can discern how astronauts use the combined cues of gravity, body orientation and vision to tell up from down.

Ground-testing involves performing the letter test, as well as orientation judgments and discerning three-dimensional shape from shading, while upright and while lying right-side down.

Laurence Harris (right), BISE principal investigator and chair of York’s Department of Psychology, says the study will offer many avenues for future research. "One future challenge is to see how any process of adaptation might change depending on each crew member’s previous spaceflight experience," he says. (For more on the zero gravity experiments, see YFile, Dec. 5, 2008 and Oct. 2, 2006.)

The team also plans to investigate potential similarities between the effects of long-term bed rest and the physical and perceptual effects of long-duration spaceflight.

The BISE project is one of a series of studies conducted by the team at York; previous work involved testing subjects during the zero gravity of parabolic flight.

The study is funded through the Canadian Space Agency and involves Canadian, American and European astronauts. Co-investigators for the BISE experiment are: Zacher; Professor Michael Jenkin, Department of Computer Science & Engineering; Professor Heather Jenkin, Department of Psychology; and Richard Dyde, post doctoral research fellow in York’s Centre for Vision Research.