York researchers study effects of spaceflight disorientation on Canadian astronaut

York University researchers studying astronaut disorientation will get their first Canadian subject, following yesterday’s successful launch of the Russian rocket ferrying astronaut Bob Thirsk to the International Space Station.

During his six-month mission, Thirsk will conduct Canadian science and technology experiments, including York’s Bodies in the Space Environment study (BISE). Thirsk is the first Canadian Space Agency astronaut to participate in a long-duration mission on the International Space Station (ISS).

The study 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; once scientists understand how and why this disorientation occurs, they can find ways to correct it.

"We’re very proud of the Bodies in the Space Environment experiment," says co-investigator Heather Jenkin, contract faculty member in York’s Department of Psychology and member of the University’s Centre for Vision Research. "The project is a wonderful example of the relationship between Canadian academic research and the preparation of Canadian astronauts for space, fostered by the Canadian Space Agency."

Right: Heather Jenkin experiences zero gravity during a past Bodies in the Space Environment test

BISE study participants 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 joins American astronaut Michael Barratt, the study’s first subject, who is already on board the ISS (see YFile, March 27).

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" allows researchers to calculate the direction astronauts perceive as up. By performing this test with various body orientations on Earth, and while viewing differently oriented visual backgrounds both on Earth and in space, researchers can quantify how astronauts use the combined cues of gravity, body orientation and vision to tell up from down.

In one of several parallel studies, 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.

Left: Canadian astronaut Bob Thirsk 

BISE is the culmination of a series of studies conducted by the team at York. Pilot studies involved testing subjects during brief periods of microgravity created by an aircraft in parabolic flight.

The research is funded through the Canadian Space Agency and involves Canadian, American and European astronauts. The investigators for the BISE experiment are: Professor Laurence Harris, Department of Psychology (principal investigator); Professor Michael Jenkin, Department of Computer Science & Engineering; contract faculty member Heather Jenkin, Department of Psychology; Richard Dyde, post-doctoral research fellow in York’s Centre for Vision Research; and Jim Zacher, project scientist, Centre for Vision Research.