Astronauts' Secret Weapon: Wearable Gadgets Prevent Space Disorientation

Society | November 5, 2023, Sunday // 09:10|  views

In the boundless expanse of space, astronauts face perilous challenges that often require rigorous training to overcome. Among these challenges is spatial disorientation, a potentially life-threatening issue. However, a groundbreaking solution may lie in wearable devices that offer orientation cues through vibrations, potentially making spaceflight safer.

Dr. Vivekanand P. Vimal of Brandeis University, the lead author of an article in Frontiers in Physiology, highlights the vulnerability of astronauts to spatial disorientation during long-duration spaceflight. When disoriented, astronauts lose the reliable internal sensors they have relied on throughout their lives.

To test the effectiveness of wearable devices, the researchers conducted experiments involving sensory deprivation and a multi-axis rotation device to simulate spaceflight conditions. Participants received vibrotactors, wearable gadgets that vibrated to provide orientation cues. The question was whether these vibrotactors could correct misleading cues from the participants' vestibular systems and whether they could be trained to trust them.

The study involved 30 participants divided into three groups: one received training on the rotation device, another received vibrotactors, and the third received both. All participants were exposed to video demonstrations of the rotation device's operation, highlighting the importance of maintaining balance during the simulation.

Additional training for the vibrotactor group included tasks that encouraged participants to rely on the vibrotactors rather than their natural gravitational cues. This training was vital in teaching participants to disengage from their vestibular sense. The vibrotactors, four on each arm, would buzz when participants moved away from the balance point.

In spaceflight analog trials, participants donned blindfolds, earplugs, and listened to white noise. The results were measured by assessing participants' ability to maintain balance and minimize crashes in 40 trials. For half of the trials, the rotation device simulated an Earth-like environment, providing natural gravitational cues. The remaining trials simulated spaceflight, where such cues were absent.

The findings revealed that all participants faced initial disorientation in the spaceflight analog, as they could not rely on their familiar gravitational cues. However, those equipped with vibrotactors outperformed the training-only group. The participants who received both training and vibrotactors exhibited the best performance as the trials progressed.

The study concluded that deeper, sub-cognitive trust in external devices, such as vibrotactors, is required. Specialized training would be necessary to achieve this level of trust.

In the event of successful trials, these wearable devices could find applications in spaceflight, aiding astronauts in safe planetary landings and providing support for extravehicular activities outside space vehicles.

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Tags: Wearable devices, astronauts, space, disorientation


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