A group of lucky university students got a chance to participate in experiments that tested the effectiveness of a special belt to help the inner ear cope with microgravity. The device is designed to vibrate against the skin to signal to the wearer where the bottom is, potentially helping a tumbling pilot readjust the plane, or one day serve to treat the symptoms of vertigo.
From the National Space Biomedical Research Institute:
The students flew two days with three students participating each day. The experiment consisted of a chair fixed in a tilted position that could be rotated and then locked into any one of 360 degrees.
One student served as the subject, seated in the chair wearing sound-cancelling earphones and virtual-reality goggles. The other students ran the experiment. During each microgravity period of the flight, the subject was turned in the chair to a random position and shown an image in their goggles of a location in the plane (cockpit, rear, or left and right side). Then, using a hand-controller, the subject pointed to the direction needed to travel to get to that area of the plane.
“As part of the study, the subject also wore a wide belt containing a series of pager-like vibrators, or tactors, equally spaced. The vibrators in the belt fired to cue the wearer to the direction of the floor,” said Justin Barba, the NSBRI student project leader and a biomedical engineering major at Texas A&M University.
During the experiment, the subjects were randomly tested with and without the belt’s “cues.” The students will analyze the results of the tests to determine if the belt improved a person’s ability to navigate while in microgravity.
“Navigating in your environment first requires an accurate awareness of your orientation before moving toward a location of interest. On Earth, the ability to sense gravity helps you know which way you are pointing, but in microgravity, one can be easily disoriented especially without appropriate visual information,” Wood said. “The students also performed this experiment on the ground using both upright and tilted chair orientations as another way to examine the importance of gravitational cues.”
The student flyers hope to publish the results of their study in a scientific journal, but the immediate benefit of the study will be to elementary and middle school classes in the students’ hometowns. “Each of us committed to give presentations to local schools. We hope to teach younger students a little about microgravity and our experiment while showing them that science can definitely be fun,” Barba said.
Wood expects the data to show that performance of the task was more difficult in microgravity, but improved when an orientation reference was provided by the belt. On Earth, the upright position will likely be more challenging as the tilted position provides the subject with a better sense of gravity.
The belt could be modified for use in extravehicular activities on the moon. Wood says the tactor vibrators could be programmed to fire in the direction a crew member needs to go.
“Think of it as a non-visual, non-auditory GPS interface. It takes advantage of a sense you aren’t using and helps you navigate, so that vision and hearing can then be focused on other things. It could make astronauts more efficient at lunar survey tasks because they can be guided to locations that don’t have clear terrain markings,” Wood said.
The tactor belt could also become a useful aid for patients with neurological disorders experiencing navigation problems.