Beside the incredible experience itself, a big advantage of going to space for astronauts is that they grow about 3% taller during a typical mission. Even the rest of us bound by gravity grow a bit taller during sleep. This phenomenon is not well studied and researchers at NASA are trying to find out how the spine adapts and stretches over time.
The astronauts on the International Space Station have been equipped with the Ultrasound 2, a modified Vivid q ultrasound system from GE, and because they’re not trained sonographers, let alone clinicians, they also have specialty software that guides them during exams.
Six crew members will serve as test subjects for these spinal ultrasound scans. The data sessions are scheduled to take place on orbit starting in January 2013. An astronaut will scan the spinal area of a fellow crew member at 30, 90, and 150 days into flight. Researchers will watch in real time from the ground via streaming video downlinks. Ultrasound images will focus on the cervical and lumbar areas of the spine and surrounding tissues. The test subjects will also undergo pre- and post-flight ultrasound and MRI scans on Earth to provide baseline data.
Ultrasound technology is convenient for use not only in space, but also here on Earth. Due to the portability of the machines, the rapid training methods developed by NASA researchers and the repeatability, ultrasound can offer an inexpensive and scalable alternative to MRIs for healthcare needs. Medical personnel already make use of the training methods developed for the space station crews when using ultrasound in remote areas.
Project page: Sonographic Astronaut Vertebral Examination…
NASA press release: Station Spinal Ultrasounds Seeking Why Astronauts Grow Taller in Space