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UC research helps humans walk on Mars

Marcus Butler

7 April 2017: When astronauts walk on the surface of Mars in the not-too-distant future, they will be able to stand up thanks to current research at the University of Canberra.

Working with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), a group of University researchers is examining proprioception, or movement sense, and how time in space can dull this sense.

Astronauts are known to suffer a variety of health issues after spending time away from the Earth in microgravity and losing their sense of proprioception can make common tasks like standing and walking challenging.

University of Canberra and Australian Institute of Sport Professor of Sports Medicine Gordon Waddington said the research is contributing to NASA's goal of reaching Mars.

  • If you're interested in volunteering for this research project, are fit and healthy and aged between 18-55 - contact Professor Waddington via email or visit the participant information website to learn more.

"When astronauts reach Mars after months of space travel, NASA is going to need them to be able to stand, walk and start their work straight away,” Professor Waddington said.

“This study will increase our understanding of how proprioception works in the different conditions that an astronaut’s body may experience.”

The space agency sought out the University for its work on proprioception and has already installed equipment developed in Canberra at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, where astronauts are trained.

Professor Waddington said the project offered an exciting opportunity for Canberrans to help contribute to getting people safely to Mars.

"Very few people alive today will ever walk on Mars, but a group of research volunteers can help those who will go on to take those first steps on another planet," he said.

“We have experts from NASA who will work with us on this project and adapt our findings to their astronaut training.”

The project is led by Bachelor of Physiotherapy honours student Ashleigh Marchant, who is looking for research participants.

"This work is testing the proprioception responses of healthy people aged 18-55 years," Ms Marchant said. "We do a series of simple movements, looking at their ankles and legs, their fingers and their eyes. Then we repeat them with the person lying down on a bed.

"We want to gain a better understanding of how proprioception works, since it's one of the least understood human senses and it affects so much of our lives, from standing and walking to using tools and machines.”

The one-time testing takes about an hour and the research team is hoping to recruit around 30 additional participants over the coming weeks.

“This is perhaps the closest many of us will get to contributing to the mission to send humans to Mars and it all stems from understanding a sense we are always using without knowing it,” Ms Marchant said.

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