Center for Space Medicine

Using 3D Cameras to Combat Muscle Atrophy for Astronauts


Being weightless in space with the ability to float around a spacecraft is something many people can only dream of experiencing firsthand. What individuals might not consider is that when muscles don’t have to work for a period of time, like in microgravity, they will deteriorate. It’s similar to patients who’ve undergone a surgery and are bedridden for weeks. Getting back on their feet and building up their strength and muscle mass takes work and usually physical therapy assistance. Now, magnify that timeframe to three years, the time it will take a crew to journey roundtrip to Mars. This will be the longest manned space mission ever. The astronauts onboard will likely experience a significant loss of muscle and bone mass. In fact, prior research shows that a microgravity environment can cause a loss of over 30% of muscle mass in less than 6 months.

The Translational Research Institute for Space Health want to help mitigate that risk. Supported by TRISH, John Shepherd and his research team at the University of Hawaii Honolulu Cancer Center are working on their project, Astro-3DO, which will use 3D optical cameras to measure the body shape and mass composition of astronauts in space. Using knowledge gained from previous cancer research, the project aims to help lessen the debilitating loss of muscle and bone mass during long-duration space flights and gain a better understanding of how muscle deterioration can impact human longevity.

Partnership Creates Opportunity for Life Saving Research

Mitigating the loss of muscle during long duration space flights is crucial to astronaut health. In their day-to-day cancer studies, Shepherd and his team monitor muscle loss in cancer patients, in order to keep patients healthy for treatments in the fight against cancer. Many cancer patients succumb to the disease due to being too fragile for their bodies to support their organs. This is also relevant to elderly patients as it’s known that loss of muscle mass puts individuals at a greater risk for falls, hip fracture and even death. This is why Shepherd and his team put great emphasis on the importance of muscle mass in order to keep a body healthy. While Shepherd understands that his cancer studies are different from the studies for Mars, he does point out that the information on muscle loss due to disuse is transferrable.

Shepherd and his team plan to install several small cameras that will capture data while astronauts spin in space, to capture an accurate assessment of the fat in the muscle of an astronaut’s arms, legs and trunk. The Astro-3DO research team are hopeful that by creating new technology that can be implemented within already functioning devices on a spacecraft, they will be able to gain accurate reads of astronauts’ body mass which in turn will help to keep astronauts safe and healthy while also providing a better understanding of human longevity here on earth. 

Shepherd credits TRISH for helping to introduce the University of Hawaii team to space research. While Shepherd and his team have completed previous projects for the National Institute of Health, this is their first space project. The research team are using their partnership with TRISH to continue working toward their study as well as a source of inspiration for future projects. 

“TRISH has been extremely helpful in introducing myself and my team to space research,” says Shepherd. “Working with TRISH has been fascinating and has allowed myself and my team to become more stimulated for our future work.”