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Zero-Gravity Workouts: Mobile in Space

Researchers at the Institute of Sports Science and Physical Education of the University of Freiburg are testing gym equipment designed to help astronau ts stay in shape while in space.


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Research at zero gravity: astronauts test training procedures devolped by freiburg researchers on a reduced gravity flight. (Foto: Hoffmann/Multhaupt DLR)


Countdown. Full throttle.The pilots steer the airplane up into the sky, at a 45 degree angle. The gravity inside the plane is twice as strong as on the Earth’s surface. Even just lifting one’s foot off the floor is a chore. Then the rush of acceleration begins to subside. The gravitation diminishes, and the passengers begin to lose contact with the floor. “There is no up or down; it’s similar to being in water, only there isn’t any resistance at all,” says Ramona Ritzmann, doctoral candidate at the Institute of Sports Science and Physical Education of the University of Freiburg. The airplane continues to ascend for a moment and then starts to fall. After two and a half kilometers the turbines spring into life and pull the machine back up. In the blink of an eye, the gravity is as strong as it was during the ascent. The weightlessness lasted a total of 22 seconds. The pilots bring the airplane back into a horizontal position, thus completing the parabola, and then they immediately initiate a new one. They repeat the maneuver up to 30 times, giving scientists the chance to conduct experiments in a zero-gravity environment:to grow crystals, investigate the properties of materials—or, like Ramona Ritzmann, test prototypes of gym equipment designed to keep astronauts in shape during a journey in outer space.

Astronauts Lose Muscle Mass and Bone

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Using electrodes the muscles activity and reflexivness is monitored and measured during test trainings. (source: Hoffmann/Multhaupt DLR)

The crew of the International Space Station (ISS) is required to exercise three hours a day, for instance with steppers or exercise bicycles. Even so, the astronauts cannot walk without aid after returning to Earth. They lose an average of ten percent of their muscle mass and one percent of their bone substance each month,because the muscles no longer exert enough pressure on the bones.However, the international space agencies are planning missions to Mars on which astronauts will be in space for three years at a time, says Prof. Dr. Albert Gollhofer, Director of the Institute of Sports Science and Physical Education: “The exercise methods currently in use are not sufficient for such a long journey.”

Interplay between Nerves and Muscles
Gollhofer is head of a Freiburg research team thatis developing new approaches for exercise in weight less environments. The scientists are investigating the interplay between nerves and muscles. Every movement starts with a signal from the nervous system. These signals may be sent by the brain in the case of conscious movement, or they may be sent involuntarily by the sensors in the locomotor system. “We want to reach a more precise understanding of the source of movements and use this knowledge to improve exercise methods,” says Ritzmann. The sports scientist measures neuromuscular adjustment mechanisms in test subjects trying out new exercise machines. “This allows us to determine how effectively the exercises activatethe nerves and muscles.”

However, the machines are only suitable for use in space if the body reacts to them in a weightless state in the same way as it would under the influence of gravity. The researchers intend use the parabolic flights to

provide evidence of this. “The 22 seconds of weight lessness are sufficient to determine whether the muscles are controlled by the nervous system in the same way,” says Ritzmann. She has taken parabolic flights to try out the exercise machines herself: “So far it seems as if the muscles exhibit comparable activities in a state of weightlessness.” The machines simulate gravity. The research team is testing three training methods: whole body vibration, jumping, and balance control. All three are based on the principle of simulating the gravity that is missing in space with the help of the exercise machines. The exercisers lie on their backs, their feet on a rectangular board. The machines are equipped with straps or a vacuum system that places pressure on the shoulders in the direction of the feet corresponding to the strength of gravity. In the case of whole body vibration, the board under the feet is on springs. When it vibrates, it triggers reflexes that activate the muscles. “We want to provide as many stimuli as possible so that the muscles contract and relax again in rapid succession,” explains Gollhofer. This improves the exerciser’s condition and strength, especially in the legs^and the upper body.


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Ramona Ritzmann

Ramona Ritzmann is working toward a doctorate at the Section for Human Movement Studies of the University of Freiburg and at the Institute of Exercise and Movement Science of the University of Potsdam. She studied at the University of Freiburg from 2001 to 2008 and completed the first State Examination in thefields of sports science and mathematics in 2007. One year later she completed her magister degree in
the same two fields. She conducts research in the area of biomechanical movement analysis and on the functioning of the nervous system during exercise in a zero-gravity atmosphere.

Prof. Dr. Albert Gollhofer

Albert Gollhofer has served as professor at and director of the Institute of Sports Science and Physical Education since 2000. He studied physical education, performance psychology, and physics at the University of Freiburg, earned his doctorate in 1986, and completed his habilitation in 1993 with a study on exercise variation and motor coordination. He then accepted a post as professor for sports science with an emphasis on applied biomechanics at the University of Stuttgart. From 2005 to 2009 he also served as president of the sports science organization European College of Sport Science. His research interests include neuromuscular adaptation mechanisms, motor control,




  Ramona Ritzmann explains a test training in zero gravity

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"The night befor we stay with both feet on the ground: the flight leaves from Bordeaux and beforhand the pilots and security of the machines explain to the participating researchers the shedule of the reduced gravity flight what we absolutly have to keep in mind. " (Foto: Hoffmann/Multhaupt DLR).
"Our tests in zero gravity will be performed on an aircraft Airbus 300 Zero G controled by  Novespace. The aircraft is managed by the European Space Agency (ESA), the french space agency (CNES) and the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR). Worldwide only 3 aircrafts of this type are in use.Additionaly to the eurpeean agencies the USA and Russia owns aircrafts that can be used for zero gravity flights." (Foto: Hoffmann/Multhaupt DLR).
"12 to 14 research groups from Europa are on board. Zero gravity exprience lasts 22 seconds of the a flight round. We have to perform our experiments during this time window. The pilots repeat the prabol maneuver 31 times per fligth." (Foto: Hoffmann/Multhaupt DLR).
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"Inside the aircraft 3 of the 4 pilots control the maneuver manually: One steers the elevator, one the side rudder and a third pilot is responsable for the thrust. Only test pilots are allowed to fly parabol manouvers." (Foto: Hoffmann/Multhaupt DLR).

" Two physicians are on board of the aricraft. Our research team is supported by a group of ten security staff in orange Overalls. Not only researchers can participate in the flight experiment: Students from Freiburg help out as test persons . However as they ar under major physical stress only completly healthy individuals can participate. They also have to get tested for their flight fitness." (Foto: Hoffmann/Multhaupt DLR).
"This is where I will lay during teh flight in the vibration apparatus. My feet are positioned on a square plate. With a strap system a constant force is applied to my shoulders directed to my feet. This force corresponds to gravity. During the full body vibration the square plate is mounted on springs. When it vibrated it produces reflexes that activate muscles. This is training for fitness and power especially i legs and torso." (Foto: Hoffmann/Multhaupt DLR).
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"computers collect data abour the muscles activity and reflexivity during the training phase. I will compare the data after the fligth with those measured on the ground. In this way I see if our training procedures and aparatus work on the muscles in zero gravity in the same way as they do on earth. " (Foto: Hoffmann/Multhaupt DLR).
"Wenn während des Fluges Zeit bleibt, stattet der Chefpilot uns Forscherteams in der Phase der Schwerelosigkeit einen Besuch ab. Die Route ist bei den Parabelflügen vom Wetter abhängig, nur bei optimalen Bedingungen können die Piloten die Manöver durchführen. Nach dem Start in Bordeaux fliegen sie dafür zunächst Militärgebiete zum Beispiel in der Normandie, an der Ostsee oder über Korsika an." (Foto: Hoffmann/Multhaupt DLR).
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"Die Zeit, um in der Schwerelosigkeit Daten aufzeichnen zu können ist sehr kurz. Wir müssen sie optimal ausnutzten. Für den Fall, dass etwas schief geht oder eine unserer Versuchspersonen mit Übelkeit zu kämpfen hat, haben wir immer zwei Parabeln in Reserve. Wenn unser Experiment perfekt verläuft und uns kein Fehler passiert, bleiben uns diese zwei Parabeln, um das Gefühl der Schwerelosigkeit zu genießen.“ (Foto: Hoffmann/Multhaupt DLR).
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