Gravitational Physiology Laboratory Opens in Planica, Helping Astronauts Stay Healthy

By , 02 Oct 2021, 09:24 AM Made in Slovenia
Gravitational Physiology Laboratory Opens in Planica, Helping Astronauts Stay Healthy Twitter @MIZS_RS

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STA, 1 October 2021 - The Laboratory for Gravitational Physiology was inaugurated on Friday at the Planica Nordic Centre in cooperation with the European Space Agency, the ministries of science and the economy and the Jožef Stefan Institute. The laboratory will contribute to research to maintain the well-being of astronauts during missions to space. 

The agreement on starting a joint operation was signed at Friday's ceremony by European Space Agency (ESA) director general Josef Ascbacher, Jožef Stefan Institute (IJS) director Boštjan Zalar, and Planica Nordic Centre director Franci Petek.

In his address, Aschbacher said the ESA was very happy to add to its programme the Planica Nordic Centre, which has a unique capacity to research hypoxemia, a shortage of oxygen supply in blood.

Future space missions are likely to be hypoxic, allowing for lighter structures or reducing the risk of decompression sickness during exits and surface operations, he said, adding that the results of the bed rest study can be used to prepare for human spaceflight and will be of great help in preparing for future missions.

The ESA director lauded all the partners that contributed to the implementation of the project and called on government officials to consider a further increase in Slovenia's contribution to the ESA's activities.

The official then attended a bilateral meeting with Education Minister Simona Kustec and State Secretary at the Economy Ministry Simon Zajc, who were also present at the ceremony and who both hailed the realisation of cooperation.

The ESA director praised Slovenia's work and its cooperation with the ESA as an associate member country on its way to full membership. He also underlined the good performance of Slovenian companies and the importance of Friday's opening of the new facilities in Planica.

The opening of the Laboratory for Gravitational Physiology and the launch of the "human centrifuge" in Planica will enable the possibility of breakthrough international and interdisciplinary research in space physiology and medicine, the IJS said.

Addressing the launch, IJS director Zalar noted the opportunities opened up by the laboratory and great plans for future cooperation with the ESA, where the institute is to have full support from the Ministry of Economic Development and Technology.

Being quite remote, Planica makes an optimal place for such research because there are not many factors that could interfere with the measurements, Zalar said, noting vibrations, climate and air quality.

The establishment of the new laboratory is largely the result of 20 years of work by researchers from the IJS Department of Automation, Biocybernetics and Robotics, led by Igor Mekjavič.

After first experimental research two decades ago, an altitude room was established in 2007 in a hotel in Planica and in 2010 Slovenia signed a cooperation agreement with the ESA.

Only a year later, IJS researchers received special support from the ESA for their research of how hypoxemia affects processes of adaptation to zero-gravity and in 2016 Slovenia signed an association agreement that allowed the country to take part in select ESA programmes.

In support of research at the Planica lab and to encourage new research institutions and industry in the space sector, Slovenia in 2019 opted to take part in the ESA programme of human and robotic research with a financial contribution of EUR 2 million.

The "human centrifuge" at the laboratory, which combines medical research and microgravity simulation, will be only the third such facility in Europe, alongside those in Germany and France.

This operation will attract Slovenian and foreign scientists and increase the presence of Slovenian expertise in space exploration, said the IJS.

The Education, Science and Sport Ministry added that the new laboratory will be important both for space expeditions and for people on Earth, as the research programme will also contribute to findings relevant for lung and heart patients, overweight people and patients with osteoporosis.

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