November 2016 Astronautics

Simulating space in a bathtub

Dry immersion, which is a ground-based simulation model of prolonged conditions of microgravity, is widely used in Russia but is less well known elsewhere.

Medical monitoring of volunteer test subject in a fixture for dry immersion research experiments.
Medical monitoring of volunteer test subject in a fixture for dry immersion research experiments.
Inessa B. Kozlovskaya Inessa B. Kozlovskaya Institute of Biomedical Problems of RAS, Moscow, Russia
Elena S. Tomilovskaya Elena S. Tomilovskaya Head of the laboratory of gravitational physiology of sensory-motor system

Dry immersion, which is a ground-based simulation model of prolonged conditions of microgravity, is widely used in Russia but is less well known elsewhere. It involves immersing the subject in thermoneutral water covered with an elastic waterproof fabric. The subject, who is freely suspended in the water mass, remains dry and for a relatively short duration the simulation can mimic the physiological effects of microgravity, including centralisation of body fluids, support unloading and hypokinesia. Unlike bed rest, dry immersion provides a unique opportunity to study the physiological effects of the lack of a supporting structure for the body.

The development of space research and the move to applied space exploration have shown that weightlessness causes one’s body to become ‘de-trained’ - that is to lose its ability to properly react to gravity. In order to solve many applied and fundamental issues relating to this problem, scientists have to develop zero gravity simulations.

The most promising simulations for researching physiological effects of hypo-gravity are immersion (into a liquid environment, with a density similar to that of human body tissue) and antiorthostatic hypokinesia. A support-free environment, the removal of localised weight loads, close proximity to the biomechanical conditions of motor function organisation to those present in weightlessness - all of these factors have predetermined that water immersion is practically the only viable simulation model for weightlessness training.

In the early 1960s, researchers began exploring the physiological effects of immersion in order to determine the possibility of using it to imitate the effects of weightlessness on land. It was determined that immersion accurately simulated the motor, cardiovascular and other physiological changes that a human body experiences in weightlessness. The possibility of using immersion as a fully-fledged simulation were limited only by lack of comfort and the possible danger of prolonged skin contact with a liquid environment.

Find out more about dry immersion and its uses in the study of microgravity effects on the human body in the full version of the article, available now to our subscribers.

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