ISS Artificial Gravity Study Shows Promise For Long Duration Spaceflight

The International Space Station is humanity’s most expensive gym membership.

Since the earliest days of human spaceflight, it’s been understood that longer trips away from Earth’s gravity can have a detrimental effect on an astronaut’s body. Floating weightless invariably leads to significantly reduced muscle mass in the same way that a patient’s muscles can atrophy if they spend too much time laying in bed. With no gravity to constantly fight against, an astronauts legs, back, and neck muscles will weaken from disuse in as little as a week. While this may not pose an immediate problem during spaceflight, astronauts landing back on Earth in this physically diminished state are at a higher risk of injury.

Luckily this problem can be largely mitigated with rigorous exercise, and any orbiting vessel spacious enough to hold human occupants for weeks or months will by necessity have enough internal volume to outfit it with basic exercise equipment such as a treadmill or a resistance machine. In practice, every space station since the Soviet Union’s Salyut 1 in 1971 has featured some way for its occupants to workout while in orbit. It’s no replacement for being on Earth, as astronauts still return home weaker than when they left, but it’s proven to be the most practical approach to combating the debilitating aspects of long duration spaceflight.

Early NASA concept for creating artificial gravity.

Of course, there’s an obvious problem with this: every hour spent exercising in space is an hour that could be better spent doing research or performing maintenance on the spacecraft. Given the incredible cost of not just putting a human into orbit, but keeping them there long-term, time is very literally money. Which brings us back to my original point: astronauts spending two or more hours each day on the International Space Station’s various pieces of exercise equipment just to stave off muscle loss make it the world’s most expensive gym membership.

The ideal solution, it’s been argued, is to design future spacecraft with the ability to impart some degree of artificial gravity on its passengers through centripetal force. The technique is simple enough: just rotate the craft along its axis and the crew will “stick” to the inside of the hull. Unfortunately, simulating Earth-like gravity in this way would require the vessel to either be far larger than anything humanity has ever launched into space, or rotate at a dangerously high speed. That’s a lot of risk to take on for what’s ultimately just a theory.

But a recent paper from the University of Tsukuba in Japan may represent the first real steps towards the development of practical artificial gravity systems aboard crewed spacecraft. While their study focused on mice rather than humans, the results should go a long way to codifying what until now was largely the stuff of science fiction.

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A New Spin On A Medical Test

Most of us can say that we have taken an obsolete hard drive out of a computer and felt it was a waste to toss it in the e-waste pile. Some of us have children’s drawings hung on the fridge with actuator magnets, or maybe a vast spreadsheet suspended on a steel filing cabinet. Let us not forget that there is also a high-speed, low-noise motor in there. On some models it is separate from the PCB, so grab an Electronic Speed Controller (ESC), your microcontroller of choice, and make yourself a salvaged HDD centrifuge like [Cave Man] has. His build uses the tray as a chassis, but he modeled and printed a new face in the same style as the original.

On top, he has an OLED screen for displaying the requested speed, measured speed, and runtime. Next to the display is a four-button pad with a customized legend for setting parameters. The video after the break shows the machine running through its paces. This version accommodates the tiny capillary tubes, microhematocrit tubes, for processing raw blood. This test can calculate the packed cell volume, which professionals use to determine things from dehydration to anemia.

There are other builds out there where people have modified an old drive into the kind of centrifuge that accepts larger diameter tubes, but this was a shining example of what is possible. One good turn deserves another, so we recommend a desktop bio-lab companion, or enlist some LEGO Mindstorms to help out.

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Françoise Barré-Sinoussi: Virus Hunter

It was early 1983 and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi of the prestigious Pasteur Institute in Paris was busy at the centrifuge trying to detect the presence of a retrovirus. The sample in the centrifuge came from an AIDS patient, though the disease wasn’t called AIDS yet.

Barré-Sinoussi and Montagnier in 1983
Barré-Sinoussi and Montagnier in 1983, Image source: Le Globserver

Just two years earlier in the US, a cluster of young men had been reported as suffering from unusual infections and forms of cancer normally experienced by the very old or by people using drugs designed to suppress the immune system. More cases were reported and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) formed a task force to monitor the unusual outbreak. In December, the first scientific article about the outbreak was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

By May 1983, researchers Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur Institute had isolated HIV, the virus which causes AIDS, and reported it in the journal Science. Both received the Nobel prize in 2008 for this work and the Nobel prize citation stated:

Never before have science and medicine been so quick to discover, identify the origin and provide treatment for a new disease entity.

It’s only fitting then that we take a closer look at one of these modern detectives of science, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, and what led to her discovery.

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Fidget Spinners Put The ‘S’ In STEAM Education

Centrifuges are vital to the study of medicine, chemistry, and biology. They’re vital tools to separate the wheat from the chaff figuratively, and DNA from saliva literally. Now, they’re fidget spinners. [Matlek] designed a fidget spinner that also functions as a simple lab centrifuge.

The centrifuge was designed in Fusion 360, and was apparently as easy as drawing a few circles and hitting copy and paste. Interestingly, this fidget spinner was designed to be completely 3D printable, including the bearings. The bearing is a standard 608 though, so if you want to get some real performance out of this centrispinner, off-the-shelf bearings are always an option. The design of this fidget spinner holds 2 mL and 1.5 mL vials, but if your lab has 500 μL tubes on hand, there are handy 3D printable adapters.

Still think using a toy to do Real Science™ is dumb? Contain your rage, because a few months ago a few folks at Stanford devised a way to build a centrifuge out of paper. This paperfuge can — at least theoretically — save lives where real commercial centrifuges or even electricity aren’t available. Fidget spinners save humanity once again.

DNA Extraction With A 3D-Printed Centrifuge

[F.Lab] is really worried that we are going to prepare a DNA sample from saliva, dish soap, and rubbing alcohol in their 3D-printed centrifuge and then drink it like a shot. Perhaps they have learned from an horrific experience, perhaps biologists have different dietary requirements. Either way, their centrifuge is really cool. Just don’t drink the result. (Ed note: it’s the rubbing alcohol.)

The centrifuge was designed in Sketch-Up and then 3D printed. They note to take extra care to get high quality 3D prints so that the rotor isn’t out of balance. To get the high speeds needed for the extraction, they use a brushless motor from a quadcopter. This is combined with an Arduino and an ESC. There are full assembly instructions on Thingiverse.

[F.Lab] has some other DIY lab equipment designs, such as this magnetic stirrer. Which we assume you could use to make a shot if you wanted to. However, it’s probably not a good idea to mix lab supplies and food surfaces. Video after the break.

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Centrifuge Spins Samples Up To 400g

We were curious to see when someone would use a 3D printing pen for something other than art. It might not look very pretty, but [Techmeology] “drew” this centrifuge mount for a motor in order to spin some test tube samples.

It’s kind of hard to see in the picture, but the test tube holder “arms” are detachable, and when the motor spins up it opens like an umbrella. Pretty much all the parts are recycled, and the motor came from an old appliance, making the cost of this project negligible — a good use case for any remote location that might require custom parts or repairs.

As for actually fabricating functional items with the 3D printing pen, [Techmeology] offers some useful tips for drawing brackets on his site. For instance, wrap the parts for which you need mounting brackets in paper. This provides a barrier while drawing your design in molten plastic.

There are a few other tricks that can be performed by 3D printing pens, like using them to “weld” parts back together. If you don’t already have one you could just use a soldering iron for this purpose — or make your own 3D printing pen using LEGO and a hot glue gun.

RWXBioFuge collage v0.1

Take Your Samples For A Spin With The RWXBioFuge

We have a confession to make: we love centrifuges. We’ve used all shapes and sizes, for spinning bags of whole blood into separate components to extracting DNA, and everything in between. Unfortunately, these lab staples are too expensive for many DIY-biologists unless they buy them used or build them themselves. [Pieter van Boheemen] was inspired by other DIY centrifuges and decided to make his own, which he named the RWXBioFuge.

[Pieter] designed the RWXBioFuge using Sketchup, OpenSCAD, and InkScape. It features a Thermaltake SMART M850W ATX power supply, an R/C helicopter Electronic Speed Controller (ESC), and brushless outrunner motor. For user output it utilizes a 16×2 LCD character display with an I2C interface.The frame is laser-cut from 3mm MDF while the 3D-printed PLA rotor was designed with OpenSCAD.

An Arduino handles the processing side of things. [Pieter] used an Arduino Ethernet – allowing a web interface to control the centrifuge’s settings and operation from a distance. We can see this being useful in testing out the centrifuge for any rotor/motor balance issues, especially since [Pieter] states that it can be configured to run >10,000 rpm. We wouldn’t want to be in the room if pieces start flying off any centrifuge at that speed!  However, we feel that when everything’s said and done, you should have a centrifuge you can trust by your side when you’re at your lab bench.

While there are similarities to the Openfuge, the larger RWXBioFuge has rotor capacities of eight to twenty 1.5-2.0ml microcentrifuge tubes. Due to the power supply, it is not portable and a bit more expensive, but not incredibly so. There are some small touches about this centrifuge that we really like. The open lid detector is always a welcome safety feature. The “Short” button is very handy for quick 5-10 second spins.

A current version of the RWXBioFuge is being used at the Waag Society’s Open Wetlab. [Pieter’s] planned upgrades for the next version include a magnetic lid lock, different rotor sizes, an accelerometer to detect an improperly balanced rotor, and optimizing the power supply, ESC, and motor setup. You can never have enough centrifuges in a lab, and we are looking forward to seeing this project’s progress!

Check out a few more pictures of the RWXBioFuge after the break.

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