Human muscle cells to be launched into space to learn more about why we age

Tim Peake ran the London marathon while in space Credit: NASA

Human muscles cell are set to be blasted into space in order to study why our bodies get weaker with age.

The experiment, called MicroAge, will set off to the International Space Station (ISS) on Tuesday.

The effects of prolonged time in space will be used to understand what happens to human muscles as people age, and why.

Spending time without the effects of gravity can cause astronauts’ muscles to get weaker, just as they do in older age, before recovering when they return to Earth.

Astronauts have to do regular full-body exercises while living in zero gravity in order to prevent their muscles from degrading.

British astronaut Tim Peake famously ran the London marathon from a specially designed treadmill while aboard the ISS.

An astronaut doing a bench press while on the ISS Credit: NASA

University of Liverpool researchers, funded by a £1.2 million grant from the UK Space Agency, will study what happens to muscle tissue in space, and compare the findings to what happens on Earth.

This will help to solve the puzzle of why muscles get weaker with age and look at ways to prevent the process.

Lab-grown human muscle cells, the size of a grain of rice, have been put into small 3D-printed holders the size of a pencil sharpener.

Once in space, they will be electrically stimulated to induce contractions in the muscle tissue, and the scientists will look closely to see what happens.

Muscles lose mass and strength as people age and this can affect the ability to carry out everyday tasks and causes a range of problems, including an increased risk of falling and longer recovery times from injuries.

Professor Malcolm Jackson, from the University of Liverpool, said: “Ageing is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century and we will learn a great deal about how muscle responds to microgravity and ageing from the data we obtain from this study.

Astronaut Chris Hadfield shared how he exercised while he was aboard the ISS

“The team has had to work extremely hard over the last three years to overcome the many challenges of sending our science into space."

Kayser Space, based at the Harwell Space Cluster in Oxfordshire, designed and built the scientific hardware to accommodate the muscle cells to ensure they survive the potential changes in temperature, vibration and G-force during launch.

Science Minister George Freeman said: “The research of our scientist astronauts like Tim Peake on muscle loss in the microgravity of space is helping identify potential cures for musculoskeletal disease, which causes agony to millions and costs the NHS billions.

“By harnessing the unique environment of the International Space Station our pioneering scientists could help us all live healthier, stronger lives.”

MicroAge is due to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Centre, Florida, at 10am (GMT) on Tuesday.

The experiment will return to Earth in January 2022 for further analysis.

As part of the mission the 24 muscle cell containers that are being sent to the ISS will carry mission patches designed by children, following a competition run by the University of Liverpool.