Astronauts are returning to the moon, and this time they are focusing on finding the first long-term presence. After that, NASA is determined to visit Mars.
With this long-term journey ahead, new challenges will have to be accounted for in all aspects. The Moon is about 238,855 kilometers from Earth, but a trip to Mars for an astronaut means traveling about 140 million kilometers and leaving our planet for about three years. Because of this distance, astronauts will also experience a 20-minute communication delay from Earth to Mars.
While these devices and capabilities are exciting, astronauts will need more support in managing the behavioral effects of isolation, confinement and distance from home.
“In future long-duration missions, we won’t have real-time communications or the ability to send care packages like we do now, so NASA is looking at other ways to help maintain health and morale,” said Renee Abbott, a. doctoral student in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Texas A&M University.
Abbott works with his faculty advisor, Dr. Ana Diaz Artiles, assistant professor in the department, addresses this concern by using virtual reality (VR). Specifically, they studied the effects of applying perfume in a VR environment.
“During long-duration spaceflight missions, astronauts experience severe sensory deprivation. This can have detrimental effects on many levels, from physical reactions to depression and isolation to reduced moral health and well-being,” said Diaz Artiles. “We’re creating ‘augmented’ or ‘enriched’ experiences that can lead to healthier people with improved behavioral health and well-being.”
When we smell, information from those smells travels from our olfactory system to our somatosensory system, which is the part of the brain associated with emotional and memory processes. That’s why a scented candle can remind you of grandma’s homemade cookies, or a scent that can evoke certain emotions.
Abbott and Diaz Artiles dissected the effects that scent can have on mood by creating scents in a VR environment. Adding scent to VR experiences has been done before, but Abbott and Diaz Artiles’ use of local scents sets their work apart from previous research.
The user can walk along the river in the VR environment and not only hear the sound of flowing water but also smell the wet grass. Or when they wandered through the woods, they could smell the sweet smell of pine. This is achieved by using hitboxes, which are invisible shapes in the VR environment that activate when the image collides with them.
“We hope that using VR to bring nature to astronauts will be beneficial,” said Abbott. “In the world, nature has beneficial effects on us mentally and physically, so we try to create as close a simulation of real nature as we can by adding olfactory stimuli.”
In conducting their research, Abbott and Diaz Artiles measured users’ anxiety levels before and after experiencing a stressful event. The results showed that adding olfactory stimuli not only reduced users’ anxiety levels after receiving high stress but also reduced their levels of stress and anxiety from their baseline.
A description of their study was in the August issue of the journal Astronautica.
“The results show that the use of multiple VR environments is a promising step to support behavioral health,” Abbott said. “We’ll also be looking at adding other sensors, such as temperature manipulation, and how we can use this technology to create virtual care packages.”
Virtual care packages can be used to supplement the social needs of astronauts by helping them feel more connected to home. For example, Abbott thinks that a loved one can send a recorded message and physical flowers with lavender and rose scents.
The researchers also hope to work with the Navy to conduct tests on ships in a few weeks to see the long-term effects of a condition similar to the sensory deprivation experienced in astronaut work.
This research was funded by Abbott’s NASA Space Technology Graduate Research Opportunities Award, which recognizes graduate students who demonstrate the greatest potential to contribute to NASA’s mission of creating new space technologies for the nation’s future in science, exploration and the economy.
By Felysha Walker, Texas A&M Engineering
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