On the 27th March 2015, three astronauts will travel from Earth to the International Space Station (ISS). One of them, Gennady Padalka, will be there for the usual 4-6 months; the other two will be there rather longer. Scott Kelly, of the US space agency NASA, and Mikhail Kornienko, of the Russian Federal Space Agency, will spend almost an entire year aboard the station.
By spending twice as long on the ISS as usual, the astronauts will help researchers understand the effects of prolonged space flight on the human mind and body. This is important because there are plans for manned missions to Mars, which could take around 500 days of flight. Interestingly, Scott has a twin brother who has also been in space; this means that when Scott returns the researchers will be able to compare any changes in his body to that of his Earthbound twin.
Weightlessness can have profound effects on the human body. Because there’s no up or down, an astronaut’s sense of balance can become confused. Their vision may be affected slightly as their eyeballs change shape (on Earth our eyeballs are slightly flatter than a true sphere). Their muscles can atrophy (waste away because they’re not being used) if they don’t exercise enough, because there’s no gravity for them to work against. The bones lose calcium and so become weaker and more prone to breaks. By spending almost a year in space Scott and Mikhail will help researchers to discover the effects weightlessness may have over a much longer period of time.
The effect that living in such a small and confined space for so long can have on the mind is also important to discover. Researchers will examine Scott and Mikhail’s sleep patterns, stress levels and immune systems as well as how they interact with the rest of the ISS crew.
You can watch the launch of Scott and Mikhail’s rocket on NASA TV. Coverage will start at 6:30pm GMT on the 27th March, with launch scheduled for 7:42pm GMT.