Scientists are trying to figure out what causes the thinning of astronauts' skin and how it could be prevented ahead of more lengthy voyages, including a manned mission to Mars. Matthew Stock reports.
Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti has just returned to Earth. Her 199-day stint on the International Space Station gave her the record for the single longest spaceflight by a woman. But during her time in space something unusual happened -- her skin got thinner. So says Professor Karsten Koenig at the University of Saarland. Using high-resolution skin imaging, he's literally getting under the skin of astronauts. (SOUNDBITE) (English) KARSTEN KONIG, PROFESSOR OF BIOPHOTONICS AND LASER TECHNOLOGY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF SAARLAND, SAYING: "NASA and ESA - the European Space Agency - came to us and asked, 'is it possible to also look in the skin of astronauts? Because we want to know if there's and ageing process going on or what kind of modifications happened to astronauts as they work for six months out in space.' Because many astronauts complain about skin problems." This scanner uses femtosecond laser pulses to scan the skin at resolution a thousand times higher than that of ultrasonic devices. Koenig believes its speed and clarity could vastly improve diagnoses in hospitals. So far, Koenig's team have scanned three astronauts - Cristoforetti, fellow Italian Luca Parmitano and Germany's Alexander Gerst. Koenig says skin physiology is different in space, leading to surprising results. (SOUNDBITE) (English) KARSTEN KONIG, PROFESSOR OF BIOPHOTONICS AND LASER TECHNOLOGY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF SAARLAND, SAYING: "And we found that the epidermis, in particular the part of the living cells, that this epidermis is shrinking... We've seen the epidermis get thinner by nearly 20 percent. And so far we have no explanation. But this happened within six months; the question is if you go to Mars they need one or two years and we don't know yet - for sure it's not so good if the epidermis gets thinner and thinner." Koenig says his team will continue their research into what causes the thinning of astronauts' skin - and how it could be prevented At more than 55 million kilometres away, astronauts face at least half a year of space travel to get to Mars -- not to mention the return journey. NASA plans to send astronauts to an asteroid in the 2020s aboard their Orion spacecraft -- a precursor to a manned mission to the Red Planet in the 2030s.