Living for prolonged periods inside the weightless environment of a spacecraft such as the International Space Station encircling the Earth at an altitude of some 400 km not only isn’t healthy, but it is aso downright dangerous to an astronaut’s health.

That’s why astronauts and cosmonauts aboard the ISS have their tours of duty limited to anywhere from three to four months. Venturing into outer space, which normally means low Earth orbit (LEO), exposes the human body to a host of medical problems.

Significant adverse effects of long-term weightlessness and radiation exposure include muscle atrophy and deterioration of the skeleton (also called spaceflight osteopenia). Other adverse effects include a slowing of cardiovascular system functions, decreased production of red blood cells, balance disorders, eyesight disorders, changes in the immune system, loss of body mass, sleep disturbance and excess flatulence.

A trip to Mars, the first of which is contemplated to happen by the 2030s, will take nine months at its longest. Scientists have got to find a way to protect the health of astronauts so they remain almost as healthy when they get to Mars as they were when they left the Earth.

That’s a pretty tall order and many experiments aboard the ISS are tackling this thorny challenge. One of the newest is the NANO Antioxidant experiment, which arrived at the ISS on May 6.

Developed by Italian scientists, the NANO experiment will test “nanoceria” as antioxidant agents under conditions of microgravity. The goal of the experiment is to counteract the detrimental effects of microgravity-induced oxidative stress, said the European Space Agency (ESA).

Nanoceria are microscopic ceramic particles embedded into living cells that simulate the effects of biological enzymes inside of living creatures. They battle the effects of oxidative stress that cause all sorts of problems in the body. Nanoceria can also protect organisms.

A team of experts in Italy spent years tailoring tiny inorganic materials and analyzing their behavior. Some nanoceria have magnetic properties while others are able to give electrical stimuli. Nanoceria are chemically designed in a laboratory and can display powerful antioxidant activity.

A nanoceria is mimicking the biological activity of enzymes in living organisms
A nanoceria is mimicking the biological activity of enzymes in living organisms. The nanoparticles are highlighted in fluorescent green, while the nucleus of each cell is shown in blue. ESA

Oxidative stress can cause cell damage and is a natural part of the aging process. The most common way of tackling the problem is by taking antioxidants that can prevent or, at the very least, slow down cell damage.

“These nanomaterials chemically designed in our lab are very promising for their antioxidant activity,” said Gianni Ciofani, of the Italian Institute of Technology. “The particles can protect organisms from the damage caused by oxidative stress.”

This innovative solution will support deep space exploration and might result in novel therapeutic approaches to a number of diseases affecting people on Earth. Nanoceria might also be the key to fighting back diabetes, heart failure and living a longer and healthier life.