Microgravity, the type that exists in the weightless environment on an orbiting spacecraft such as the International Space Station (ISS), has always been dangerous to human health.

It causes the muscles and bones of astronauts to atrophy, triggers vision problems, alters DNA and damages their immune system. On a much deeper level, microgravity or zero gravity can cause changes in human cells that look similar to accelerated aging and disease processes, said NASA.

Only after scientists can figure out how to greatly mitigate the deleterious effects microgravity has on the human body will long interplanetary voyages to planets past Mars inside our solar system be possible. As another step towards defeating the challenges posed by microgravity, scientists this week sent a technology called "tissue chips" containing cells from human organs to the ISS via the Cargo Dragon spacecraft of SpaceX.

The crew aboard the ISS will study these chips, which simulate how normal cells behave. The studies will enable scientists on Earth to learn more about how to keep astronauts healthy during long-term space travel.

NASA said each tissue chip is designed to mimic a different part of the human body. It’s delivered a whole host of cells to the ISS, including kidney cells, lung cells, bone cells and the blood-brain barrier.

As part of the investigation, a fluid that mimics blood that can contain drugs or toxins will pass through the chips. Using the tissue chips means scientists will be able to look at how a few weeks in microgravity affects human cells, instead of having to spend months on a similar experiment back on Earth.

NASA said the study will eventually enable researchers to learn more about how to keep astronauts healthy during long-term space travel to other planets in our solar system. It noted that changes that normally take place over a few months on Earth take mere weeks in space. This rapid aging is thought to be related to caps called telomeres at the end of chromosomes in our cells. Telomeres help protect our DNA from damage.

Telomeres shrink as we age or experience stress. Scientists think telomeres should change in length while you're in space from other stressors such as cosmic radiation and zero gravity. By sending teleomeres to the ISS, scientists will also be able to explore the effects of new drugs on diseases at a faster rate.

International Space Station
The International Space Station is cleaner than your bathroom. Pixabay Public Domain