Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques may be a new arrival at the International Space Station, but his first space flight experience has provided scientists with a key data point in their effort to understand how the brain produces a sense of orientation and movement.
On Monday, around 5 pm, Dr. Saint-Jacques attempted a new series of perceptual experiments designed by Lauren Harris, professor of the Human Performance Laboratory at York University in Toronto.
After visiting Columbus's science module, Dr. Saint-Jacques put on his glasses and immersed himself in a virtual reality environment to see how his brain was determining what the way was up and how far the objects were in the distance. On Earth, the visual signals provided by the experiment are combined with inner ear signals, also known as the vestibular system that warns the brain when the body is accelerating or leaning relative to the force of gravity.
Read more: Inside David Saint-Jacques run into orbit
In a zero-space space environment, the vestibular system is efficiently out of service, allowing scientists to focus on how the visual system can lead to the brain being able to lead or implement in its decisions. The work is focused on the quantitative exploration of some perceptual effects that astronauts have previously said they can experience the universe, including the feeling that distances are compressed as they appear on Earth.
Doctor Saint-Jacques and his American crew Anne McClain did this experiment less than three days after arriving at the station.
"We wanted to get them sooner than they were too used to being in the universe," said Dr. Harris, who contacted Dr. Saint-Jacques during the experiment through the Canadian Space Agency control center near Montreal.
Finally, Dr. Harris and his team are trying to participate in the study of seven astronauts before, during and after time in space. In addition to helping astronauts adapt their perceptions to the station, the results can explain how to better assist those who have vestibular problems on the Earth due to injuries or neurological disorders.
Dr. Harris said he was pleased with how Dr. Saint Jacques dealt with the requirements of the experiment.
"Under all circumstances, it really does really well … I'm certainly better off doing it after I was running into space a few days ago."