Astronauts are heading to the moon again, this time focusing on establishing the first long-term stay. After that, NASA targeted a trip to Mars.
Ahead of these long-term missions, new challenges must be considered on all fronts. The moon is about 238,855 miles from Earth, but for astronauts, a trip to Mars would mean traveling about 140 million miles and leaving Earth in about three years. Because of this distance, astronauts will face communication delays of up to 20 minutes from Earth to Mars.
While these missions and their potential for discovery are exciting, astronauts will need additional assistance in managing the behavioral effects of isolation, confinement, and distance from home.
“For future long-duration missions, we won’t have real-time communications or the ability to send care packages like we do today, so NASA is looking at other ways to help maintain behavioral health and performance,” said Renee Abbott. PhD student in Aerospace Engineering at Texas A&M University.
Abbott is working with faculty advisor Dr. Ana Diaz Artiles to solve this problem using virtual reality (VR). Specifically, they are studying the effects of integrating smells into VR environments.
“During long-duration spaceflight missions, astronauts experience significant sensory deprivation. This can have detrimental consequences on multiple levels, from physiological responses to stress to reduced behavioral health and well-being,” said Diaz Artiles. “We’re creating ‘augmented’ or ‘enriched’ multisensory experiences that can lead to healthier individuals with improved behavioral health and performance.”
When we smell, information from that smell is passed from the olfactory system to the limbic system, the part of the brain involved in emotion and memory processes. That’s why scented candles remind us of homemade cookies from grandma’s house, or perfumes can evoke certain emotions.
Abbott and Diaz Artiles focus on these effects that scents can have on psychological states by building scents into VR natural environments. Adding scents to VR experiences has been done before, but Abbott and Diaz Artiles use localized scents to differentiate their work from previous research.
Users can walk near the river in the VR environment and hear the sound of the rapids as well as smell the wet grass. Or wander through a wooded area and you’ll smell the fresh pine scent. This is done using hitboxes, which are invisible shapes in the VR environment that are activated when the avatar collides with the hitbox.
“We hope that using VR to convey nature to astronauts will help,” said Abbott. “Nature on Earth has a beneficial effect on us psychologically and physiologically, so we’re trying to create the closest simulation to real nature by adding olfactory stimulation.”
When conducting their study, Abbott and Diaz Artiles measured users’ anxiety levels before and after experiencing a stress-inducing event. The results showed that adding olfactory stimulation not only reduced users’ anxiety levels after increased stress, but also reduced stress and anxiety levels from baseline.
A description of their study was published in the August issue of the journal. Acta Astronautica.
“The results indicate that the use of multisensory VR environments is a promising measure to support behavioral health,” said Abbott. “We will also look at adding other sensory stimuli, such as temperature illusions, and using this technology to create virtual care packages.”
Virtual care packages can be used to supplement astronauts’ social needs by helping them feel more connected to home. For example, Abbott imagines that loved ones can send recorded messages and virtual flowers accompanied by lavender and rose scents.
The researchers also hope to work with the Navy to conduct experiments aboard the vessel over several weeks to observe more long-term effects in an environment similar to the sensory deprivation experienced by astronauts on missions.
This research was supported by Abbott’s NASA Space Technology Graduate Research Opportunity Award, which recognizes graduate students who demonstrate significant potential to contribute to NASA’s goal of creating innovative new space technologies for the future of the nation in science, exploration, and economics. Opportunities Award).
Felysha Walker, Texas A&M Engineering
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