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Monday, 14 April 2008

Exoskeletons, Petar Hamilton, everyone!

In this edition:

Exoskeleton shows running, not walking, best on Moon

MIT researcher Christopher Carr demonstrates walking and running wearing an exoskeleton that simulates a pressurised spacesuit (Video: David Shiga/Sandrine Ceurstemont)
A fibreglass exoskeleton helps simulate what it is like to walk on the Moon in a pressurised space suit (Image: David Shiga)
A fibreglass exoskeleton helps simulate what it is like to walk on the Moon in a pressurised space suit (Image: David Shiga)

Future astronauts should run, not walk, across the lunar surface to conserve energy, new laboratory tests suggest. The tests were done using an MIT-built exoskeleton that mimics the experience of moving around in a spacesuit.

Astronauts move differently on the Moon than on Earth because of the Moon's weaker gravity and the constricting properties of spacesuits. So Christopher Carr and Dava Newman of MIT in Cambridge, US, have devised a way to simulate that motion in the hopes of designing better spacesuits and planning future lunar activities.

They reasoned that walking inside a pressurised spacesuit is like wearing an air-filled balloon. Like balloons, the suits resist bending and tend to want to return to their original shape, making it harder for Moon-walking astronauts to bend their legs at the knee.

So the researchers built an exoskeleton to simulate this, based on a design by another MIT scientist, Hugh Herr, who creates devices to aid people with disabilities. The exoskeleton consists of fibreglass rods that run the length of the wearer's legs and clip into modified cycling shoes.

Like a pressurised spacesuit, the exoskeleton resists bending at the knee, applying a force that tends to straighten the leg again. Intriguingly, this spring-like property makes running more efficient than walking for an exoskeleton-clad person. That's because the extra springiness helps to recover a higher percentage of the energy put into each stride while running.

The researchers believe that the same effect makes running the more efficient choice for space-suited astronauts on the Moon, something they had already suspected from watching videos of Apollo lunar missions. "The spacesuit is storing energy," Carr says, explaining that the air-filled spacesuit legs act like springs.

For the full effect of Moon walking, the laboratory Carr and Newman used for their research can also simulate lunar gravity. By tying the exoskeleton-clad person to a cord that runs up to the ceiling and is attached to a spring, the researchers can adjust the downward force to match the Moon's surface gravity, which is one-sixth that of Earth.

Journal reference: Acta Astronautica (DOI: 10.1016/j.actaastro.2007.11.007). source

My comment: What I find more interesting than running vs. walking is the exoskeleton they used for the simulation and what it could develop in . Peter Hamilton, anyone?

Silicon womb' to begin fertility trials

The 'silicon womb' compared to conventional IVF (Image: Anecova)
The 'silicon womb' compared to conventional IVF (Image: Anecova)
Detail of the silicon womb (Image: Anecova)
Detail of the silicon womb (Image: Anecova)

Trials of a "silicon womb" that holds test-tube embryos inside the womb to expose them to more natural conditions will shortly begin in the UK. Researchers say the new device may produce better quality embryos and reduce the need to harvest so many eggs from infertile women.

In standard IVF, eggs harvested from a woman are fertilised in the lab and allowed to develop in an incubator for 2 to 5 days. The healthiest embryos are chosen to be transferred into the uterus.

The new device allows embryos created in the lab to be incubated inside a perforated silicon container inserted into a woman's own womb. After a few days, the capsule is recovered and some embryos are selected for implantation in the womb (see image, top right)

Embryos incubated in the lab must have their growth medium changed every few hours to provide new nutrients and get rid of waste. The new device provides a more natural environment.

The silicon capsule is about 5 millimetres long and less than a millimetre wide. Its walls are perforated with 360 holes, each around 40 microns across. After embryos have been loaded inside, the ends are sealed and the container is connected to a flexible wire that holds the device inside the uterus (see image, lower right). A thread trails through the cervix to allow it to be recovered later on.

The device was developed by Swiss company Anecova, which has so far only conducted a small trial in Belgium.

Results were encouraging but not conclusive, says Simon Fishel, who is leading the first large-scale trial, at UK fertility group CARE Fertility, in Nottingham, UK.

Fishel says the new device could take some of the guesswork out of incubating embryos. "We don't really know the full ambient conditions of the reproductive tract," he told New Scientist. "It is also a dynamic environment that changes constantly, and we can't replicate that."

He believes embryos grown in the device will be more resilient, meaning fewer eggs may need to be harvested from women to achieve a successful pregnancy. Most IVF techniques require the woman to stimulate egg production by taking hormones, which can sometimes cause dangerous side-effects. source

My comment: I think every development in that area is cause for applauses. As a woman, I can't but hate everyone that wants to put something between my legs for other reason than the obvious, so this looks like a good way to reduce the over-all misery. And it improves the chance of getting a healthy baby, which is great.

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