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An Estonian-made device is monitoring the life of astronauts

The International Space Station (ISS) got an addition this spring with a new groundbreaking device – MyotonPRO. The device was transported to the ISS with the help of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and the spacecraft Dragon CRS-14.

MyotonPRO is meant to better understand muscle physiology by measuring muscle tissues in space. Due to lack of suitable devices, the measurements in question had never been tried in space before. MyotonPRO is produced by the Estonian company Myoton. It took the company over ten years to take the device into space.

Road to space, test after test

The beginnings of the device can be traced back to 1976. Many years and iterations later, the formal road to space began for Myoton in 1999 when the company was founded as a spin-off from the University of Tartu. The founder of the company, Arved Vain, saw solutions for the assessment of tone and biomechanical properties of skeletal muscles.

Vain and his business partners came up with a way to measure muscles in a non-invasive way. After Vain left the company, it has been run by CEO Aleko Peipsi.

MyotonPRO has passed several validation and feasibility studies in a variety of medical applications in leading clinics and scientific institutions around the world.

Before knocking on the door of the European Space Agency (ESA), the muscle tone meter was successfully tested on Earth with the help of athletes. In 2011 and 2013, the device was tested in parabolic flights in cooperation with the ESA. By 2015, the ESA, Roscosmos, NASA and other space agencies green-lit the idea to test it out in the ISS.

To get the go-ahead from the agencies, the device went through rigorous testing with two groups of twelve people. All of the participants were strapped to beds for sixty days at a 6-degree angle with the toes tiltered higher than the head. One of the groups was allowed to do minimal physical exercise, while the others were nearly immobile. After such a long period of not moving, the muscles tend to be in a state of relaxation, which means the participants had to learn to walk again. The groups were monitored for fourteen days after the test. The test in question was initiated by the German Aerospace Center. All throughout the test, MyotonPRO was used to monitor the state of the participants’ muscles.

After the test, the device still needed to go through different committees and commissions that deliberate on thousands of ideas. During the last hurdle, MyotonPRO was stripped to its guts, all of its interior was examined to assess the safety of the device for the astronauts.

Even after all of that there was still one last obstacle left. MyotonPRO had to be approved by the astronauts who were going to use the device in the ISS. Fortunately for the company, and for Estonia in general, the device got the go-ahead.

Historic moment for Estonia

Getting the MyotonPRO up to the ISS has been a historic moment for Estonia. It is the first Estonian-made hardware device in the ISS. For that we can thank the ESA, which was established in 1975, a time when Estonia was still occupied by the Soviet Union. Estonia joined the ESA, headquartered in Paris, on the 4th of February 2015; there are 22 member states in total.

Even though space is a place for big business, the ESA has opened doors for small companies and states just like Myoton and Estonia. The ESA has multiple programmes and initiatives to encourage small companies and universities to participate in the advancement of Europe in space. One of those is the ESA Business Incubation Center (BIC) Estonia which is looking for startup companies interested in 50 000 euro worth of development support.

ESA BIC Estonia was founded in the autumn of 2017 and now it is on its fourth campaign, due to close on the 8th of November 2018.

With previous campaigns, they helped out companies working with drones, satellites, miniature portable wireless vacuum chamber cameras and even a service to make access to space more affordable.

MyotonPRO is a unique device

The smartphone sized device is being used by ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst and NASA astronaut Jeanette Epps, Gerst being the test subject and Epps the one taking the measurements.

Our muscles are always slightly contracted. This is how we can move, maintain posture and respond to sudden movements. Our muscles maintain themselves by constantly changing in tension and stiffness so that when they are suddenly stretched or pulled they can establish balance and reduce damage.

As humans evolved on Earth, our muscles adapted to the conditions here. It’s a whole different story in space, or more accurately in weightlessness, where muscles lose functionality and mass. To maintain good health and prevent muscles wasting away, the astronauts exercise for at least two hours a day. The described phenomenon has been well studied, but the studies have not focused on resting muscle tone.

Thanks to MyotonPRO, researchers can get a better understanding of these complicated machines that we run 24 hours and 7 days a week, even in conditions they are not meant by nature to inhabit.

To get the readings, MyotonPRO emits a painless pressure pulse and records how the tissue responds. The results will be compared to the ones taken earlier on Earth.

The device will stay in the ISS for several years, it will be tested with twelve different astronauts and on ten different muscles three to four times a day.

MyotonPRO is not only meant for astronauts. It can be used on patients diagnosed with muscle degeneration and on athletes, load-carrying workers, the bed-ridden and the elderly.

In a brief interview, Myoton CEO Peipsi told Life in Estonia that the first results will be published five years from the start of the test. He reassured that there have not been any anomalies with the device in space. According to him there is no other company in the world developing the same sort of device.

Elon Musk has nothing on us, we too will rock our stereos in space

Estonians are no strangers to space and space technology. Two of the most known projects in the works right now are TTÜ100 and ESTCube-2 satellites, the latter having run a successful crowdfunding campaign to raise money for the project in the sum of 38 743 euros.

ESTCube’s aim is to test out the interplanetary propulsion system electric solar wind sail (E-sail), advanced satellite subsystem solutions, and to demonstrate plasma brakes.

As a result of its predecessor the ESTCube-1, over 30 Bachelor theses and over 20 Masters theses were defended, 50 presentations made, 14 scientific articles published and 4 spin-off companies created. In addition, the satellite managed to capture 300 photographs from space.

To celebrate 100 years of the Republic of Estonia and 100 years from the founding of Tallinn University of Technology, the university has been developing its own small satellite called TTÜ100.

Along with all of the scientific and technological advancements, TTÜ100 will join Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster car in space, which was famously programmed to continuously loop the David Bowie song ‘Space Oddity’. Through a public vote it was decided that the TTÜ100 satellite will play the composer Peep Sarapik’s famous choral piece “It flies to the hive” (orig. “Ta lendab mesipuu poole”– ed). The song to be sent into space was recorded at the XII Youth Song Celebration in 2017. It will be recorded into the memory of the satellites EstCube-2 and TTÜ100 and flown into space in 2018 and 2019.

Because there is no vacuum in space, soundwaves can’t travel there, which means no human or alien can ever hear these songs. To combat that, Tallinn University of Technology is building satellite receivers in schools all around Estonia so the students can listen to the song that is being transmitted from space. Hopefully, some of the students will get a creative calling for space and end up being the first humans on Mars. TTÜ100 is slated for launch this year and ESTCube-2 for 2019.

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