Astronauts are heading to the moon, and this time they’re focused on establishing the first long-term existence. Next, NASA set its sights on a trip to Mars.
With these long-term tasks ahead, new challenges must be considered on all fronts. The Moon is about 238,855 miles from Earth, but an astronaut’s trip to Mars means traveling about 140 million miles and leaving our planet for about three years. Because of this distance, astronauts will also experience a delay of up to 20 minutes in communication from Earth to Mars.
While these missions and the potential for discovery are exciting, astronauts will need additional support in managing the behavioral effects of isolation, confinement, and distance from home.
“For future, long-term missions, we won’t have real-time communication or the ability to send care packages like we do now, so NASA is looking for other ways to help maintain behavioral health and performance,” said Renee Abbott. PhD student in the Department of Aeronautical Engineering at Texas A&M University.
Abbott is working with faculty advisor Ana Diaz Artiles, assistant professor in the department, to address this concern using virtual reality (VR). Specifically, they are studying the effects of incorporating odors into a virtual reality environment.
“During long-term spaceflight, astronauts experience significant sensory deprivation. This can have harmful consequences on multiple levels, from physiological responses to stress and isolation to deterioration in behavioral health and wellness,” said Diaz-Artilles. “We create multisensory experiences.” ‘fortified’ or ‘enriched’ can lead to healthier individuals with improved behavioral health and performance.”
When we ingest a scent, information from those scents travels from our olfactory system to our limbic system, which is a part of the brain associated with emotional processes and memory. That’s why a scented candle can remind you of homemade cookies at Grandma’s house, or a fragrance can evoke some emotion.
Abbott and Diaz Artiles focus on the effects that scents can have on psychological state by constructing scents into a natural environment for virtual reality. Smells have been added to a VR experience before, but Abbott and Diaz Artiles’ use of local scents separates their work from previous research.
The user can walk near the river in a virtual reality environment and not only hear the sound of flowing water but also smell the wet grass. Or if they wander into a wooded area, they smell the fresh scent of pine. This is accomplished using Hitboxes, which are invisible shapes in the VR environment that activate when an avatar collides with them.
“We hope that using virtual reality to communicate nature to astronauts will be beneficial,” Abbott said. “On Earth, nature has beneficial effects for us both psychologically and physiologically, so we’re trying to create the closest simulation of real-world nature that we can by adding olfactory stimuli.”
When conducting their study, Abbott and Diaz Artiles measured the users’ anxiety levels before and after exposure to a stress-inducing event. The results showed that the addition of olfactory cues not only reduced the users’ anxiety levels after experiencing increased stress but also reduced their stress and anxiety levels from baseline.
Their study was described in the August issue of the journal space acta.
“The results suggest that the use of multisensory virtual reality environments is a promising countermeasure to support behavioral health,” said Abbott. “We will also look at adding other sensory stimuli, such as illusions of temperature, and how we can use 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. Abbott envisions, for example, that a loved one can send a recorded message and virtual flowers accompanied by the scent of lavender and rose.
The researchers also hope to collaborate with the Navy to run experiments on the ships over a few weeks to observe more long-term effects in an environment similar to the sensory deprivation experienced by astronauts.
This research is funded by the NASA Space Technology Graduate Research Opportunities NASA Award, which honors graduate students who demonstrate significant potential to contribute to NASA’s goal of creating innovative new space technologies for the nation’s future in science, exploration, and economics.