Skin-tight space suits 'support astronauts' bones'
Scientists have developed a skin-tight spacesuit to try to stop astronauts' spines expanding.
They hope the lightweight elastic material will mimic the force of gravity on the body.
Astronauts' spines can lengthen by up to 7cm (3in) with no gravity to compress the bones, painfully pulling on muscles and nerves.
Using designs by MIT, scientists at King's College London are refining the tailor-made suits for testing in space.
As astronauts' bones and muscles do less work to keep them upright once they experience weightlessness, they can also start to waste away.
All these factors can make them more likely to experience long-term back and other health problems on return to Earth.
The researchers say these issues are likely to pose an even greater challenge on extended missions such as proposed journeys to Mars.
Dr David Green, senior lecturer of human and aerospace physiology at King's College London, who is working on the suit, told the BBC: "When man takes the first small step on Mars, there is a strong possibility the space traveller could end up with a broken hip."
Italian and American tailors worked with the international team of scientists to make skin suits composed of multiple layers of elastic material.
The material is woven in two directions, in a way that gradually produces more tension, squeezing the body from shoulder to feet.
European Space Agency astronaut Andreas Mogensen will be the first to wear the suit in space during his mission in 2015.Penguin suit
And Dr Green says if it is given it the nod of approval on that mission, UK astronaut Tim Peake could wear the suit on his mission to the international space station later that year.
Making skin suits to help astronauts counteract microgravity is not new - Russian scientists came up with the Pingvin or penguin suit in 1991.
But scientists have been attempting to make new suits to better mimic gravity and that are more comfortable to wear.
Like the Pingvin suits, Dr Green hopes the new skin suit may have therapeutic uses on Earth.
Modified Pingvin suits have been used to help support and maintain the posture and limbs of people with movement problems, including children with cerebral palsy.
The researchers say the suit may one day benefit people who are bedbound.
Dr Jerry Nolan, intensive care specialist at Royal United Hospital Bath, who was not involved in the research, said: "Studies have shown that critically ill patients can lose up to 15% of their muscle mass by the end of their first week in intensive care. Anything that helps to reduce this may have a positive impact on this group of patients.
"There would be a number of things that would need to be ironed out. The obvious potential problem is getting access to the patient for nursing care."