A team of German scientists are employing advanced imaging technology to help understand one of the unusual effects of long-term space habitation — thinning skin. Led by Professor Karsten Koenig of Saarland University, the study is an offshoot of the European Space Agency's Skin B project detailing the effects of skin aging in space. According to Reuters, his team has documented three astronauts, scanning their skin cells before and after their time on the ISS using multiphoton tomography (MPT). Koenig's company JenLab, the developer of the system, claims that its femtosecond laser pulses provide a "spatial resolution a thousand times higher than that of ultrasonic devices." It also eliminates the need for lengthy biopsy processes, instead serving up results in seconds.
Among the trio of astronauts tested was Samantha Cristoforetti, who was scanned before traveling to the ISS in November 2014 and again upon return in June this year after her record-setting 199-day mission. The results showed an increase of collagen in the dermis, the lower layer of the skin, indicating a slight anti-aging effect. However, on the outer epidermal layer the skin was shrinking and in turn getting thinner by nearly 20 percent. One drawback is its increased susceptibility to dangerous radiation, affecting the area where stem cells are located and skin cancer often begins. Once back on Earth, the process is reversible, but increasingly long missions could have damaging results. Koenig is continuing the studies in hopes of curtailing this thinning skin phenomenon before astronauts are subject to more than a year's journey on NASA's Mars mission.