A new superhero suit may help offset bone loss in astronauts.
Even with regular exercise, an astronaut can lose 1.5 per cent of bone mass in just a month - similar to the bone loss experienced by a post-menopausal woman in a year.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists have designed a suit made of elastic material deliberately cut too short for the wearer, and has stirrups that wrap around the feet so that it stretches when the wearer puts it on.
The elasticity of the stretched material then pulls the wearer's shoulders towards their feet just as gravity would, reports New Scientist.
In normal gravity a person's legs bear more weight than the torso. The suit mimics this using vertical ribbons of inelastic material, each stitched into the suit in a series of caterpillar-like loops. The size of the loops limits how far the suit's elastic material can stretch. The more it stretches, the greater the force it exerts, so by allowing the suit's legs to stretch more than its torso the wearer's legs are subjected to the strongest force.
Members of the design team are now planning to see what happens when they wear the suits overnight. The spine elongates when it is not compressed - both when people are lying down and when they are in microgravity.
The team reasons that if the compressive force of the stretchy suit prevents sleepers' spines from elongating while they are lying flat, it should also help astronauts in space.
However, Jean Sibonga, a bone specialist at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, doesn't think it will stop bone loss entirely.
While the body's weight does play a part in maintaining bone density, she said that impacts and muscle activity play a bigger role in bone health.
The study is published in Acta Astronautica.