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  1. Science & Tech
18 June 2016updated 01 Jul 2021 11:38am

Tim Peake is coming home – what has happened to his body and brain during his time in space?

The British astronaut is set to return back to Earth this Saturday, following six months on the International Space Station.

By Hasan Chowdhury

After an enthralling 186-day experience of space travel, British astronaut Tim Peake’s mission aboard the International Space Station will come to an end today. As he touches back down on planet Earth, he will have left a spacecraft which races around the Earth in low orbit at 17,500 miles per hour, encounters sunsets at 90-minute intervals, and presents an unrivalled view of our humble planetary abode.

Peake, 44, originally from Chichester, Sussex, embarked on his European Space Program voyage to the International Space Station on 15 December 2015 – a journey that was just shy of seven hours long. He was accompanied by astronauts Yuri Malenchenko and Tim Kopra following a launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

On their return, they will climb into a capsule called Soyuz TMA-19M docked at the space station, which will then become their vessel for the next few hours as they descend to Kazakhstan, facing temperatures of up to 1,600 degrees Celsius. After deploying parachutes, they will land at an expected arrival time of 10:15 BST. Upon landing, an aircraft will take Peake and the crew to Norway, where they will then take a flight to the European Astronaut Centre near Cologne, Germany.

Throughout his time on the space station, Peake has conducted experiments to determine the impact that weightlessness in space has on the human brain and body, and the food requirements humans will need to endure a potential future trip to Mars.

During his space stay, Peake will have grown a few inches taller, as the reduced gravity stretches out the compressions of the spine. The reduced need for muscular engagement in low-gravity environments mean that his muscles will have somewhat atrophied, despite the rigorous exercise regime taken up aboard the station. Bone density will take a knock and be lowered, while changes to the cardiovascular system, including the heart, take place, with both cardiac output – the amount of blood pumped out of the heart per minute – and heart rate dropping, causing a commonly reported light-headedness amongst astronauts. On his return to earth, he will also experience issues with walking and balance, as a result of changes to the vestibular system – a mammalian sensory system which coordinates balance and movement.

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When Peake returns, he will have to go through a rigorous process of acclimatisation, one which will help him re-adjust to the strength of the Earth’s gravity. His height will eventually return to normal and he will have to take measures to redevelop skeletal and muscular endurance. Despite the fun of performing somersaults in space, a return to gravity seems to be something Peake is looking forward to. Writing on Facebook, Peake said: “I am actually looking forward to sleeping in a proper bed again and having the feeling of gravity pull me down into a comfy mattress!” 

Peake has worked hard to help the progression of scientific endeavours. His mission to the station was primarily to carry out maintenance on the station. He was involved in a spacewalk – a process that involved stepping outside the International Space Station to repair a malfunctioning electrical box of the spacecraft, a feat never carried out by a British person before. But he has also taken time out to share his experiences with his audience back on Earth. He took part in the London marathon by running the 26 miles on a treadmill in three hours 35 minutes and 21 seconds, he has eaten food made by the celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, and remote-controlled a Mars rover, on Earth, from space. There’s also a series of awe-inspiring photos that he took with his nifty Nikon D4; the photos have all been shared on social media and range from glorious shots of the northern lights to the celestial glow of Earth.

The three astronauts who left Earth in December 2015 were originally due back on 5 June, but delays with the new crew, consisting of Takuya Onishi, Anatoly Ivanishin and Kate Rubins, meant their return was pushed back. There’s currently no certainty on whether, in future, the UK will send astronauts to space. During his time in space, Peake pushed for the expansion and investment in UK space projects, highlighting through his education of children through an interactive science class just how much can be learned about our place and origins in the universe through space exploration.

As Peake comes back to his wife and two sons, reacquainting himself with the things he’s come to know and love at home, his truly extraordinary journey is a feat that will inspire and hopefully be built upon.

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