Texas A&M researchers discover the addition of fragrances to v

The astronauts return to the moon, and this time they focus on establishing the first long-term presence. Next, NASA is aiming for a trip to Mars.

With these long-duration missions ahead, new challenges will have to be met on all fronts. The moon is about 238,855 miles from Earth, but a trip to Mars for an astronaut means traveling about 140 million miles and leaving our planet for about three years. Due to this distance, the astronauts will also have to deal with a 20-minute communication delay between Earth and Mars.

While these missions and the potential for discovery are exciting, astronauts will need additional support to manage the behavioral effects of isolation, confinement, and distancing from home.

“For future long-range missions, we won’t have real-time communication or the ability to send care packages like we do now, so NASA is researching other methods to help maintain health and behavioral performance,” said Renee Abbott, a doctoral student in the aerospace engineering department at Texas A&M University.

Abbott is working with his faculty advisor, Dr. Ana Diaz Artiles, assistant professor in the department, to address this concern using virtual reality (VR). Specifically, they are investigating the effects of incorporating scents into a VR environment.

“During long-duration space missions, astronauts experience significant sensory deprivation. This can have detrimental consequences on many levels, from physiological responses to stress and isolation to decreases in behavioral health and well-being,” Diaz Artiles said. “We are creating ‘augmented’ or ‘enriched’ multi-sensory experiences that could lead to healthier individuals with improved behavioral health and performance.”

When we pick up an odor, information from those odors travels from our olfactory system to our limbic system, which is a part of the brain associated with emotional and memory processes. That’s why a scented candle can remind you of homemade cookies at Grandma’s, or a scent can evoke certain emotions.

Abbott and Diaz Artiles focus on these effects scents can have on the psychological state by creating scents in a natural VR environment. Adding scents to a VR experience has been done before, but Abbott and Diaz Artiles’ use of localized scents separates their work from previous research.

A user could walk near a river in the VR environment and not only hear the sound of rushing water, but also smell wet grass. Or if they were walking in a wooded area, they would smell the fresh smell of pine. This is accomplished by using hitboxes, which are invisible shapes in the VR environment that activate when the avatar collides with them.

“We hope that using virtual reality to bring nature to astronauts will be beneficial,” Abbott said. “On Earth, nature benefits us psychologically and physiologically, so we try to create the closest possible simulation to real nature by adding olfactory stimuli.”

While conducting their study, Abbott and Diaz Artiles measured users’ anxiety levels before and after experiencing a stressful event. The results showed that adding olfactory stimuli not only decreased users’ anxiety levels after experiencing increased stress, but also reduced their stress and anxiety levels from baseline.

A description of their study was in the August issue of the journal Acta Astronautique.

“The results indicate that the use of multisensory VR environments is a promising countermeasure to support behavioral health,” Abbott said. “We will also be looking at adding other sensory stimuli, such as temperature illusions, and how we can use this technology to create virtual care packages.”

Virtual care packages could be used to supplement astronauts’ social needs by helping them feel more connected at home. Abbott envisions, for example, that a loved one can send a recorded message and virtual flowers along with the scent of lavender and rose.

The researchers also hope to collaborate with the Navy to conduct experiments on ships for a few weeks to observe longer-term effects in a setting similar to the sensory deprivation experienced during an astronaut mission.

This research is funded by Abbott’s NASA Space Technology Graduate Research Opportunity Award, which recognizes graduate students who show significant potential to contribute to NASA’s goal of creating innovative new space technologies. for the future of the nation in the fields of science, exploration and the economy.


By Felysha Walker, Texas A&M Engineering

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