What do you think happens to astronaut perceptions in weightlessness?

I was working with the film club students of Robert Thirsk High School (RTHS) this evening to shoot their second HUNCH video. HUNCH is a NASA program that provides opportunities for high school students to produce educational videos. RTHS has strong videography capabilities and a dedicated media instructor in Mr. Mike Scullion. RTHS is also the only non-American school to participate in HUNCH, producing their first video last year.

This year’s video documentary will feature the Reversible Figures payload. Reversible Figures is an experiment that was recently performed aboard the International Space Station (ISS) by six astronauts to study changes in depth perception.

Depth perception is our ability to perceive the world in three dimensions and to estimate the depth and distance away that an object is from us. Specifically, Reversible Figures studied changes in astronaut visual perception during spaceflight using simple drawings to see whether gravity plays a role in depth perception. The astronauts viewed specialized drawings called reversible figures to study this.

A reversible figure is a two-dimensional drawing of an object that we perceive in three-dimensions. A classic example of a reversible figure is Necker’s Cube – a drawing of a wireframe box that we perceive in 3-dimensions either as though the box is resting on a table, or as though it is hanging from the ceiling.

A sample of reversible figures viewed by ISS astronauts (Necker’s Cube is on the left)
A sample of reversible figures viewed by ISS astronauts (Necker’s Cube is on the left)

On Earth (i.e. in a gravity environment), reversible figures are preferentially seen one way. Most of the time when we look at Necker’s Cube, for instance, we perceive it from above as though it is resting on a table.

But the results of the ISS experiment demonstrated that perception of a 3D reversible figure is slightly altered in weightlessness. It is important for astronauts to be aware of this finding when performing tasks for which depth perception is critical.

For example, when operating the Canadarm2 robotic arm, I took great care not to inadvertently collide the arm with nearby space station structure. Puncturing a hole in the hull of a station module would ruin my day (and the day of my crewmates)! However, my view of the Canadarm2 was usually via cameras mounted on the outside of the station. The camera image relayed to an onboard video monitor was only two-dimensional.

Operations aboard the ISS can get complicated. Don't break anything or hurt anyone with the robotic arms!
Operations aboard the ISS can get complicated. Don’t break anything or hurt anyone with the robotic arms!

Before confidently moving the arm, I needed to have an accurate three-dimensional mental impression of the arm’s position in space. But when viewing a single monitor image, could I say with certainty that the elbow of the robot arm was swinging away from or toward structure? The difference in direction could be critical.

Therefore my practice was to look at a second monitor view of the arm from a different outside camera to confirm the true 3D orientation of the robot arm and to confirm that it was indeed moving away from station structure.

The Robotic Workstation aboard the ISS from which the Canadarm2 is controlled by astronauts.
The Robotic Workstation aboard the ISS from which the Canadarm2 is controlled by astronauts.

Question for you: how do you think the six astronaut subjects’ perception of 3D reversible figures was altered? How did they perceive Necker’s Cube during spaceflight? Use the comments section below to suggest what you think happens to astronaut perceptions in weightlessness. I’ll send a signed photo to the person who comes up with the closest correct answer. And I’ll report the experiment’s exact findings in a future blog entry.


 More about Robert Thirsk High School

Opening its doors in 2013, the naming of Robert Thirsk High School (RTHS) by the Calgary Board of Education was an unexpected honour for me.

It was unexpected because if I’ve achieved anything in my career, Calgary public schools should take much of the credit. I fondly remember many of my teachers and coaches who inspired and supported me when I was a student at R.T. Alderman and Lord Beaverbrook schools. I recall several eureka moments in classrooms and gymnasiums when I finally grasped a new concept or skill. In a sense, my Calgary teachers built the launch pad under the dreams that propelled me into space.

The principal of RTHS, Ms. Christine Meaden, offers me opportunities to remain engaged with the students. I visit the school often and so far this academic year I have participated in a debate, a film festival and a leadership seminar. How fulfilling!

Winners and judges of the 2015 Rising Star Film Festival at Robert Thirsk High School.
Winners and judges of the 2015 Rising Star Film Festival at Robert Thirsk High School.

Having a school in Calgary named after me is an honour that I will always cherish. I hope that I can instill a love of learning and guide the students in their post-secondary educational plans. Production of educational videos is a tangible means for RTHS to support the spaceflight program. And collaborating with a world-class organization like NASA is a boost to the students’ pride and self-esteem.

1 Comment

  1. Alina Kunitskaya

    I am mostly guessing on this, but I would expect astronauts in the study to perceive the Necker’s Cube as though it is hanging from the ceiling. As far as I know, most people on Earth perceive it as though it is resting on the table and one possible explanation is that we tend to look at objects from above more. During spaceflight, on the other hand, there is no way of telling what is up and what is down, so it might change astronaut’s perception of the Necker’s Cube. I would also expect the dimensions of the reversible figures to be perceived differently. Since depth perception and size of the objects seem to be related (objects that appear further away would likely appear smaller than they are), I would expect size perception to be altered in microgravity environment if depth perception is altered. I am guessing vertical dimensions would appear smaller and horizontal dimensions would appear larger.

    I look forward to reading about experiment’s findings!
    Alina

    Reply

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