SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) — A researcher at the University of Rhode Island (URI) is working with NASA to address the health consequences that come from traveling in space.

Marie Mortreux, a metabolism and muscle biology professor, is seeking to help astronauts avoid bone and muscle weakness upon returning to Earth.

Mortreux has spent more than six years focusing on partial gravity.

“We know so much about the International Space Station and what happens in space, and yet we know so little about ‘How will the partial gravity on the moon or Mars affect our bodies?'” she said.

On Earth, according to Mortreux, normal day-to-day movements help keep bodies strong. However, due to the lack of gravity in space, the muscular, skeletal and metabolic systems can take a hit. In some cases, astronauts are unable to stand upon return.

Mortreux is leading studies funded by NASA to better understand these effects. In one study, she’s examining the impact of low gravity on rats. The subjects are fitted with special jackets and harnesses that support their limbs and simulate weightlessness.

“We have a really good model to mimic micro-gravities and one’s astronaut experience on the International Space Station,” Mortreux explained.

She’s also studying how the body’s circadian rhythms can be affected by the changes in exposure to light. One group of rats will be kept in constant light, Mortreux said, while another will be exposed to Earth-like light cycles and a third will get a six-hour phase shift of light every other day. After a week of returning to normal light exposure, the researchers will look for physiological changes like muscle quality, grip strength and resistance to fatigue.

“This promising pilot study will help assess the additive effects of circadian disturbance in animals exposed to partial gravity and will help determine the existence of sex-based differences in response to spaceflight stressors,” Mortreux said.

Mortreux also said a third study seeks to understand how long-term space flights can cause reproductive health risks in female astronauts.