The heart of an astronaut is a much-studied thing. Scientists have analyzed its blood flow, rhythms, atrophy and, through journal studies, even matters of the heart. But for the first time, researchers are looking at how oxidative stress and inflammation caused by the conditions of space flight affect those hearts for up to five years after astronauts fly on the International Space Station. Lessons learned may help improve cardiovascular health on Earth as well.

Oxidative stress reflects an imbalance in the body’s ability to handle toxic byproducts from normal, oxygen-consuming cell metabolism. This imbalance produces peroxides and free radicals, which contribute to a number of degenerative conditions. Evidence indicates that oxidative stress and resulting inflammation can accelerate the development of atherosclerosis, a disease in which plaque builds up inside arteries. This disease can lead to heart attacks and strokes.

For this investigation, called Cardio Ox, researchers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston will look at the function and structure of arteries along with specific biomarkers in the blood and urine that indicate inflammation and oxidative stress. These biological samples will be taken from astronauts before their launch, 15 and 60 days after launch, 15 days before returning to Earth, and within days after landing.