Physical Sciences Program

Overview

NASA’s Physical Science Research Program has made contributions in two distinct areas: first, fundamental research, which investigates physical phenomena in the absence of gravity and fundamental laws of the universe, and provides new knowledge of scientific value and societal benefit, and second, applied research, which contributes to the basic understanding underlying space exploration technologies such as power generation and storage, space propulsion, life support systems, and environmental monitoring and control. Both have led to improved space systems or new products on Earth.

Our core objectives include:

  • Investigate fundamental laws of physics, often using either microgravity or interplanetary distances as research tools
  • Provide mechanistic understanding of processes underlying space exploration technologies such as power generation and storage, space propulsion, life support systems, and environmental monitoring and control
  • Support the transfer of knowledge and technology of space-based research to terrestrial systems to benefit life on Earth
  • Developing cutting-edge technologies to facilitate spaceflight research
  • Promote open science through data sharing

 

The International Space Station provides the highly desired condition of long-duration microgravity, allowing continuous and interactive research similar to Earth-based laboratories, even providing statistical validity when required. The program also has benefited from research collaborations with the International Space Station partners (Russia, Europe, Japan, Canada) and individual foreign governments with space programs, such as France, Germany and Italy.

NASA’s physical science research is organized into six disciplines – Biophysics, Combustion Science, Complex Fluids, Fluid Physics, Fundamental Physics and Materials Science. Conducted in a nearly weightless environment, experiments in these disciplines reveal how physical systems respond to the near absence of buoyancy-driven convection, sedimentation or sagging. They also reveal how other forces, such as capillary forces, which are small compared to gravity, can dominate the system behavior in space. The data acquired from these investigations is stored in NASA's Physical Sciences Informatics System (PSI) and is available to the public.

If you are a researcher and interested in learning more about NASA’s Physical Sciences program, please contact Dr. Brad Carpenter for fundamental physics, and Dr. Fran Chiaramonte for all other disciplines and PSI.

The following information is a summary of the six disciplines and the PSI database.

Physical Sciences Informatics System (database)

Biophysics | Combustion Science | Complex Fluids | Fluid Physics | Fundamental Physics | Materials Science

In fulfillment of the new Open Science model, we are pleased to announce the Physical Science Informatics (PSI) data repository for physical science experiments performed on the International Space Station (ISS). The PSI system is accessible and open to the public. This provides the opportunity for researchers to data mine results from prior flight investigations, expanding on the research performed. This approach will allow numerous ground-based investigations to be conducted from one flight experiment’s data, exponentially increasing our body of knowledge. PSI also meets the President's Open Data policy. The website can be found at http://psi.nasa.gov

Biophysics

Biological Macromolecules | Biomaterials | Biological Physics | Fluids of Biology

In the International Space Station laboratory, NASA grows more perfect biological macromolecules crystals and analyzes them using a method known as diffraction. Diffraction aims beams of light or particles at the crystals and then studies the scattering pattern to determine the structure of the molecules that form them. A lack of buoyancy-driven fluid flows and sedimentation in space typically cause crystals to grow slower than they would on the ground and reduces incorporation defects allowing researchers to obtain better diffraction data. 

Combustion Science

Spacecraft Fire Safety | Droplets | Gaseous – Premixed and Non-Premixed | Solid Fuels | Supercritical Reacting Fluids

In the United States, combustion processes contribute to about 85% of delivered energy and are an integral part in many industrial fabrication processes. Combustion produces greenhouse gases and soot, which contributes to global warming and causes significant health concerns. The Combustion Science Program conducts idealized experiments on the International Space Station where the removal of gravity enables researchers to study details of the combustion processes that cannot be readily studied on the ground. The Space Station environment also provides an important test-bed for studying spacecraft fire risk.

Learn more about combustion science research at Glenn Research Center

Fluid Physics

Adiabatic Two-phase Flow | Boiling and Condensation | Capillary Flow and Interfacial Phenomena | Cryogenic Storage and Handling
Split screen showing boiling water as it appears on Earth and in microgravity.

A fluid is any material that flows in response to an applied force, therefore liquids and gases are fluids. Their motion accounts for most transport and mixing in natural and man-made processes and within all living organisms. Fluid physics is the study of liquid and gas motion and the associated transport of mass, momentum and energy. The need to better understand fluid behavior has created a multidisciplinary research community whose ongoing vitality is marked by the continuous emergence of new fields in basic and applied science. The International Space Station’s low-gravity environment offers a unique place to study fluid physics and transport phenomena. Nearly weightless conditions allow researchers to observe and control fluid phenomena in ways not possible on Earth. Research areas include adiabatic two phase flows, flow boiling and condensation, capillary flows and interfacial phenomena, and flows related to cryogenic systems.

Learn more about fluid physics research at Glenn Research Center

Complex Fluids

Colloids | Liquid Crystals | Foams | Gels | Granular Flows

The Microgravity Complex Fluids Research Program studies binary mixtures that consist of liquid-solid, liquid-liquid or model liquid-gas phases. Research areas include colloidal systems, liquid crystals, foams, gels, emulsions and granular flows. This program includes soft condensed matter themes that span a variety of physical states that are easily deformed by thermal stresses or thermal fluctuations. In microgravity, sedimentation and convection masking effects are removed so that the interaction of the dispersed phase and the dispersion medium can be observed on a timescale not available on Earth.

Learn more about fluid physics research at Glenn Research Center 

Fundamental Physics

Space Optical/Atomic Clock | Quantum Test of Equivalence Principle | Cold Atom Physics | Critical Point Phenomena | Dusty Plasmas

The Fundamental Physics Program performs carefully designed research in space that advances our understanding of physical laws, nature's organizing principles, and how these laws and principles can be manipulated by scientists and technologies to benefit humanity on Earth and in space. NASA is developing a world-class caliber cold atom laboratory for the International Space Station that will allow scientists to study the behavior of atoms within some ten trillionths of a degree of absolute zero. NASA is also collaborating closely with European scientists and the European Space Agency in studies of an Atomic Clock Ensemble in space, on critical phenomena research aboard the CNES DECLIC-ALI facility, and in future experiments aimed at such wide-ranging fields as studies of complex plasmas in space and quantum test of the equivalence principle.

Learn more about fundamental physics research at the Jet Propulsion laboratory

Materials Science

Metals | Semiconductors | Polymers and Organics | Glasses and Ceramics | Granular Materials

The Microgravity Materials Science Program conducts experiments on the International Space Station designed to improve our understanding of materials processing and properties. This scientific understanding is then applied to Earth-based industrial processes in order to achieve better and/or less expensive materials. The Space Station provides a simplified environment to study materials since there is nearly negligible sedimentation- and buoyancy-driven convection affecting the observations. This helps scientists clarify the role of different effects on materials processes. Many of the materials science experiments will use the Open Science approach, known as Materials Lab. This approach is described in the PSI section below.

Learn more about materials research at Marshall Space Flight Center
Learn more about Materials Science Research Rack-1 on the International Space Station
Learn more about Microgravity Science Glovebox on the International Space Station