Published: 
Dec 4, 2017

An Out of This World Research Lab

Every now and then when the sun sets, a bright light appears on the western horizon. Gliding silently overhead, it is the biggest spacecraft ever built by humankind, the International Space Station (ISS), carrying a precious cargo of astronauts around Earth.

 

But the ISS is more than just a bright light in the night sky. It is also an out-of-this-world research laboratory.

The interior of the ISS is furnished with laboratory equipment and chambers for experimental research. It’s not as large as some Earth-labs, but it has one thing that Earth-labs do not: microgravity.

Gravity influences everything that happens on Earth. It’s hard to envision what life would be like without this force. Yet removing the pull of gravity can be uniquely instructive.

“Reduced gravity provided by the ISS is a major attraction for researchers,” says Joseph Neigut of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX. “The weightless environment allows scientists to gain insight into basic phenomena in many fields.”

“For example,” says Neigut, “we all have seen that roots of plants grow down into the Earth. Is this because of gravity? Experiments with plants on the ISS can tell us.”

Understanding how roots grow is directly applicable to space exploration. What does NASA need to consider when designing a plant chamber for food or life support in space? Farmers on Earth are interested, too. A deep understanding of roots can help scientists design hydroponic chambers for agriculture in areas with poor soil conditions.

Since the first modules of the ISS were launched in 1998 up until 2017, more than 2400 investigations have been undertaken by over 3400 researchers in over 100 countries. Astronauts have spent more than 36,000 hours helping run the experiments for scientists back on Earth. To date, more than 1600 scientific journal and magazine articles have been published reporting the results. It’s a scientific bonanza.

There are five major research areas on the ISS: (1) Biological Sciences (such as the root experiments), (2) Physical Sciences; (3) Space Science & Fundamental Physics; (4) Human Research; and (5) Earth Science.

Neigut has favorite examples of each: “Scientists grow crystals on the station to discover new crystalline forms. Protein crystals grown in small chambers on the station reveal information that helps find new, novel ways to combat disease. The space station is also equipped with furnaces that can melt solid metals and alloys. This can reveal the metal’s crystalline structure in a new way and give greater insight into the properties of the material. While protein crystals are a biological science and metal solidification is a physical science, both are examples of how crystalline structure develops in microgravity differently than on Earth.”

“Switching over to Fundamental Physics,” he says, “there are several investigations on the ISS that examine fundamental laws of physics and continue the search for theoretical particles. The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, for instance, provides valuable data on existence of dark matter. “

Human Research is also very interesting and dynamic, helping NASA get astronauts ready for deep space exploration with many spin-off benefits for people on Earth.

Neigut notes, “Research like the Lighting Effects Study helps improve our flight teams productivity on the ISS and on the ground here in Mission Control, as well as the many American workers who work on night shift, or alternating shifts.”

“One year missions to the ISS return much information about how the human body adapts to space travel, from the genetic level to how the astronaut deals with the long term isolation within the spacecraft.”

“Not all research conducted on ISS requires reduced gravity,” he notes. “For example, the ISS is a great place to observe the Earth. The station passes over the vast majority of the Earth’s populated areas. Sensors and cameras on the ISS can contribute to disaster assistance, tracking hurricanes, measuring wind and rainfall, as well as documenting events such as volcanic activity.”

The ISS: much more than just a bright light in the night, indeed.

For more from the international space station, visit www.nasa.gov/station

For more news about science on and around the Earth, stay tuned to science.nasa.gov.