Published: 
Dec 6, 2019

Making Space for Technology Development

The International Space Station (ISS) is Earth’s only orbiting laboratory. That’s important because it not only allows us to conduct research that benefits all of us on Earth, it also provides the only microgravity environment in which we can test technologies critical to our deep-space exploration in the near and far-term future. Here, engineering models can be validated, and new technologies and systems for future missions can be demonstrated, without risk to crew members.  

 

Historically, the Mercury program enabled the Gemini program which, in turn, enabled the Apollo program through technology and systems advancements. Today, the space station is giving us a similar experience in long-duration spacecraft operations, and serving as a test bed for new technologies and upgraded vehicle systems, which are enabling future missions.

Dave Hornyak is NASA’s ISS Technology Demonstration Research Portfolio Manager. He notes: “The ISS lets us demonstrate that a technology works as intended in a spacecraft environment. Demonstrations on the space station inform operators and flight crews how the system operates, proves interoperability with other systems and demonstrates system safety and reliability.”

There are many technologies and capabilities that need to be developed as we move forward to the Moon and on to Mars. For example, researchers have recently tested a new design of solar array that will be used on the first module for the Deep Space Gateway – our future space station that will serve as a home base for astronaut expeditions to the Moon. Solar arrays in operation right now need to unfold before becoming active. But new designs allow future solar arrays to roll out, and also retract. They were tested for strength and durability on the ISS, and were designed to be more compact than current rigid panels. 

NASA’s Orion Multi-purpose Crew Vehicle is a four-person exploration craft designed to take astronauts farther in space than anyone has gone before. Its backup navigation system uses a new technology that is optically based. It captures images of the Moon or Earth, and based on their size and angle, an algorithm determines Orion’s location. These optics can’t be tested on Earth because our atmosphere would distort the images enough to make the algorithm inaccurate. Aboard the ISS however, the algorithm was confirmed to work properly. A secondary benefit is the system was tested at spacecraft speed, making for a realistic navigation scenario. 

As people travel deeper into space, they’ll need solutions to a variety of safety challenges. For instance, if a fire breaks out, how fast can it grow and spread in a micro-gravity environment? NASA’s Spacecraft Fire Safety (SAFFIRE) program has already conducted a series of experiments on 3 ISS cargo vehicles to measure flame growth, oxygen use and combustion products. Results are helping to improve spacecraft fire detection, response and extinguishment, and crew protection.

“Ultimately”, says Hornyak, “Technology and operations demonstrations occurring on the ISS today are guiding our planning, reducing risk, and providing capabilities to enable future exploration missions.”   

For more inside information about the tech being tested aboard the station, visit www.nasa.gov/iss-science

For more on the science of space exploration, visit science.nasa.gov

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