Sep 26, 2018

Thinking Inside the Box

Most people picture a glovebox as the small space on the passenger side of your car. But if you’re an astronaut floating 250 miles up, you might picture a large glass enclosure that allows you to conduct experiments that could change how we live both on and off Earth. 

This is the Microgravity Science Glovebox or MSG. It was installed in the International Space Station (ISS) in 2002 to allow small and medium-sized investigations from many disciplines including biotechnology, combustion science, fluid physics, fundamental physics and materials science. 

Many of these experiments can involve fluids, flames, particles and fumes that you wouldn’t want to escape into the space station’s enclosed space, where they might make the astronauts sick or damage the station’s sensitive computers and electrical systems. Instead, crewmembers install investigation hardware into the box and seal it shut. Next, they insert their hands into what’s known as a glove ring assembly to safely manipulate their experiments or samples. Glove ring assemblies are available in a variety of configurations to accommodate differences in crew member hand sizes as well as preferences in tactile response. The investigator views his or her work through an acrylic window. There’s even the capability to install a high definition camera system with a real-time video link installed inside the box to allow investigators on Earth to watch experiments being performed. 

The MSG has proven so popular over the past 16 years, that a second glovebox is being added to the station. The new model will focus exclusively on Life Sciences investigations, and is known as the Life Sciences Glovebox or LSG. This fully enclosed facility will allow crew members to perform developmental biology experiments on cells, insects, aquatics, plants, and animals.

The LSG is almost twice the size of the original MSG, and can accommodate two astronaut crew members, sometimes guided in real-time by scientists back on Earth, to conduct one or more experiments simultaneously. Safety was a paramount consideration in its design. As air circulates through the workspace, activated charcoal filters continuously clean it by absorbing chemicals that may be present. In addition, a high-efficiency air filter removes particles and aerosols. This allows the facility to provide two levels of containment for handling Biohazard Level II and lower biological materials. 

So why is it necessary to have a glovebox on station devoted to life sciences? J. Michael Cole, the deputy manager of the ISS Projects Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama explains: 

“First, exploration crew members will be in microgravity conditions for an extended period of time, and it’s important to know how that will affect their physiology and biology. The addition of LSG will supplement the ability to conduct those types of research experiments aboard the ISS. Second, Life Science experiments may give us new insights into how we treat diseases here on Earth. For instance, treatments for osteoporosis have benefitted from research performed in microgravity.“

The next time you’re asked to think outside the box, you may just want to consider one of the most unique labs ever built and think inside the box instead. 

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