Space Station Extension Expands Research Horizons
April Flowers for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
For nearly everything on Earth, a little room to grow can make all the difference. That is true in space, as well. The Obama Administration has announced support for extending the International Space Station‘s (ISS) mission to 2024, giving the project room to flourish. The extra decade will allow the ISS to continue its already fruitful microgravity research mission — offering scientists and engineers the time needed to ensure the future of exploration, scientific discoveries and economic development.
As NASA Administrator Charles Bolden stated in a January 8 blog post, “The [space station] is a unique facility that offers enormous scientific and societal benefits. The Obama Administration’s decision to extend its life until at least 2024 will allow us to maximize its potential, deliver critical benefits to our nation and the world, and maintain American leadership in space.”
By prolonging the testing timeframe for essential technologies related to long-duration journeys, the extension will provide more traction for space exploration — such as to an asteroid or Mars. Designs for future spacecraft will be refined by the optimization of systems like the Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS).
“I really see the space station as the first step in exploration,” NASA Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier told Jessica Nimon of International Space Station Program Science Office. “It is gaining us operational experience in a distant location, well beyond the Earth, at 75,000 km off the surface of the moon. Those are the kind of experience, technology and hardware that we need to go to Mars, so all that feeds forward.”
ISS researchers are showing that space exploration is hardly limited to space travel with microgravity research. The next decade will allow those scientists time for research planning and to make the most of facilities being built today. The ready-to-use suite of facilities already aboard the ISS opens opportunities to run studies that will include extended chances for follow-up investigations — enabling results from station science not formerly possible and increasing the collective knowledge in various disciplines. The impact of science results typically emerge over a five to ten year period, making this an attractive incentive for new researchers.
“For 14 years, the space station has had a continuous human presence, allowing breakthroughs in science and technology not possible on Earth,” said Sam Scimemi, NASA’s International Space Station director. “The ability to extend our window of discovery through at least 2024 presents important new opportunities to develop the tools we need for future missions to deep space while reaping large benefits for humanity.”
A wide variety of investigations will begin, continue and complete over the next ten years in orbit—from advancements in astrophysics from the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) and the Monitor of All-sky X-ray Image (MAXI) to climate studies using the Earth remote sensing instruments, which can also assist with disaster recovery efforts.
Researchers also anticipate developments from the upcoming 1-year mission and biology studies, such as T-Cell Act in Aging, which will help people with related health concerns on Earth as well as the scientists. There will be favorable advances for industries as well, with applications to fundamental physics investigations, such as microgravity fluid physics and combustion tests.
“Humankind has never had laboratory capabilities like these—where gravity can be controlled as a variable,” said International Space Station Chief Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D. “The extension of the space station to at least 2024 gives scientists what we need: time to build the experiments and theories that could come from nowhere else.”
Low Earth orbit can now be transitioned from exclusive to accessible now that commercial cargo vehicles are regularly serving the space station. The extension provides business opportunities and growth for companies that can provide cargo to the ISS, which will allow them to expand and compete on a new level — driving down costs per visit. Eventually these costs will improve access to orbit without a NASA-maintained laboratory. Global economies will be affected by the expansion of international interests, meaning new jobs, technologies and the possible creation of new markets.
“Commercial use of the space station is growing for research and development each year. Other government agencies, such as NSF and NIH also are funding scientists to use the laboratory,” said Robinson. “Space agency funding is enabling a much larger set of innovative research ideas from the private sector that will transform the way we see orbit.”
The extension demonstrates a belief in the continued potential of the ISS, and a recognition of the growing benefits to be reaped from it. Even as the buzz from this announcement is just starting, NASA is pushing the conversation forward with international partnership talks and the possibility for space station life beyond 2024.
“We’ve talked to our partners about this,” said Gerstenmaier. “They want to go forward with this. It’s just working through the government approval, through their individual groups to get to where they need to be.”
The ISS provides the world’s scientists with the opportunity to perform microgravity research in important areas of study, understand the Earth from climate and global perspectives, and figure out how to survive in the harsh, but necessary environment of space. Our lives have already been enriched by benefits from the station, and continuing missions to low Earth orbit and beyond will enrich our future.
“If we as a species are going to get off the Earth…we are going to have to use this small foothold called the International Space Station to go do that,” said Gerstenmaier. “This is our only opportunity to really move forward in this manner. So that should be our focus going forward, is how can we optimize and maximize the use of what we’ve got from this facility.”