February 15, 2014
Looking Forward To Another 10 Years of Science On Board The International Space Station
[ Watch the Video: ScienceCasts: 10 More Years For The International Space Station ]
April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe OnlineThe world can change in a decade, as we well know. The same is true in space. Over the last ten years, the International Space Station (ISS) has been producing results at an extraordinary rate. The unique capabilities of this under-appreciated laboratory have resulted in:
• The development of a precision robotic arm that aids in the removal of tumors from the human brain.
• The ability to start a fire without flames — an anti-intuitive technology that has applications in super-efficient auto engines.
• The counting of hundreds of thousands of anti-matter particles among normal cosmic rays, which supports the theory of dark matter.
• Atoms have been gathered into exotic forms, creating the building blocks of future smart materials.
These are just a few of the nearly miraculous advances that have been made over the last ten years, and NASA has just announced that the ISS mission has been extended another ten years.
“The accomplishments of the past 10 years are remarkable--especially considering that the space station was still under construction.” Julie Robinson, program scientist for the ISS, told Science@NASA's Dr. Tony Phillips. “Now that the station is finished, we’ve been granted at least 10 more.”
As redOrbit reported in January, the Obama Administration announced an extension of the ISS that will last until at least 2024, allowing extra time for NASA and the other participating space agencies to pursue important goals.
One of those goals is long-duration travel through deep space, and the ISS is vital. “That may sound ironic given that the space station never leaves Earth orbit,” says Robinson, “but we have determined that research on station is necessary to mitigate 21 of 32 known human-health risks associated with long duration space missions. The road to Mars leads through the ISS.”
The medical research being performed on the station for astronauts aids people at home on Earth, as well. For example, treatments in bone loss and muscle decay, along with advances in telemedicine, are among the medical advances that have trickled down to Earth from the ISS.
Over the next ten years, the astronauts will be joined by a menagerie of "model organisms" aboard the ISS for advanced life studies. These will include weeds, fruit flies and rodents, which all share surprising amounts of DNA with humans. “By studying these organisms in microgravity, we will learn a lot about ourselves,” she says.
Robinson's degree is in biology, but her favorite experiments are in the area of fundamental physics. For example, "the station’s Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer program, led by Nobel laureate Samuel Ting, is poised for breakthroughs on the nature of dark matter."
In 2016, another exciting project, the Cold Atom Lab, will launch. "We are going to create the coldest spot in the known universe inside the ISS," she says. "This will allow researchers to study exotic forms of quantum matter such as Bose-Einstein condensates."
The ISS provides a powerful platform for Earth science as well. Slated to launch in the next few years, sensors are under construction that will include instruments for hurricane forecasting, studies of the global climate, and lightning hazards. “The extension of the space station allows Earth science instruments to collect longer term datasets,” notes Robinson. “Some of our existing sensors will collect 90 percent more data during the extra decade.”
The new decade of life the extension has given to the ISS will also boost the development of homegrown commercial space programs in America. Companies such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp., which have contracts to supply cargo to the station, can now look forward to competing for future contracts. SpaceX and other companies, such as Boeing and Sierra Nevada, are interested in launching crews to the station by 2017. The day when scientists will travel to space to do their own experiments is fast becoming a reality as commercial providers provide access to Earth orbit at lower costs.