International Space Station Being Used As A Technology Test Bed


The International Space Station is critically important to NASA’s future exploration missions. The orbiting outpost provides a platform to test technologies in a long-duration weightless environment; conditions which are impractical to replicate on Earth. NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate is utilizing the space station as a test bed for multiple game-changing technology demonstrations.

“The International Space Station is our national laboratory for foundational space technology development,” said Dr. Michael Gazarik, Associate Administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate. “The new technologies we fly and test on the station will help create the new capabilities needed for our Asteroid Initiative and our Evolvable Mars Campaign. The International Space Station is an innovation incubator for the advanced space technology that will get us to Mars, and beyond.”

Fluids in Weightlessness – Working in the Microgravity Environment

Fluids behave very differently in the absence of gravity. In the microgravity aboard the space station, NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate is planning to conduct two important fluids experiments this year.

The first will use soccer-ball-sized, free-flying satellites known as Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites, or “SPHERES,” in the SPHERES-Slosh experiment. During the test, two SPHERES robots will be attached to opposite ends of a metal frame holding a plastic tank with colored water. The robots will perform several maneuvers while the distribution of the water is precisely measured using a data acquisition system. The acquired data will improve our ability to predict the distribution of fluid for future exploration missions – information spacefarers can use to monitor fuel or other critical fluid levels and how the fluids interact with machines.

The second experiment is an evaluation of a critical heat transfer technology required for thermal control of future spacecraft. Future exploration missions will be performed in very challenging thermal environments. NASA’s Phase Change Material heat exchanger is designed to maintain a spacecraft temperature within an appropriate temperature range. Because these heat exchangers incorporate a multi-phase fluid, it is important to verify their performance in a microgravity environment. NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate is collaborating with the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate to develop two heat exchangers for evaluation on space station. This experiment will help mitigate a critical risk associated with the use of this technology for the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle’s future missions.

Enabling Exploration with Robotic Assistance

Forging a permanent human presence in deep space requires extra sets of “eyes” and “hands” that help and protect astronauts. NASA will use a variety of highly capable, versatile and sophisticated robots to investigate worlds beyond our own, complement the work of human astronauts and prepare the way for crewed missions to the furthest reaches of the solar system.

NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate has developed climbing legs for the space station’s robotic crew member, Robonaut 2 (R2). The new appendages will provide R2 with the mobility it needs to help with regular and repetitive tasks inside and outside the space station. The performance of these tasks will free up the crew for more critical work, including scientific research. Also in development, the technology directorate’s ISS IntraVehicular Activity free-flyer will autonomously perform several operations aboard the station, including health monitoring, inventory control and ground supervisory control. These robots will be enabled with six degrees-of-freedom navigation across the entire US segment of the station. They will be able to work seamlessly beside human crewmates. A 3D printer scheduled for launched to the space station aboard the Space-X 4 mission, developed and infused into flight testing by the technology directorate, will serve as a critical asset to the crew. The printer will demonstrate in-space manufacturing and the ability to print 3D parts in microgravity, producing on-demand replacement parts when needed.

An External Platform for Technology Demonstration

The International Space Station provides a uniquely continuous view to deep space, allowing NASA to demonstrate another promising technology required for future exploration missions. The Station Explorer for X-Ray Timing and Navigation (SEXTANT) will demonstrate use of X-ray emitting neutron stars as beacons for navigation, guiding spacecraft on their journey into deep space. These pulsars have pulse timing characteristics which enable GPS-like position determination anywhere within the solar system. This technology will lay the groundwork for long-range X-ray communications, and will be launched to the station late in 2016.

Access to Space

Access to space is a critical challenge for demonstrating advanced technologies. Already a staple in the aerospace industry, small satellites called CubeSats can be reliably and affordably deployed from space station. The small size of CubeSats allow for a viable and affordable way to use small spacecraft as platforms for testing and demonstrating technologies that might have more general applications in larger-scale spacecraft and systems. NASA’s technology directorate also is investigating the use of the space station for an advanced entry, descent, and landing technology demonstration. The location and orientation of the station can be used to provide the necessary speed and altitude required to perform important testing in this technology area, critical for success on our path to Mars. NASA is considering the execution of a high-energy reentry flight test on a four-meter inflatable decelerator. This technology would be enabling for missions involving a planetary entry.

“NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate will continue to develop technologies for demonstration aboard space station, taking advantage of the amazing capabilities it has to offer,” said Ryan Stephan, program executive for the directorate’s Game Changing Development Program. “The space station is more than a tremendous engineering marvel; it represents an ideal test bed for demonstrating the promising technologies required to enable future exploration missions.”