Science on the International Space Station – What’s the Point?
Credit: NASA

Science on the International Space Station – What’s the Point?

21/09/2016Written by Shumina Uddin

Our guest blogger explores three key space experiments that could greatly improve life here on Earth.

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After years of preparation, training, and hard work, what do NASA astronauts actually do on the International Space Station (ISS)?

The ISS is a low-orbit satellite that acts as a home, observatory, and potential base for future space missions. The microgravity conditions make for a unique research laboratory where the astronauts undertake hundreds of experiments in a range of scientific disciplines.

Three of these ongoing experiments are particularly exciting for their diversity and potential to improve our lives back on Earth:

Space Mice

Space Mice
Image Credit: NASA

Exposure to radiation from the Sun is a major concern for astronauts in space.

NASA is investigating the effect that radiation has on the human body by sending frozen mouse embryos to the ISS. The embryos are subjected to space radiation for a long period of time. Once they are brought back to Earth, they will be thawed, implanted in surrogate mothers, and observed for their lifetimes. These ‘space mice’ will be examined against a control group, the ‘Earth mice’, focusing on their lifespans, gene mutations, and checked for any cancer developments.

The research is also useful as an investigation into cancer treatments. This is because space radiation consists of high energy particles from the Sun and from deep space, and these types of particles are currently used in cancer treatments. The results will help determine whether or not cancer patients are at risk of developing secondary cancer.


Robonaut 2

Robonaut 2
Image Credit: NASA

NASA’s development of the Robonaut, a humanoid robot, began back in 2000. The latest version is Robonaut 2 and comes equipped with arms, hands and even fingers.

These ‘body parts’ enable it to perform simple tasks such as flipping switches, installing handrails, and removing dust covers. Currently, NASA is testing Robonaut 2 on the ISS, and assuming these tests go well, similar robots could be taken along on spacewalks. A major advantage to the Robonaut is its ability to work in dangerous situations that would be too risky for humans.

For this innovative project, NASA has teamed with scientists and engineers from the vehicles company, General Motors. The advancements in control, vision, and sensor technology could help General Motors create better safety systems for vehicles here on Earth.

Gecko Gripper

Image Credit: NASA/JPL

Image Credit: NASA/JPL

This study looks at geckos and their remarkable ability to stick onto vertical surfaces without falling. The Gecko Gripper is a device with an adhesive that mimics the grip of a gecko’s toepads – the grip is formed due to millions of hairs on the toepads creating a large contact area between the toes and the surface.

These adhesives do not damage surfaces or leave any residue and, like a gecko, the function can be used multiple times. The stickiness can also be turned on or off whenever needed.

These properties are ideal for many different space applications. For instance, robots working on the outside of the ISS could use Gecko Grippers to crawl around its surface, minimising danger to humans.

In the future, small spacecraft could use this grip technology to dock onto targeted locations in order to perform services, reducing launch and development costs.

In the case of incoming orbital debris, astronauts will have to evacuate the ISS. This technology could be used to grapple the largest pieces so they can be directed away from the spacecraft.

In addition to space applications, Gecko Grippers could be used in new military, industry, and security technologies on Earth. For example, the grippers could be used within factories to handle delicate objects such as glass.

Image Credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

These three experiments are just a few in the countless experiments currently underway on the International Space Station. Although varied, these projects all have the potential to make valuable contributions to our lives here on Earth, as well as further our ability to explore and understand our extraordinary universe.

About the Author: Shumina Uddin is a current physics student at the University of Leicester and works as a Science Interpreter at the National Space Centre.