It has been 20 years since the first components of the International space station (ISS) were launched from Earth. Making a turn around the planet in 90 minutes, and at a distance of 400 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, the ISS has been the cornerstone of the mission of NASA for most of the last two decades. The ISS is in orbit for a reason. Thousands of scientific experiments have been conducted at the station to help us understand life among the stars-or to understand life on Earth.
Space.com reports that the ISS has enough scientific equipment to conduct more than 250 different experiments at any given time. Below we describe the six leading scientific experiments that are currently being conducted on the space station.
Non-gravitational medium for Parkinson’s disease research
At least 10 million people live with Parkinson’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that causes low levels of dopamine in the brain and leads to symptoms such as tremor, stiffness, loss of balance and even cognitive decline. Among the famous victims of the disease — actor Michael J. Fox, whose Foundation financed the research for the study and treatment of the disease.
The Fox Foundation works with the ISS to investigate a protein produced by a mutation in a gene that may be associated with Parkinson’s disease. Drug therapy aimed at the protein LRRK2 requires additional information about its crystal structure. The absence of gravity on Board the ISS should allow the crystals to grow larger and obtain a more uniform structure, making it easier to study them on Earth using high resolution imaging technologies.
This experiment was first sent to the ISS in August 2017. The most recent replenishment mission using the Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft docked with the space station earlier this month and delivered additional equipment to improve crystal size for the second series of experiments.
Fabric chips in space
Scientists at NASA and many others have long studied the effects of microgravity on the human body. The new four-year project Tissue Chips in Space uses a slightly different approach to space research of human physiology.
Tissue chips are small chips containing human cells grown on an artificial platform to simulate the structure and functions of human tissues and organs. The idea is that scientists on the ISS can use tissue chips to better understand how microgravity affects human health and disease, and possibly apply the results on Earth. So far, five experiments have been funded, the first of which was devoted to the study of muscle atrophy in microgravity.
This programme is a collaboration between the national laboratory of the ISS and the National centre for the promotion of translation Sciences, which is part of the National Institute of health. This month, a new experiment will begin when the SpaceX CRS-16 resupply mission makes its last flight to the ISS in 2018.
Raise a glass to science
Humans cannot survive on potatoes alone when and if we reach Mars. We’ll need strategies to find food, water, and shelter on the red planet. Any balanced diet in space should probably include beer if we want to survive the long and strange journey through the Solar system.
Astronauts on Board the ISS are not going to brew beer on their own. Instead, they grow barley seeds provided by Anheuser-Busch to determine how the grain reacts under microgravity conditions. Will the seeds show genetic changes or morphological abnormalities? Let’s see.
A series of experiments is conducted with the help of Space Tango, one of the few space startups with which NASA has signed a contract to work on Board the ISS national laboratory. Grains are contained in one of the cubes-laboratories the size of a Shoe box. The experiments are expected to be completed by April 2019.
Processing in space
Another space startup-Made in Space — hit the headlines a few years ago when it sent the first 3D printer to the ISS. This gave astronauts the ability to make parts without making a 400-kilometer journey to Earth.
Now the ISS is testing a new device called Refabricator, the first integrated 3D printer and processor on Board the space station. Refabricator recycles plastic waste into high quality 3D printer filament, providing material for repair during long missions.
This tool is manufactured by Tethers Unlimited, which is one of several commercial enterprises developing additive manufacturing in space for large structures like satellites. Made in Space, for example, is developing an Archinaut system that can autonomously assemble satellites or other devices. It is expected that this technology will reduce the cost of launching equipment into space.
Cancer research in space
Parkinson’s is not the only disease astronauts investigate. Numerous experiments on cancer research are being conducted at the ISS, including studies of protein crystallization similar to those conducted by the Michael J. Foundation. Fox’s.
In addition, the Mayo Clinic project cultivates stem cells to improve our understanding of cancer resistance to chemotherapy. In another project, 490 Biotech is testing a new bioluminescent technology that aims to improve efforts to find drugs for cancer therapy.
In fact, a number of studies are being conducted on the space station to find new drugs. Oncolinx Pharmaceuticals is testing a new immunotherapeutic drug that attaches to antibodies targeted at cancer cells, increasing drug efficacy and reducing side effects. Another biotechnology company called Angiex is testing anti-cancer therapy aimed at tumor blood vessels that are necessary for tumor growth.
We are Stardust
Scientists are studying how Stardust turns into planets as part of the Experimental Chondrule Formation at the International Space Station (EXCISS) project. Hendry, are believed to be the oldest solid material in the Solar system and possibly the building blocks of planets and satellites.
The astronauts aboard the ISS conduct experiments that simulate possible conditions — low gravity and high energy which led to the formation of planets, passing an electrical charge through the silicate dust and turning it into chondro.
The experiment is carried out in the chamber NanoRacks with a tiny vibrating motor, shaker chamber, so that particles of dust were floating in space. An electric charge is supplied every hour, 100 times, and what is happening is recorded on the camera.
A better understanding of how planets are formed can help in finding inhabited worlds, as well as in understanding the origin and early history of the Earth.
Over the 20 years of its existence, the ISS has become home to numerous experiments. The space station is literally a zoo for a variety of organisms, from regenerating worms to geckos wanting to copulate. But experiments on the ISS are needed not only for space exploration and other forms of life: human physiology itself is being studied. We can only guess what the next twenty years of work in space will bring us.