Science without gravity at the International Space Station

About a hundred experiments are in the six-month mission diary for the four astronauts who will be launched today aboard the SpaceX Crew-2 mission today.


In two decades orbiting the Earth, the International Space Station has become a state-of-the-art space laboratory, with astronauts researching everything from black holes to disease and even microgravity gardening.

The ISS, which orbits about 250 miles above the Earth, is as large as an indoor soccer field and divided as a hive into spaces where the crew can perform experiments with guidance from field researchers.

Often, astronauts are also guinea pigs. More than 3,000 scientific tests have been carried out at the ISS since its piloted missions began in 2000.

“It simply came to our notice then science from the perspective, there have been some major discoveries, ”said Robert Pearlman, space historian and co-author of“ Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space. ”

The most recent mission – called “Alpha” after Alpha Centaurs, our closest stellar system – will be no exception. Thursday, American astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, Japan Aerospace Exploration AgencyAkihiko Hoshide and European Space AgencyS Thomas Pesquet will explode for the ISS aboard the SpaceX Crew-2 mission.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft is launched at Launch Complex 39A, as preparations continue for the Crew-2 mission to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida; PIC: AUBREY GEMIGNANI / NASA VIA AP

He’s probably busy. In addition to the maintenance work on the space station itself, about a hundred experiments are in the diary for their six-month mission. These include an acoustic technique that uses ultrasonic waves to move and manipulate objects or liquids without touching them.

Pesquet of France said his favorite planned research is a study examining the effects of weightlessness on brain organoises – mini-brains created using stem cell technology.

Scientists hope that this research can ultimately help space agencies prepare for distant space missions, which will expose crews to the rigors of space for long periods of time and even help fight brain disease on Earth. “It really sounds like science fiction to me,” joked Pesquet, an aerospace engineer.

There is ongoing research into what is known as “tissue chips” – small models of human organs that are made up of different types of cells and used to study things like aging the immune system, kidney function and muscle loss.

“We don’t fully understand why, but in microgravity, cell-cell communication works differently than it does in a cell culture balloon on Earth,” said Liz Warren, senior program director at ISS US National Laboratory. cells gather differently.

These characteristics allow the cells to behave more like inside the body. Thus, microgravity seems to offer a unique opportunity for tissue engineering. ”

Another important element of the mission is the modernization of the station’s solar energy system by installing new compact panels that open like a huge yoga mat.

Crew Launch Day-2 coincides with Earth Day and, until the return of the crew, will also contribute to environmental research by making 1.5 million images with phenomena such as artificial lighting at night, algae flowering and breaking. Antarctic ice shelves.

The experiments are designed long-term, beyond individual missions, said Sebastien Barde of Cadmos in France, which organizes scientific experiments in microgravity in space.

The study of weightlessness – or microgravity – has gone from “pioneering to something standardized,” with increasingly accurate measurement methods, Barde said. “Twenty years ago, there were no ultrasound devices on board,” he added.

Claudie Haignere, the first Frenchwoman to fly in space, visited the ISS in 2001 and remembers her as quite “poorly equipped”. He now says he is proud of “exceptional labs.”

The astronauts also stay longer – six months, compared to a week for the first manned flights – giving researchers more time to measure the effects of microgravity on them.

Space flight changes the human body. It weakens muscles and bones and affects the heart and blood vessels. Some of the effects are similar to the accelerated progression of aging and disease on Earth. While we are guinea pigs for this research, the ISS crew also collected data about black holes, pulsars and cosmic particles to expand our understanding of the Universe.

Having the ability to grow extra food seen as an important step in helping people venture deeper into space, they even did experimental gardening. In 2015, the astronauts took the first lettuce grown in space and since then have tried to grow radishes. Pearlman said the findings range from those related to human health – such as a treatment for salmonella – to experimental engineering.

“A very promising technology that is now about to happen is the 3D printing of body parts,” he said.