Microgravity doesn't usually grab the headlines, but microgravity science headlines the research agenda on the International Space Station. With gravity kept at one-millionth of its force on Earth for lengths of time that cannot be attained there, researchers see life and matter in ways that suggest new approaches to old problems.
Microgravity puts the science camel's nose under the gravity force's tent and lets it sniff out hidden properties and processes that allow deadly viruses, for example, to survive despite efforts to kill them. And it provides an oasis of opportunity to develop solutions that cannot be imagined without the knowledge microgravity research spawns.
More specifically, microgravity on the ISS will be the key asset for research conducted in:
- Materials Science
- Fluid Physics
- Combustion Science
- Fundamental Physics.
Materials Science. Research on the invisible structures of materials, as well as their thermal, magnetic and other properties, seeks to develop improved production methods and better materials on Earth. Scientists essentially investigate phenomena normally masked by gravity. Among the results that will be sought: better electronic devices, improved telecommunication, and stronger, more durable artificial limbs.
Fluid Physics. Physicists in this field define as fluid anything that flows when force is applied, namely: liquid, gas and plasma. Studies of these fluids in microgravity are aimed at helping engineers design safer buildings in earthquake-prone areas, improving the stability and performance of power-generating stations, increasing productivity in materials processing and other practical applications.
The U.S. Laboratory Module houses the Fluids and Combustion Facility in three powered racks that will be delivered over three separate Space Shuttle flights. When it is complete, it will accommodate an average of 20 experiments per year. The Facility will be tele-operated from the NASA Lewis Research Center. In concert with a Cleveland-based Operations Team, the Principle Investigator's experiment will be remotely monitored and controlled from his or her home site.
"Almost every chapter in the combustion textbooks will be rewritten as a result of the microgravity work."
Dr. Howard Palmer,
Penn State University, 1992
Combustion Science. Considering that combustion is the catalyst for 85% of the world's energy needs and a major contributor to air pollution, science has a remarkably limited understanding of many of its fundamentals. In space, microgravity joins oxygen, ignition point and combustibles as a major combustion variable. Scientists will use this unusual combination in efforts to find ways of increasing combustion efficiency, thus reducing pollution, global warming, and production and transportation costs.
Biotechnology. Engineering, technology and life sciences research converge in the microgravity of the ISS to promote cell and tissue culturing, and protein crystal growth. Protein crystals grow larger and more nearly perfect in microgravity, making protein structures easier to see, alter and synthesize. Goal: produce medicines that are more effective while producing fewer side effects. Cell tissue culturing in microgravity may be used for replacing damaged tissues, treating diseases, or eventually replacing organs.
A Biotechnology Facility will fill one experiment rack in the U.S. Laboratory. Researchers will be able to integrate and exchange experiment modules during Space Shuttle visits. Early focus: protein crystallization. Its promise has been demonstrated with the crystallization in space of protein that has proven to be of benefit in stroke and open-heart surgery patients.
Fundamental Physics. This field digs into the minutia of the minute and extrapolates the discoveries there into large-scale theoretical and commercial applications. With gravity's impact on atoms, quarks and the like minimized on the ISS, physicists are able to pursue the improvement of accuracy in non-invasive medical diagnostics and life-support systems, as well as in navigation, communication and other every-day applications.
For more information about microgravity science research, visit the Marshall Space Flight Center web site.