When you’re NASA, you don’t just do science on Earth, especially when you need to find out how to make repairs work on the moon or what the effects of microgravity are on anything you want to launch into space.
Taking off for the International Space Station on a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft next month will be a SpaceX commercial resupply mission with everything scientists aboard the ISS will need to investigate thunderstorms, what medications astronauts can take outside Earth’s atmosphere, and how microgravity impacts certain materials and medicines that are going to be spaceborne for a while—especially if you’re looking at an extended stay in zero-G.
But wait. Just because these experiments will be carried out on the ISS as it floats above our planet’s atmosphere doesn’t mean they won’t have any applications when the scientists land back on Earth. There’s plenty in this for those who would rather stay on terra firma.
The National Laboratory, operated by The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) will be testing the reactions of different materials to the brutal space environment, while NASA’s Sample Cartridge Assembly (MSL SCA-GEDS-GERMAN) will also do a deep dive into how liquid phase sintering. Sintering is a process that turns a powdered material into a solid by heating it but not liquefying it, could possibly hold up in space. Heating the powder on Earth bonds particles and brings on a liquid phase that makes the structure solidify faster. Powder doesn’t exactly stay in place that easily in a lab with almost no gravity, and when powder grains go rogue, the end product becomes porous and distorted. Sintering is already used on Earth for metal cutting tools and auto parts, and has the potential to be a major player in fabricating habitats and other structures in space. Replacing damaged moon rover parts without having to send for a rocket would be awesome.
Phenomena that the Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor (ASMI) will be observing sound like they came right out of a fantasy or sci-fi epic. Sprites, ELVES, the blue jet and terrestrial gamma-ray flashes all occur far above the thunderclouds you can see from Earth. Sprites, which are definitely not fairies, flash when there is electrical breakdown in the mesosphere. The concentric rings of ionospheric emissions known as ELVES are more science than magic. Terrestrial gamma-ray flashes are bursts of the highest-energy light found on Earth, and the blue jet is a cloud discharge that surges in the stratosphere. ASMI watches these occurrences to improve our forecasts with a further understanding of intense weather from thunderstorms to hurricanes.
NASA is also figuring out solutions for when the storm is raging inside you. Treating injuries in space is kind of a big deal when you can’t just drive to the emergency room, which is where NanoRacks Module 74 Wound Healing comes in. No existing wound dressings can prevent sepsis yet, which is why there is plenty of anticipation surrounding the hydrogel which will be tested aboard the ISS. Antimicrobial hydrogels could be the next generation of bandages that release antibiotics into a wound long enough to eliminate any chance of infection. In the future, both that and their ability to promote tissue regeneration means they could even take the place of some surgical treatments back on the home planet.
Testing and developing pharmaceuticals in microgravity could also have huge implications for anyone needing medical attention in space or on Earth. Comparative Real-time Metabolic Activity Tracking for Improved Therapeutic Assessment Screening Panels will examine how five different types of drugs are metabolized differently in zero-G. What is especially cool about this experiment is that it will use autobioluminescent human tissue cultures with a synthetic luciferase gene (like the luciferin that makes deep-sea fish glow in the dark) to track metabolic activity and eliminate the need to destroy samples while such activity is being tracked. The study could find ways to make the prescriptions your insurance wont’ cover much more effective and less expensive.
If all this sounds far-out, some medicines that now treat cancer were first developed in microgravity. Just think about that.