7 Coolest Discoveries that were made on the ISS

7 Coolest Discoveries that were made on the ISS

7 Coolest Discoveries that were made on the ISS
Image Credits: Universe Today

The International Space Station is a laboratory perpetually suspended 250 miles above the surface of the Earth. Existing in a state of free-fall, it largely negates the effects of gravity for everyone and everything aboard. For this reason, the research performed there can’t be conducted on Earth.

The ISS has been around for 20 years now and several scientific discoveries have been made owing to its existence. Other than boosting our ambitions for space exploration, some of these discoveries have also impacted our lives on Earth. Keep reading to know more about seven of the coolest discoveries that have been made on the ISS.

Ways of Harnessing Capillary Forces

Ways of Harnessing Capillary Forces

In microgravity (aboard the International Space Station), fluid behaves in weird and wonderful ways. This is because the effects of weaker forces can be better observed in the absence of gravity. One of these forces is called the ‘Capillary Force’ that causes the fluids to move along narrow tubes.

The research investigating this phenomenon has aided the development of advanced medical devices and heat transfer systems. These inventions include the nanofluidic devices that were tested in Rodent Research-6. Implanted under the skin, these devices allow for the continuous delivery of drugs into a patient’s system, lowering dependence on injections and pill-taking.

The conventional apparatus for continuous delivery of drugs tends to be bulky because it incorporates mechanical pumps. In contrast to that, these nanofluidic devices use the shape of nanoscopic tubing to control the movement of fluid. Therefore, they can achieve the same results without occupying tons of space.

Effects of Microgravity on Biological Organs

Effects of Microgravity on Biological Organs

Exposure to microgravity affects the human body in a variety of ways. Many of these changes are quite similar to the effects of diseases associated with old age. The lack of gravity brings them about much faster. This gives us the opportunity to study the effects of aging without having to wait around for years.

Scientists have come up with advanced devices called “tissue chips” that can directly observe changes at the cellular level. They are about the size of a flash drive and hold biological cells within a three-dimensional matrix. Tissue chips have in-built ports and channels through which oxygen and nutrients can be supplied to keep the cells alive.

Chips simulating lung, kidney, brain, and intestine function have all been sent to the ISS. They are enhancing our understanding of different diseases and how they may be treated.

Colloidal Mixtures with Better Stability

Colloidal Mixtures with Better Stability

It might not seem like it, but toothpaste, 3D printing, pharmaceuticals, and the detection of shifting sands on Mars have something in common. All of these things have been improved upon through the application of research on colloids conducted aboard the ISS.

Colloids are mixtures consisting of minute solid particles suspended in a liquid, and they exist in various forms. Some of them, like spilt milk and dirt, are naturally occurring while others are manufactured. The list of manufactured colloids includes shampoo, certain medicines, and salad dressing.

Studies conducted on the ISS have helped companies to develop new products and improve existing ones. For instance, Procter & Gamble have used these studies to determine how to keep a product fluid enough to dispense easily. They have managed to do so while preventing the suspended particulates from clumping together and settling.

The research conducted aboard the space station generates insights we cannot gain here on Earth. This is because gravity causes the solid particles to float or sink that separates colloids. However, the microgravity on the ISS is unable to create this effect.

Flourishing Of Biological Cells in Microgravity

Flourishing Of Biological Cells in Microgravity

Research conducted on the ISS has provided new insights to researchers studying various diseases, like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and cancer. Alzheimer’s researchers have studied protein clusters deemed responsible for neurodegeneration while cancer researchers gained information about endothelial cells.

Endothelial cells facilitate the circulation of blood, and tumors need a plentiful supply of blood to grow. Cells that are grown on the space station make it easier to test new cancer treatments. This happens because they flourish much better (on ISS) than those grown on Earth.

Scientists prefer to study cells and other biological structures aboard the space station. This is because it gives a clearer understanding of their properties, behaviors, and responses to treatments.

New Water Purification Techniques

Water Recovery System of ISS

The Water Recovery System of ISS is one clear example of necessity being the mother of invention. Water is somewhat scarce in the vacuum of space. However, the astronauts on the space station need a steady supply to survive. Therefore, the station was equipped with a water purification system that is capable of recovering and recycling 93% of water.

Without this system, the required frequency of water resupply missions will increase many times. As a result, it would become entirely unviable to run the ISS. Space, however, is far from the only place where clean drinking water is in short supply.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of such places upon the Earth itself. The water purification technology aboard the station has thus been adapted for use on the ground. The first example of this was the installation of a water purification system in Iraq, in 2006. Similarly, studies, such as AquaMembrane, have put other purification systems to the test.

Formation of Large Protein Crystals

growing protein crystals in space

Our bodies are composed of over 100,000 unique proteins. Each of them plays an important role in keeping our biological processes in order. Many diseases cause (or are caused by) alterations to these proteins’ molecular structures. This is because it compromises their ability to perform the intended functions.

For this reason, researchers need to study the protein structure to learn more about diseases and their treatments. Growing protein crystals is one of the key ways of achieving this goal. On Earth, gravity hinders crystal formation in a fluid by driving convection and causing denser particles to sink to the bottom.

On the other hand, Protein Crystallography conducted on the ISS yields much better specimens. The resulting crystals are larger and of a much superior quality than those grown on Earth. This allows them to be studied in greater detail. Owing to this phenomenon, a potential treatment for an as-of-yet incurable genetic disorder, Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, is in clinical trials.

Characteristics of Matter in the Fifth Physical State

fifth physical state of matter

Of all the discoveries made aboard the ISS, this is undoubtedly the coolest. It takes atoms to ultracold temperatures to produce the fifth physical state of matter. It is commonly known as Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC). Although it is possible to produce it on Earth, studying the BEC (on Earth) is exceedingly difficult.

The reason for this, once again, is the effect of gravity. BECs are produced in a vacuum, and on Earth, they very rapidly fall to the floor. Without magnetic or optical fields slowing their descent, they cannot be observed for even one full second. But in microgravity, BECs can stay put indefinitely, floating in mid-air.

BECs are invaluable for quantum physicists. They collectively exhibit behaviors that are typically displayed only by individual atoms. This makes these behaviors much more observable because they are on a much larger scale. Studying these behaviors could support the development of quantum technologies, such as ultraprecise sensing and timekeeping.

Summary

The ISS has contributed to the development of a whole range of fields throughout its two-decade-long existence. The discoveries related to all three fundamental branches of science (physics, chemistry, and biology) have been made. And these discoveries are sure to impact our lives in subtle ways.

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