Mark Weislogel, a professor of mechanical engineering, and his students are conducting a series of experiments on the International Space Station to better understand how liquids react in zero gravity environments. This research is intended to improve the flow of water, fuel and other liquids on space shuttles and space stations.
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The acceleration of the pace and value of research aboard the International Space Station makes for a lively discussion. A panel of investigators making strides in fields ranging from biotechnology and fundamental physics to astronaut health sat down to talk the topic of station research with colleagues gathered for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston last month.
The AAAS, a non-profit organization open to the world's top scientists, is respected for its ability to help governments formulate science policy, promote advances in research and communicate their value to the public.
Though staffed continuously for more than a dozen years, the space station achieved "assembly complete" status in mid-2011. This long-awaited milestone permitted a shift in focus to science and technology.
"Now that we are a little over a year past the completion of assembly, we are starting to see the science research come into full flower," International Space Station Program Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D., told an AAAS panel entitled "Science from the International Space Station."
Robinson's message was amplified by Cheryl Nickerson, Ph.D., an Arizona State University microbiologist; Samuel C. C. Ting, Ph.D., physicist and Nobel laureate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Mark Weislogel, Ph.D., Portland State University aerospace and mechanical engineer; Michael Barratt, M.D., M.S., NASA physician and astronaut; and Elizabeth R. Cantwell, Ph.D., co-chair of the National Research Council's latest blueprint for space research in biology and the physical sciences.
Nickerson is working to turn what is a space station discovery -- that bacteria becomes more virulent in microgravity -- into an opportunity to develop new vaccines by unmasking cellular processes and genetic factors. Salmonella bacteria, an early study focus, are responsible for an estimated 94 million cases of food poisoning and 155,000 deaths globally each year. In the U.S. alone, Salmonella infection is responsible for $50 million in annual health care costs and an estimated $2 billion in lost worker productivity.
"So what is spaceflight? It's an extreme environment," said Nickerson. "Every time we subject biological systems and study them under extreme environmental conditions, we have provided and learned novel insight about how they survive, evolve and adapt. We've taken a lot of that new insight and translated it into new product strategies and applications to improve life here [on Earth]."
Ting, who marshaled experts from 60 research institutions in 16 countries for his investigation, previewed forthcoming findings from the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS). The $2 billion observatory was installed outside the space station by astronauts in 2011 to search for dark matter, antimatter and perhaps undiscovered high-energy particles by measuring cosmic rays.
AMS, which was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy to outpace traditional ground-based particle accelerators, logged 25 billion cosmic ray events in its first 18 months.
"Cosmic rays can be observed at energies in space higher than any accelerator," Ting told his audience. "But the most exciting objective of the AMS is to probe the unknown, to search for phenomena which exist in nature that we would not have imagined nor had the tools to discover."
Unlike AMS operations, Weislogel's research into capillary fluid flows often depends on direct interactions between ground-based scientists and astronauts in space. That teamwork is unveiling forces other than gravity that influence fluid flow as well as droplet and bubble formations. The findings may influence the design of future space systems from propellant tanks to life support systems.
Even after a half-century of human spaceflight, astronauts remain a rich source of sometimes surprising medical information. Recent space station studies show that astronauts can stave off muscle and bone loss with proper nutrition, Vitamin D and regular use of exercise equipment that stresses the weight-bearing bones of the hips and spine.
Meanwhile, experts like Barratt seek to explain a rise in intracranial pressures and an associated blurring of visionexperienced by many astronauts after living in space for long durations. New diagnostic techniques and countermeasures will likely benefit everyday health care.
"We are pursuing the development on noninvasive intracranial pressure devices with strong terrestrial implications," said Barratt.
Cantwell characterized the station as positioned for even greater strides.
"It has obvious advantages, long periods of access and it's valuable in understanding every element of the life and physical sciences," she said. "It's flexibility to talk to crew about what is going on in real time and adjust is a unique value."