The Most Impressive Experiments Conducted on the International Space Station – The Conversation España

In the Kibo laboratory on the International Space Station, ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst conducts an experiment with robots equipped with stereoscopic glasses (2014). Alex Gerst / NASA

Jesús Ordoño FernándezIMDEA MATERIALES

It has been 25 years since the launch of the first module of the International Space Station (ISS) into space. Over the past two decades of research, applications developed in space have expanded to numerous fields, including energy, materials, electronics, nutrition, botany, medicine, and even the textile industry.

More than 3,000 experiments have been conducted on the ISS. Some of these experiments have contributed to improved drugs and cancer treatments, enhanced understanding of aging, and provided unique materials for space exploration.

Why Conduct Experiments in Space?

Describing space as a hostile environment would be an understatement. Gravity, for starters, is virtually nonexistent. Additionally, without the protection of Earth’s atmosphere and its ozone layer, radiation poses a serious threat not only to living organisms but also to electronic equipment and spacecraft structures. To put it into perspective, astronauts spending six months in space are exposed to radiation equivalent to about 1,000 chest X-rays.

However, these dangerous and unique conditions also offer numerous advantages, allowing the study of phenomena that would be inconceivable on solid ground. Many physical and biological processes we are accustomed to on Earth depend on gravity and terrestrial conditions, functioning quite differently in space.

Can You Fry Potatoes on the ISS?

Processes such as convection (the rise of heat and descent of cold) or buoyancy do not even exist. This can make something as simple as frying potatoes on the ISS a complicated task.

But fear not, the European Space Agency (ESA) has conducted experiments in microgravity using high-resolution cameras to analyze oil bubbles and potatoes. They have concluded that it is indeed possible to fry potatoes in space!

Although it may seem trivial, this research can be of great help in various fields, such as hydrogen production from solar energy.

The Success of Amorphous Metals

One of the significant achievements of space research in materials science has been the development of so-called bulk metallic glasses (BMG) or amorphous metals. While most conventional alloys (such as steel, aluminum, or titanium) have a highly ordered atomic structure, BMG atoms do not follow an ordered and crystalline structure.

They are produced through the vitrification process of cooling the metal from a liquid state. This unique structure gives them high strength and hardness while maintaining a low melting temperature, facilitating the production of durable and reflective components.

One of the most widely used BMGs in the industry is Vitreloy 106, an alloy made of zirconium, niobium, copper, nickel, and aluminum.

In 2001, this alloy was used in NASA’s Genesis mission to collect samples of solar wind (charged particles released from the Sun, causing phenomena like auroras).

The Genesis probe collecting solar wind flux data. Wikimedia commons/NASA/JPL-CaltechCC BY

After completing the mission, the probe crashed due to a parachute failure. Pieces made with Vitreloy 106 were among the few to survive the impact, allowing researchers to solve some fundamental mysteries about solar wind.

Cancer Drugs

The space environment also offers significant opportunities for other fields, such as the design and development of new drugs. Some pharmaceutical companies use ISS laboratories to study and understand the crystallization processes of certain medications (e.g. pembrolizumab, a cancer treatment drug) to improve their manufacturing.

Crystals of the drug pembrolizumab produced on Earth (left) and in space (right). In the absence of gravity, much more uniform and homogeneous crystals are obtained. Merck/NatureCC BY

Cells in our bodies also behave differently in space. Among other consequences, astronauts often experience loss of muscle and bone mass, and their immune systems weaken. These symptoms closely resemble the effects of aging on Earth. Therefore, space research helps us study the effects of aging more quickly, facilitating the development of new drugs or treatments.

Former NASA astronauts and identical twins Scott Kelly (right) and Mark Kelly. Scott spent a year in the ISS between 2015 and 2016 while Mark remained on Earth, allowing scientists to study the effects of living in space on Scott’s body and compare the changes with those of Mark. Wikimedia commonsCC BY

Some stem cells even appear to grow faster in space, opening the door to attempting to replicate those conditions on Earth and aiding in the treatment of diseases such as heart attacks.

Furthermore, thanks to NASA and ESA studies on the effects of space radiation on astronauts and microsatellites—regions of our DNA susceptible to damage and mutations—we can better understand the consequences of cancer radiotherapy in patients. This research also helps identify new markers and methods for more effective cancer detection.

Plasma Against Infections

Another example comes from cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, who in 2001 could hardly have imagined that his research on complex plasmas (a state of matter challenging to achieve on Earth due to gravity) would now lead to improving the fight against bacterial infections.

His research on the ISS led to the development of cold plasma at room temperature, capable of destroying pathogens such as bacteria, fungi, viruses, and spores without affecting our own cells in any way.

Thanks to this discovery, the company Terraplasma Medical is currently developing portable cold plasma devices for the treatment of skin and wound infections.

Although the ISS is expected to be retired in 2030, space will continue to offer us an immense laboratory for ongoing research. Not only to pursue our desire to explore the vast universe around us or colonize new planets but, above all, to improve the lives of Earth’s inhabitants.

Jesús Ordoño Fernández, Postdoctoral Researcher, Tissue and Biomaterials Engineer, IMDEA MATERIALES

The article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original (original content in Spanish).

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