3 Groundbreaking Experiments Happening Aboard the ISS Right Now
NASA astronaut Christina Koch activates the BioFabrication Facility aboard the ISS in August 2019. Credit: NASA
Astronauts often leave Earth with plenty of fanfare, but spacecraft bound for the International Space Station (ISS) also routinely carry components for on-orbit experimentation, known as payloads. These systems are integrated into ISS operations, with much of the pre-flight testing and ongoing management happening at NASA’s lesser known Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Once a payload reaches the ISS, the cutting-edge experimentation begins, and many facilities have been delivering particularly exciting data over the past few years. Below are three instruments currently aboard the ISS that are helping researchers conduct groundbreaking work in physics—and come closer to solving some of the greatest mysteries of the universe.
Cold Atom Lab
In a first, scientists created a Bose-Einstein condensate—the fifth state of matter—in NASA’s Cold Atom Lab, a suitcase-size instrument aboard the ISS that enables the study of quantum gases cooled to near-absolute zero. In research published on June 11 in the journal Nature, scientists describe the experiments conducted in Earth orbit, in which atoms cooled with lasers are further cooled in a magnetic “trap.”
Earth’s gravity puts significant limitations on scientists’ ability to study Bose-Einstein condensates, or BECs. First predicted in the 1920s by Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose and Albert Einstein, the condensate wasn’t produced until 1995, earning scientists a Nobel Prize in Physics in 2001. According to Nature, in a microgravity environment BECs can hold their state beyond the second they last on Earth, allowing scientists to better study the exotic particles and further our understanding of macroscopic-scale quantum behavior.
Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer
Externally attached to the ISS, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-02) is a precision particle physics detector that searches for antimatter and dark matter—two enduring mysteries in our understanding of the structure and origins of the universe—as well as the origins of the cosmic rays that have journeyed to Earth from outside the solar system. Capturing the rays before they fall through Earth’s atmosphere allows for accurate measurements that will ultimately advance scientists’ understanding of where they come from and help NASA develop ways to protect manned interplanetary spaceflights from radiation.
Since its launch in May 2011, AMS-02 has collected data on nearly 160 billion cosmic ray events and identified 9 million positrons, or antielectrons. It also searches for evidence of dark matter—the existent but unobservable mass of matter and energy in the universe—by detecting the collision of charged particles that indicates the presence of dark matter candidates like the hypothetical neutralino. Most recently, according to a paper released in May, researchers studying data from AMS-02 identified new properties of the heavy primary cosmic rays neon, magnesium, and silicon, which showed that, contrary to previous knowledge, primary rays have two distinct classes.
AMS is the result of a global collaboration—44 institutes on three continents operate and maintain the detector, with cooperation between NASA, CERN, and the European Space Agency. Nobel laureate Samuel Ting of MIT leads the experiment.
3D BioFabrication Facility
Can transplantable human organs be grown in space? That’s what scientists are testing using the 3D BioFabrication Facility (BFF), a 3-D printer developed by U.S.-based NASA contractor Techshot and manufacturer nScrypt Inc. and delivered to the ISS in July 2019.
In the space station’s microgravity environment, cell models can be built in three dimensions, allowing for the construction of complex biological systems made up of layers of soft tissue. And because organs can be engineered using a patient’s own stem cells, it’s possible that a new organ could avoid rejection, or attack by the recipient’s immune system, following a transplant—a potentially life-threatening development.
In January, Techshot announced that BFF had successfully printed with human heart cells aboard the space station, and though a viable, 3-D–printed human organ may still be at least a decade away, once the technology is functional, it could represent a breakthrough for modern medicine. In the meantime, according to Techshot’s website, other research teams are able to lease BFF for their 3-D bioprinting projects, and the facility may also prove significant for long-duration spaceflights, which could rely on biofabricated food and pharmaceuticals.
– By Korena Di Roma Howley