Space is a fascinating place to do experiments. Here are some of our favourite experiments done in space:

"Big Bubbles"

How German school kids’ ideas were tested in space.

A native of Künzelsau in the federal state of Baden-Württemberg, Alexander Gerst was sent on a mission to space from May 28 to November 10, 2014 as the third German astronaut ever. With his warm personality and tweets that captured the spirit of the moment, he got more and more Germans looking to the stars again.

The qualified geophysicist had one very special job to do while on the International Space Station (ISS)—testing the winning idea from the Aktion 42 school students’ competition. Entries in the form of experiments that could be conducted with one of the 42 items found on the ISS were received from across Germany.

In a microgravity, soap bubbles can be punctured with a needle without popping.

The list of 42 objects included tomato sauce, mustard, a pair of scissors, a laptop, safety pins, screws, liquid salt and liquid pepper as well as shampoo. The last item is what Alexander Gerst poured into a plastic bag on June 20, 2014 so that he could draw a bit of the soapy liquid into a straw and blow bubbles. The scientific questions behind the fun were whether soap bubbles last longer and are more stable in microgravity. The answer to both is yes. Without the effects of gravity, the bubbles’ walls are thicker and can even be punctured by a safety pin without bursting. But two single bubbles won’t join to form a larger one.

"The cosmic twins"

Two brothers are at the heart of an unparalleled NASA experiment being conducted over a period of 12 months.

In the late sixties two five-year-old twin brothers lay in their darkened bedroom whispering about their plans to one day build a rocket ship and cross the final frontier. Their whole nation gripped with the excitement and promise of the Apollo programme. Fast forward to 2015, and the face of one of the brothers, 51-year-old Scott Kelly, is on the cover of Time magazine. He took on a challenge that no NASA astronaut before him had ever attempted—spending a year on the International Space Station.

His identical twin brother Mark Kelly, who is also an astronaut remained on Earth. The twins underwent a series of tests, one on Earth, one in space, so that scientists could check for any differences that were caused by living in space for an extended time. On March 28, 2015, Scott Kelly launched with Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko – his crew mate for this extended mission.

With this extraordinary experiment, NASA hopes to learn more about the effect of extended space travel on the human body. What happens to organs such as the heart, to muscles and to the brain in microgravity? And what differences will come to light when the space traveller is compared to his brother back on Earth? With their identical genetic makeup, the Kelly twins represent a rare opportunity for this kind of research. The results may provide invaluable data for a human trip to Mars, one that future astronauts lying in their bedrooms today are perhaps already dreaming of.

"Testing the waters"

Dancing water droplets and the space station vacuum cleaner as a didgeridoo.

There’s more to being in a microgravity environment than people and objects floating in space—other materials are also affected. Take water, for instance: instead of flowing the way we’re accustomed to on Earth, in microgravity it wobbles around in the form of blobs and globules. To help you get the idea, imagine a goldfish in a floating ball of water—something that has actually happened.

All it takes is a drop of water and a loudspeaker plugged into a USB port to create some incredible pictures. Placed on the speaker cone, a water droplet with a diameter of two to three centimeters looks rather like a tiny glass hemisphere. When frequencies from as low as 20 and 30 Hz are played, the water droplet comes to life. Shaken by the vibrations, the transparent liquid does astonishing things. At lower frequencies, waves appear to roll over its surface, while at higher frequencies it looks like a plate of jelly being driven over a potholed road. It even fires off tiny droplets. View it in slow motion and you might be reminded of “a sea creature trying to grow tentacles,” as astronaut Dr Don Pettit puts it. The chemical engineer then goes one better and shows us how he makes droplets dance to his homemade didgeridoo, created from the hose of the ISS vacuum cleaner.

"Smells of high heaven"

There’s no way to take all of humanity into space. But perhaps a bit of the cosmos can be brought back to the people on Earth—in what is arguably the most romantic space experiment.

When mission STS-95 blasted off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center on October 29, 1998, it represented a number of firsts. On board were 77-year-old Senator John H. Glenn Jr. and the then 35-year-old Pedro Duque—the oldest person and the first Spaniard to leave our atmosphere. But there was also something much smaller that rose that day—a rose.

The rose was cultivated by International Flavors & Fragrances Inc. (IFF) in cooperation with the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics (WCSAR), a NASA spinoff tasked with assisting companies in the development of products in space. As one of the world’s largest producers of fragrances and aromatic substances, IFF wanted to know whether flowers subjected to microgravity in space acquired new and exotic qualities.

IFF researcher Braja Mookherjee cultivated Overnight Scentsation as a miniature rose so that it could be grown in the ASTROCULTURE™ plant growth chamber specially designed for the low-gravity conditions in space. In fact, the space rose’s essential oils were unlike those of its cousins on Earth. What’s more, the plant produced new seeds, which you can honestly say are out of this world. Japanese cosmetics manufacturer Shiseido added a new twist to its classic 1964 perfume Zen by incorporating the space rose’s fragrance.

"String theory"

A yo-yo in microgravity, or the unbearable lightness of spinning.

Sport is often about pushing back boundaries and doing something that has never been done before, whether it’s reaching new heights, new lengths or pulling off an unprecedented trick. The point is to go where no one has ever gone before. And if you succeed in that, you’ve earned the right to call your trick whatever you like. Of course, you don’t necessarily have to invent a new trick—you could break new ground by literally leaving the ground behind! Entering a whole new dimension.

When it comes to presenting day-to-day life on the Space Station as entertaining science lessons, astronaut and chemical engineer Dr. Don Pettit is hard to beat. Here he demonstrates just how cool playing with a yo-yo in microgravity can be.

The way he combines looping and string tricks with his nifty toy, you’d think the astronaut did nothing else with his days on the ISS. Since no one else has shown off yo-yoing in space, he reserves full naming rights for his stunts. “Orbit the Earth”, “orbit the Moon” and “shoot the planets” certainly have a good ring to them.

It’s important to remember, however, that not all the tricks you do on Earth can be performed in the same way in space. The lack of gravitational pull means the string won’t unroll on its own, nor will the yo-yo return to your hand as usual. This is why Pettit calls what looks similar to the “man on the flying trapeze” trick “tether assist” instead, referencing a technology used with ISS satellites. It gives a whole new meaning to spinning in orbit.


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