Space is a fascinating place to do experiments, Here are a few more of our favourite experiments conducted in space:
As writer Douglas Adam’s notes in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Space is big. Really big” and that means there is plenty of room to maneuver. Which is just what the two missions Atlantis STS-46 in 1992 and Columbia STS-75 in 1996 set out to do. Both aimed to get a satellite connected to the space station by a conducting tether to rotate together with the ISS. It was hoped that as the two tethered objects passed through the Earth’s magnetic field, an electrical current would be generated. Of course, your standard 10 m rope from the DIY store wasn’t going to do the job. Something much, much longer was needed—a cable 21 km long.
On the first attempt in 1992, the satellite traveled a mere 256 m before the tether jammed. Four years later, the experiment was far more successful. The tether had almost extended to its full length but sadly it then snapped as it unfurled to 19.7 km. The images of the tether spiraling elegantly away into the darkness like a rhythmic gymnast’s ribbon are quite something.
“It was a big shock. There was kind of an empty feeling in the pit of your stomach,” said Jeffrey A. Hoffman, one of the specialists on board at the time. “You just wanted to reach out and grab it.” Obviously, that wasn’t possible. Considering the project’s scale alone, you can’t help but admire its sheer ambition. And as a small consolation, the data gathered before the tether tragically snapped indicated that 3,500 volts and up to 0.5 amps of electricity had been produced. The satellite continues to drift through space to this day.
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield concludes his explanation of why astronauts recycle and drink their own urine, saying: “Before you cringe at the thought, keep in mind that the water we end up with is purer than most of the water you drink on a daily basis at home.” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQ2T9OJY1lg) From 2010, waste-water on the ISS has been purified in real time. The distiller lets the crew hook up a bag to the system, press a button and have the receptacle filled with clean, sparkling water.
Waste-water distillation worthy of the Starship Enterprise? Well, it’s definitely necessary if we want to boldly go where no person has gone before. 93% of water and other waste water on the space station is recycled—a necessity for extended space missions. Without the option of recycling astronauts’ urine, water could account for up to nine-tenths of a space ship’s mass on a journey to Mars. So it quickly becomes clear why this is an essential stepping-stone to exploring space. Future astronauts will have to get used to the idea. Besides, from a scientific perspective, the water we drink on Earth today is partly made up of the total amount of urine passed on the planet. The recycling process is just much slower.
This scheme to help humanity make that giant leap into the future originates in the Middle Ages. Michal Bodzianowski from Colorado imagined sending a microbrewery into orbit: “I got the idea when I read that people back then drank beer because it was purer than the drinking water.” He reasoned that the fermentation process could be used to produce beer, which has applications as a disinfectant and clean drinking source. As Bodzianowski explains, beer is “an important factor in future civilization as an emergency backup hydration and medical source.” The title of his project was “What are the effects of the creation of beer in microgravity and is it possible?”
It’s worth mentioning that when Michal Bodzianowski submitted this idea as his entry to a 2013 NASA competition for science experiments, he was just eleven years old. The school student prepared a 15 cm long microbrewery, which an astronaut activated in space according to Bodzianowski’s instructions. Unfortunately, the experiment did not produce the desired results, but the fledgling scientist took this in his stride with admirable humility and exceptional earnest: “A big part of science is dealing with how your hypothesis was wrong. You learn more from mistakes than from your successes.”
Three German medical students took an easier route into the stratosphere. They put a vacuum-packed beer bottle in a box and connected it to a weather balloon. Equipped with a camera and GPS tracker, the celestial beer provided fantastic pictures of its trip through the heavens. Which just goes to show, space is closer than you think.
The Liberty Bell was rung in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 8, 1776 when the American Declaration of Independence was first read. Samples of bacteria found on this historic bell were sent into space for Project MERCURRI.
“Project MERCURRI is not just about scientific research,” says Darlene Cavalier, “It’s also about engaging the public in that research.” Cavalier is the founder of Science Cheerleader, an organization whose members are current and former NFL and NBA cheerleaders pursuing careers in science and technology. The American public responded by contributing enthusiastically to Project MERCURRI, which was initiated by Science Cheerleader. Of the 4,000 swabs received, 48 samples were finally selected. Aside from the one taken from the Liberty Bell, Paenibacillus mucilaginosus found on fossil remains of T-Rex “Sue” in Chicago, Illinois, and Bacillus amyloliquefaciens taken from the statue of Benjamin Franklin also headed into orbit.
Thanks to Science Cheerleader’s strong ties to the world of sport, a large number of the samples were sourced from legendary stadiums such as the home grounds of the New England Patriots, Washington Redskins and San Francisco Giants. This thorough breakdown of the samples including pictures and location descriptions gives you an idea of the scope of the project: (http://spacemicrobes.ucdavis.edu/?post_type=baseball_cards).
A playoff between the Earthbound microbes and those shot into space aimed to compare the behavior of the two sets of microorganisms and to determine the effects of microgravity.
Our catalog of 10 experiments in space began with Alexander Gerst and we finish with a lesson from the same likable astronaut. (German speakers interested in finding out more about his Blue Dot mission can watch his presentation at the digital culture conference re:publica 2015: www.youtube.com/watch?v=l8tTRgTqLn8)
The lack of effect of gravity on the ISS is not a result of the Station’s distance from the Earth’s surface. Instead, it is caused by the speed that the station is orbiting the Earth—28,000 km per hour. “If we built a 400-km-tall tower, the gravity you would experience standing on top of it would only be marginally less than on the Earth’s surface,” explains Gerst. In other words, the fact that the ISS is in free fall is what makes you feel weightless. The inside of the Space Station is protected against the vacuum outside, which makes conditions on board very similar to here on Earth, except for that one big difference—microgravity.
To demonstrate this, Gerst makes use of something that has been a staple in classrooms for generations—a paper airplane. See how he uses this simplest of flying objects to explain how things work on the International Space Station.
Instead of doing a nosedive or crashing into an unsuspecting eye as it would on Earth, his artfully folded airplane flies gracefully, curving slightly upward. When the kinetic energy of the throw is overcome by air resistance, the plane just stays hanging suspended.