5 of the coolest experiments done on the International Space Station

By admin
24 May 2016

From growing space salads to training with smart shoes.

ABOVE: The Space Station's Columbus module, one of the most important laboratories on the ISS. If you click or tap on the arrow with your mouse or finger and slide it to the right, you will see how it looks on the inside. Illustration: Anton Vermeulen of YOU's Infographics team Did you know that more than 1 000 experiments are currently under way on the International Space Station (ISS)? In fact, the ISS is really just one enormous research facility with living quarters for the crew. Many of the experiments are conducted to prepare for the next huge step in space exploration: the planned colonisation of Mars in the 2030s. Here’s our choice of the coolest ones:

1. Veggies out of this world

The only way humans will survive on Mars will be by growing their own plants – for food and to provide oxygen. So in August last year, the ISS team grew their first successful munchies: romaine lettuce! This was followed in November by the first space-grown flowers. Collage: astronauts eating lettuce; romaine lettuce; zinnia TOP: Astronauts snacking on space-grown lettuce. BELOW: IRS-grown romaine lettuce; the first flower grown on the IRS was a zinnia. Pictures: NASA

2. Need it? Print it!

It will be a huge hassle – not to mention a costly one – to supply equipment to the Mars colony. Fortunately, Mars has a lot of raw materials and with 3D printing, objects needed for shelters, greenhouses and even parts for the 3D printers can be created right there on the Red Planet! There is already one 3D printer on board the IRS. Closer to home, in the American state of Texas, NASA is also experimenting creating food with 3D printers. The first 3D-printed pasta has already seen the light. A picture of the 3D printer on the ISS The 3D printer on the ISS. Picture: NASA Pictures: NASA

3. May the Force be with your footwear

Currently astronauts remain on the ISS for about six months at a time, but on Mars they will have to stay for at least five years, with huge implications for their health.

In space there is no gravity, so that everything is weightless and floats around, people included. This results in many health risks, such as weakening of the bones and muscle. The longer one stays in space, the greater these risks become – so it makes sense to focus many experiments on combating the influence of gravity. One of these includes testing what is called Force Shoes – special footwear that can measure the effects of weight-bearing exercise. Astronauts have to spend time every day doing weight-bearing exercises (such as running on a treadmill) to keep their muscles and bones strong. The results of the Force-shoe study will help researchers decide on the most effective exercise routines and equipment to promote space health. The Force shoes tested for weight-bearing exercises Force shoes are actually sandals. Picture: NASA

4. Mighty mice

Did you know that astronauts have a 3 per cent higher risk of developing cancer than those of us who never leave Earth? That is because their bodies are affected by cosmic rays. Artificial shielding on the IRS and special layers on space suits offer some protection, but are not effective for all radiation types. So a lot of research is under way to determine and combat the effect of radiation on the human body. One experiment is looking at the effects of cosmic radiation on the reproduction of mammals to help ensure that astronauts don’t become infertile. Freeze-dried mouse sperm is held aboard the IRS for one, 12 and 24 months, and then used to fertilise mouse eggs on Earth to produce mouse puppies.

5. Staying younger for longer?

The well-known astronaut Scott Kelly recently returned to Earth from an IRS stint of almost a year. Scott has a twin brother, Mark, who is also an astronaut. Before, during and after the mission the Kelly twins were rigorously tested to establish the effects of living in space on Scott’s body relative to his brother’s. According to the theory of relativity, travelling in space at a high speed slows down the ageing process, so technically Scott should now be younger than Mark as the ISS travels at a speed of 28 000 km/h. Scientists are still studying the results, but they say if there were an age difference when Scott returned, Mark would already have caught up! Picture of Mark and Scott kelly Mark (left) and Scott Kelly. Picture: NASA

Speaking of space . . .

  • Don't miss YOU's brand-new publication, Gateway to Space! It costs R45 and you'll find it where you buy your YOU magazine every week. It's packed with interesting facts and stories such as how we will live on Mars, awesome rockets and spacecraft, glam astronauts (and animanauts!), and even how to go about becoming an astronaut.
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