Doing research in orbit
Gravitational forces are present everywhere on Earth. They influence and distort all physical, chemical and biological processes. In many instances, gravity plays an obvious role: It makes objects fall to the ground and water flow into valleys; but in many processes in both nature and engineering its effects are not quite as prominent, but equally significant. The constant force of gravity on our planet has greatly influenced the evolution of all living things: Life and gravity have been two inseparable forces for the past four billion years on Earth.
Conditions in space create all new possibilities for unique experiments in medicine, biology, physics and the research of new materials. Measurements to determine the composition and intensity of space radiation are invaluable to determine the risk of harmful radiation for manned missions.
Up until now, research in zero gravity has been very limited in terms of continuity and short term availability, and is therefore not very useful for industrial research. The ISS is equipped with modern research facilities that enable scientists to conduct experiments on a constant basis, and execute them on very short notice.
The main objective of the “Research in Zero Gravity” programme of the German Aerospace Center (DLR), is to obtain new knowledge in both science and technology and to find innovative ways to apply it for humans on Earth. The research objectives that DLR has envisioned for this space research are broken up into the following categories:
- Development of new therapies and diagnostic methods in medicine
- Research of basic life functions
- Broadening the horizons of physics
- Research and development of new materials
Germany is one of the most important nations participating in the research projects onboard the ISS, leading the way in fields such as development of new materials and biological research. All German parts of this research are coordinated by the DLR agency in Bonn.
André Kuipers trains with the Eye Tracking Device
New therapies and diagnostic methods in medicine: Integrative physiology
The effects of zero gravity on astronauts give us new insight on the relationship between the different systems in the human body; like muscles and bones, heart and circulation or the immune system. The changes that affect astronauts in a few weeks or months are similar to the process of aging, which can be observed and studied in a kind of time lapse. Unlike old age, the effects of space on astronauts are reversible, and their adaptation to earth conditions can be studied once they have returned. This knowledge is not only useful to keep astronauts healthy, but also to treat and diagnostic those who seek medical attention. This is one way that research in outer space can be used to develop new therapies for osteoporosis, or create new instruments to measure inner eye pressure or eye movement.
Both of these objectives, the development of new therapies and diagnostic methods, and the research of basic life function, will play a decisive role when it comes to planning long term manned missions to the moon and Mars.
Research into basic life functions: gravity, radiation and exobiology
Christer Fugelsang and Thomas Reiter carrying the European radiation detectors
Life on Earth is conditioned by the effects of gravity, so the absence of it gives us an opportunity to determine to what extent it affects our bodies and life in general. Scientists observe how organisms behave under these conditions and how biological processes are affected. With this information, they can later draw conclusions about the mechanisms that are affected when processing gravity in all creatures, from single celled organisms to humans (gravitational biology). The results from this research are of great importance in our basic understanding of science; one example would be the way that we interpret the transmission of signals. Advances made in gravitational biology also help scientists to better understand bio-technological processes, like the crystallisation of biological macro-molecules. They can even give us clues about the creation, expansion, and the evolution of life in space and on our home planet (exobiology).
Space also presents other challenges besides the absence of gravity, like the extensive radiation that can be measured in that environment. Analysing how this radiation, and its different components affect living organisms, are some of the tasks that are undertaken by the scientists in charge of radiation biology.
Broadening the horizons of physics
Conducting experiments in zero gravity can lead to groundbreaking results that would otherwise have been impossible. The growing of plasma crystals is a shining example of this. On Earth they can only be produced in two dimensions because of gravity, but in space, scientists are able to conduct experiments on three dimensional crystals. A long term application of these experiments has already been devised for the coating of microchips.
Innovative research into new materials
Metals and semi-conductors are usually created from their liquid states by means of a melting process. Melting materials in zero gravity eliminates interfering forces that are usually present, and give us insight on the relationship between materials during solidification. Experiments without containers can help give exact measurements about the surface tension and viscosity of materials. These can later be used to create accurate computer models to develop new materials in an efficient and environmentally friendly way.