Deep space exploration

ISS research results contribute to deep space exploration

More than 3,000 experiments have been conducted aboard the International Space Station during the 21 years that humans have lived and worked in space.

These experiments provided information to improve life on Earth and to explore further into the solar system. Researchers have shared these results in thousands of scientific publications.

Over the past few months, scientists have been sharing the results of space station studies that could help us get more water from life support systems, build moon bases, grow plants in space, etc

Here are some of the important new discoveries made and inventions created through space station research and technology demonstrations:

Closure of the water loop for exploration

What we learned: Additional water can be collected from the brine produced in the Urine Processor Assembly (UPA), which is part of the station’s Environmental Monitoring and Life Support System (ECLSS).

Why is this important: Future deep space exploration missions will require astronauts to have a nearly self-contained water system in which they can recover, recycle and reuse over 98% of the water loaded aboard their spacecraft from the start of their mission. UPA on board the space station can achieve nearly 94% recovery, but some water remains in the brine waste after urine treatment, and this water has the potential to be recovered. The new Brine Processor Assembly (BPA) is a technology demonstration system that now collects this water on the station.

The details: The BPA technology demonstration flew to the station aboard the Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft and has now completed five cycles of dewatering. Bladders from these operational cycles are expected to return to Earth on the SpaceX Dragon capsule and will be analyzed to confirm the effectiveness of BPA. All indications from on-orbit telemetry indicate that the BPA is functioning as intended.

European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst works on the MICS experiment aboard the International Space Station. Observations of how cement reacts in space during the hardening process can help engineers better understand its microstructure and material properties, which could improve cement processing techniques on Earth and lead to the design of cement. safe and light space habitats. (NASA picture)

Mix cement in space to learn how to build moon bases

What we learned: Cement mixed in space has different properties than cement mixed on Earth. Using simulated lunar soil to figure out how to build structures on the Moon looks promising.

Why is this important: Now that researchers know these properties, they are better prepared to create materials that are better building tools in space.

The details: The Lunar Regolith Simulator (JSC-1A), a fake lunar soil that emulates the properties of materials on the Moon, has been used to create metals, glasses, and cement on Earth. The Microgravity Investigation of Cement Solidification (MICS) study conducted aboard the International Space Station recently released results examining JSC-1A for its potential use as a lunar building material. Researchers have found that a fine portion of lunar soil simulant can be used as a cement supplement, a coarse portion can be used as a filler, and the mixture of lunar regolith simulant, cement and water yields a mortar resistant. These results indicate that it may be possible to use lunar dust as a material to build lunar bases. The Redwire Regolith Print study launched aboard the Northrop Grumman Cygnus during its 16th resupply services trade mission builds on these results, using JSC-1A to see if regolith can be used for 3D printing to study the feasibility of printing structures on the Moon or Mars.

The MICS study also investigated the effect of microgravity on the reaction that occurs when cement and water are mixed. Results recently published in ScienceDirect showed that cement mixed in space had a microstructure marked by long lines and more trapped air than cement created on Earth. By learning this aboard the space station, scientists can better anticipate the strength of cement structures in space, and the results will help develop new materials for building extraterrestrial habitats.

A new way to grow plants in space

What we learned: A newly patented system being tested aboard the station can provide plants with the water and nutrients they need to grow in space without using electricity.

Why is this important: On future deep-space missions, astronauts could use this method to grow fresh vegetables to supplement their packaged diets.

The details: The Passive Orbital Nutrient Delivery System (PONDS) is a new patented approach to plant growth that has been tested aboard the space station to water plants in both Earth gravity and microgravity. The system provides reliable water delivery to the seeds, transports water from a reservoir, and provides nutrients and aeration to the roots. PONDS is passive, which means it works without electricity, pumps and moving parts. On future deep space missions, astronauts could use this method to grow fresh vegetables to supplement their diets as they venture deeper into space.

Infographic illustrating the Passive Orbital Nutrient Delivery System (PONDS) plant growth unit. PONDS units are an entirely passive system – meaning no electricity, no pumps and no moving parts – and the basic concept is to use a self-contained reservoir of water that the plants can draw when needed, thus reducing the time the astronauts would spend watering plants during the growth interval. (Graphic from NASA)

Communicate at home

What we learned: A successful technology demonstration aboard the space station has verified a communications technique that could allow greater amounts of data to be transmitted much faster between space and Earth.

Why is this important: This promising test demonstrated a new technology that could be used for faster data transmission to Earth and could support deep space mission communications.

The details: SOLISS, a small Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) communications terminal attached to the space station, was tested for laser pointing accuracy. The SOLISS team has published its results explaining how it managed to establish a two-way optical Ethernet link between low Earth orbit and the ground. This technology transmits information faster than ever before, potentially meeting Earth’s needs while providing needed capabilities as humans move further away from Earth.

Studying the effects of space radiation on fertility

What we learned: Space radiation did not affect mouse sperm DNA or fertility and produced normal offspring on Earth with the same success rate as ground controls.

Why is this important: Sustaining life beyond Earth, whether on space stations or on other planets, requires a clear understanding of how the space environment affects mammalian fertility. Prior to this experiment, only non-mammalian reproduction had been studied in space.

The details: The Space Pup experiment sent mouse sperm samples to the International Space Station and back to Earth at various times, first at nine months, then at two years and nine months, and finally after 5 years and 10 months (the longest period for all samples were stored in the biological research station). The intention was to determine the effects of space radiation on DNA mutations. New results published in Science Advances from the experiment indicate that space radiation did not affect mouse sperm DNA or fertility and produced normal offspring on Earth with the same success rate as controls on the ground.