Download PDF The International Space Station: Building for the Future

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Much of the ISS engineering research and development will go toward studying the effects of the space environment on materials and developing new technologies for space exploration, including new construction techniques for building things in space, new satellite and spacecraft communications systems, and advanced life-support systems for future spacecraft. The space environment has unique hazards micrometeoroids, cosmic rays, atomic oxygen that affect materials such as those used in spacecraft. Materials can be placed on the ISS in open platforms, exposed to the space environment for years and readily analyzed.

The information retrieved will help design better materials for making satellites last longer in the space environment. Can a Helicopter Fly on Mars? How the International Space Station Works. Future of the ISS. Prev NEXT. Is the science information gained worth the high price tag? The ISS has little purpose in the future of space exploration. Critics have said that it exists to give the shuttles some place to go and the shuttles exist to service the ISS.


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The ISS isn't a launch platform to the moon, Mars or planets, no new rocket technology is being developed aboard it, and it does not fit into any long range plans of space exploration. The ISS budget diverts funds away from highly successful unmanned space probes and space telescopes, which produce valuable scientific information.

The ISS budget diverts funds away from other manned space projects like missions to the moon or Mars. Boyle, Alan. Will we need to genetically modify otherworldly plants to make them nutritious for human bodies? Will we be able to perform large-scale fermentation experiments using Martian microbes?

International Space Station

Will we need to find new ways to apply synthetic biology techniques to prevent or repair DNA damage from increased radiation levels off Earth? One company has been preparing for such a future for quite some time.

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NanoRacks , a private, Houston-based company, was founded in with a single goal in mind: learn everything necessary to one day own and operate their own space stations. For example, Tympanogen a leader in using gel technologies to regenerate membranes is using NanoRacks equipment on the International Space Station ISS to study drug release through hydrogels, which could one day enable long-term antibiotic release directly onto wounds — useful for hundreds of thousands of individuals suffering from hard-to-heal wounds at risk for infection.

It took us hundreds of years to develop modern state-of-the-art laboratories, which improve on a seemingly daily basis. Developing equally sophisticated labs in space will require creative solutions to three key challenges. While the biggest sample transport issues facing earthly labs may be holdups in international customs or packages languishing in sort centers, delivering samples to the ISS is a completely different beast — the materials must travel through space, after all.

Access to the ISS has improved and commercial resupply flights happen more frequently than ever — about times each year — but the cadence is unpredictable. Launch delays, scrubs, and other procedures that can delay ISS resupply are hard on the life sciences.

Cells and mice are typically sequenced to be a certain density or age, respectively, once they are arrive on the ISS. Every time a launch slips or is delayed, the current batch of cells or mice are discarded poor mice!

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Carl Carruthers, Chief Scientist at NanoRacks believes that this particular challenge facing science in space will be the slowest to improve. While automation is poised to usher in a new era for synthetic biology on Earth, the future of space science depends on automation. Since not just any scientist can travel to the ISS for now , experiments are run by astronauts.

This poses a unique challenge because astronauts have different levels of science background — though they do receive training — sometimes quite intense — before leaving on a mission.

What will happen to the International Space Station?

NanoRacks is particularly invested in making sure astronauts are trained on their hardware prior to using it on the ISS. This can be for a variety of reasons, from training schedule or delays in customer requirements for certain science protocols. Doing science is only one of the many jobs astronauts are required to do on the space station, and their days are planned down to extreme specificity — all before they even leave Earth. Just as on Earth, what takes an astronaut hours to do by hand could be done in minutes by a liquid handling robot.

Some of the tools NanoRacks has developed — such as the plug-and-play NanoLabs — are already addressing this challenge by eliminating some of the work that astronauts need to do.

But until automation is fully integrated, space science will only be able to tackle relatively simple challenges. Until we advance the state of hardware aboard the ISS to reflect terrestrial lab capabilities, it will be challenging to get to point where medical breakthroughs and other major discoveries can be realized on orbit. At this point, we understand how the ISS needs to grow commercially.

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We are attempting now to address some of these [challenges] and make the ISS function a little bit more like a laboratory would function here on Earth. Well on their way toward this goal, NanoRacks has developed a suite of tools that have already facilitated hundreds of science experiments on the ISS, serving a wide range of customers from NASA to biopharmaceutical firms to high schools and universities. They are easy to store and can be activated by crew once onboard the ISS. But the ability to mix chemicals is meaningless without a dedicated space to do scientific experiments. Meet NanoLabs, a module that houses a ready-to-go science experiment.

A plug-and-play system powered by USB 2. An integrated circuit board activates the experiment and turns it off when complete. NanoRacks frames can hold up to three plug-and-play NanoLabs and are ideal for educational, basic research.

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For advanced, professional level research, the higher power Black Box facilitates a large number of experiments all at one time. The first Black Box customer mission held 6 NanoLabs running a total of 18 experiments. To perform well in microgravity, the plate reader has improved thermal control and is wired to communicate with ground control. And, still more tools are in development to continue to increase the quality — and the return — of science done in space.

A critical company value is to follow the customer, building hardware that matches customer demand. Sometimes this means that NanoRacks partners directly with their customers to develop tools addressing the challenges of doing science in space. With support from a SBIR grant, the two companies are developing a robotic arm that can work with multiple NanoRacks platforms, starting with the Plate Reader