I love being a scientist. But as a kid I wanted to be an astronaut. I was and still am fascinated by space. I have always wondered what it would be like to be a scientist in space. Imagine doing experiments that we do in our lab but in a place with an amazing view!
Today, thanks to the International Space Station, the product of a collaborative initiative between 15 nations, it is possible to study biological, physical and chemical phenomena outside our planet. The ISS is equipped with several different laboratories and modules specifically designed to conduct experiments. Elements on the space station are under the effect of microgravity. NASA explains microgravity as a state of free fall that is responsible for things floating on the ISS.
There are different experiments going on board the ISS, to answer questions like:
- What happens to food on exposure to space radiation?
- How do motility responses change in space?
- How do cells differentiate in microgravity?
- Does microgravity affect hematopoiesis? (Process of blood cell production)
- Can spiders catch their prey in space?
- Does microgravity affect a spider’s ability to weave webs?
- What is the effect of radiation on mammalian cell growth?
- Do bacteria infect human cells the same way in microgravity as in normal Earth gravity?
And several more.
Check out this list of experiments that have been conducted or are currently in progress on the ISS and you will be amazed by the research areas that have been covered.
After analyzing results from experiments, researchers have come to conclusions like fermentation occurs faster in microgravity, decrease in synthesis of muscle proteins might be responsible for weakened muscles after a long spaceflight, ability of human immune system to fight off infections is decreased in space and microgravity environment makes pathogens stronger.
Most of the research is conducted either using C. elegans worms or fruit flies as models. Some experiments require mammalian cell cultures. In that case a very compact cell-culture system is created on Earth and sent to the ISS. And the amazing part is that the experiments are designed and packaged in a way that minimal activity is required to be done by the scientists on board the ISS.
For example, one of the experiments sent to the ISS tested the response of the human immune system to stress and disease in microgravity conditions. Living human cells were cultured in a temperature-controlled module for this experiment. The scientists aboard the ISS just had to push a button to infect the cells with a bacterial toxin that causes sepsis and lethal skin infection. Just one button! From this experiment, it was concluded that the immune system weakens in microgravity conditions and is not able to fight infections.
Most experiments going on aboard the ISS have a counterpart going on in parallel on Earth. This helps the scientists reach a conclusive result about the effect being tested. Not all experiments are successful in the first go. Sometimes if animals are used during the experiment they do not survive the transportation flight to the space station or sometimes die before the completion of the experiment. But scientists are nothing if not persistent and we never give up hope. In that case experiments are resent to the ISS.
The most recent experiment to be sent to the International Space Station is a container containing ant colonies to study their behavior in microgravity conditions. Scientists are planning to study the interaction patterns of ants and use that information to develop improved algorithms to control swarms of robots.
With all the progress that has been made to improve human health in space, by the time we perfect space travel, it is safe to say we might have drugs and therapies that can be administered to travellers before going to space to minimize the effects of microgravity.