From its orbital perch approximately 250 miles above Earth, the International Space Station (ISS) is not only a home away from home for astronauts but also a cutting-edge research platform in low Earth orbit (LEO). Throughout 2023, astronauts on the ISS worked on hundreds of scientific investigations and technology demonstrations, many of which were sponsored by the ISS National Laboratory®. Results from these investigations could lead to advances in medicine, the production of new materials, and help foster a robust economy in low Earth orbit.
The space station provides access to sustained microgravity, enabling scientists to conduct fundamental science experiments across many different disciplines. That’s because microgravity induces changes to organisms, from bacteria to humans, not seen on Earth. These changes can occur in gene expression, cellular and molecular functions, and even the 3D aggregation of cells. Research leveraging these effects can drive advances in myriad fields such as disease modeling and treatment, regenerative medicine, tissue engineering, and more. The ISS also provides a one-of-a-kind engineering testbed, enabling technology development and demonstration for applications ranging from satellites and spacecraft to communications technology, robotics, and nanotechnology.
Here’s a look at some of the cutting-edge research investigations performed this year.
UAE astronaut Sultan Alneyadi and the rest of the space station crew worked with a trio of robotic helpers, called Astrobees, while on station. The robotic helpers test a variety of technology development projects, including one from the University of Southern California (USC) to test a new spacecraft docking system called CLINGERS. Such a system will be crucial for satellite servicing, in-orbit refueling, and in-space manufacturing.
Liver Cells in Low Earth Orbit
NASA astronaut Jasmine Moghbeli worked on a liver cell investigation from the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF). The human liver is an incredible organ capable of regeneration; however, its ability to regenerate can diminish over time due to the aging process and the hazardous nature of its work. In an effort to reduce the need for transplants, researchers have turned to the space station to better understand the decline of liver regeneration and the role an aging immune system plays in the liver’s abilities.
Pharmaceutical Manufacturing on Station
ESA astronaut Andy Mogensen worked on the Advanced Space Experiment Processor (ADSEP), which currently houses a novel pharmaceutical manufacturing facility that aims to improve drug discovery and development. Essentially a “lab-in-a-box,” the Pharmaceutical In-space Laboratory (PIL) Bio-crystal Optimization eXperiment (BOX) aims to crystallize small organic molecules in microgravity. Once validated, the system will allow pharmaceutical companies and researchers to grow small-batch crystals for protein-based pharmaceuticals.
Bioprospecting in Space
Rhodium Scientific sent multiple organisms—bacteria, yeast, and algae—to space to evaluate the ability of each to produce helpful products (a process called bioprospecting) that could hold commercial value on Earth. When stressed, certain organisms produce products such as vitamin A (beta carotene) and PBH (polyhydroxybutyrate), a type of bio-derived and biodegradable plastic used in 3D printing stock. Results could be beneficial to a variety of industries, including the pharmaceutical and agricultural industries.
HAM Radio to the Stars
Through the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) program, students around the world can talk with astronauts onboard the ISS via HAM radio. Multiple astronauts, including NASA’s Stephen Bowen, answered questions about living and working in space to inspire students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)-related fields. As an ISS National Lab education partner program, ARISS arranges 60 to 100 of these contacts each year. The program, which is one of the longest-running experiments on the space station, recently celebrated 23 years on station and 40 years in space, as the very first HAM radio contact was made onboard the space shuttle.
Meniscus in Space
NASA astronaut Loral O’Hara worked on an investigation using the BioFabrication Facility (BFF)—a facility capable of 3D printing human tissue. Earlier this year, researchers at Redwire Corporation (NYSE: RDW) successfully printed the first whole human meniscus (knee cartilage) on the space station. Using live human cells, the meniscus was printed and then cured before it was sent to Earth for analysis. Redwire is hopeful that one day in the future, the BFF could be scaled up enough to print whole human organs as a way to help mitigate the current organ shortage.
Student Research Through Genes in Space™
Frank Rubio worked on the most recent Genes in Space experiment, which was designed by Pristine Onuoha. While in high school, Onuoha proposed an experiment that looked at telomere lengthening in space. Just as the plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces protect them from fraying, telomeres are sections of DNA that protect the body’s chromosomes from damage. By developing a means of measuring DNA length in space, Onuoha’s experiment could help expand the capabilities available on the space station, enabling a broader range of investigations.
Advancing Materials Through Spaceflight
Two investigations from Stanford University are helping to produce valuable advanced materials for a variety of industries on Earth. One project utilized the space station to make higher-quality graphene aerogel. Its unique properties make this lightweight material an appealing product to use in a wide range of applications—from improved energy storage in batteries to better oil spill cleanup methods to next-generation space suits.
A second project leveraged the orbiting laboratory to create more energy-efficient photovoltaic devices, which convert sunlight into electricity for solar energy applications. The team annealed copper indium sulfide (CuInS2) semiconductor crystals in space to reduce defects that commonly occur in crystal production on Earth. Higher-quality crystals would produce more efficient devices.
Modeling Heart Disease in Microgravity
Multiple investigations this year focused on microgravity-induced changes in heart function. Microgravity is known to weaken heart muscles at an accelerated rate, similar to the aging process on Earth, which makes the space station an ideal environment to study heart disease. UAE astronaut Sultan Alneyadi worked on a pair of investigations that aimed to determine if heart tissues in microgravity can be used as an effective model to better understand the progression of heart disease and test the efficacy of certain therapeutics. Results could lead to the development of novel therapeutics to improve patient care.
Improving Household Products
NASA astronaut Stephen Bowen worked on an investigation from the City College of New York (CCNY) to determine how space-based research could improve an array of common household products, from salad dressing to body wash. The investigation analyzed the structure and stability of foams (gas bubbles dispersed in liquids or solids) and emulsions (tiny droplets of one liquid dispersed in another fluid) in microgravity. Microgravity helps to preserve the structure and function of foam products and emulsions longer, which allows researchers to test the effectiveness of nanoparticles in stabilizing them. Results from this research could help extend shelf life and create more eco-friendly products.
Stem Cells in Space
Axiom Space astronauts Peggy Whitson and Rayyanah Barnawi worked on a variety of life science research, including multiple stem cell investigations, during their brief stay on the space station as part of Axiom Space’s second private astronaut mission. The ISS National Lab-sponsored research they worked on included projects from Cedars-Sinai and University of California San Diego. Results from these investigations could lead to new cancer therapies and improved stem cell-based treatments.
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