The International Space Station (ISS) National Lab provides a powerful platform to advance consumer products with valuable commercial applications back on Earth. A growing number of commercial entities—from small startups to Fortune 500 companies—are leveraging the unique environment of the ISS for innovative technology and materials research and development not possible on the ground.
At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), held this week in Las Vegas, ISS National Lab Associate Program Scientist Liz Warren, together with Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s Mark Fernandez and Made In Space’s Andrew Rush, will take part in a SuperSession discussing technology and advanced materials innovation in space. Tune in to the live stream of the session on January 8 from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. Pacific Standard Time (view the archived video of the session below).
Have an Innovative Idea for Space-based Research?
All U.S.-based commercial entities, from small startups to large well-established companies, have the opportunity to propose ideas for research and development projects to be conducted on the ISS National Lab. Go here to find out how to submit a proposal.
Below highlights some of the ways commercial entities are using the ISS National Lab for innovative technology and materials research and development.
Supercomputing in Space
The harsh conditions of space, which include radiation exposure and extreme temperatures, make a difficult environment for supercomputing. However, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) developed a software-hardening process that protects hardware from these harsh conditions, and in September, HPE’s Spaceborne Computer achieved one year of successful operations on the ISS National Lab. This represents the first long-term demonstration of supercomputing capabilities from a commercial off-the-shelf computer system on the ISS. Radiation-resistant supercomputers are beneficial not only in space but also back on Earth, where bursts of radiation from solar flares can impact computing devices in places such as air traffic monitoring systems and cellular towers.
Learn more in the ISS360 articles, “HPE’s Spaceborne Computer Achieves One Year of Successful Operations on the ISS” and “An Extended Mission for HPE’s Spaceborne Computer.”
In-orbit 3D Printing
The Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF), developed and operated by Made In Space, is a permanent facility on the ISS that provides in-orbit 3D printing services on demand. Such services are valuable because tools or technology needed for space-based operations and research can be produced in orbit instead of having to wait for the items to be transported from Earth. Moreover, the items can be optimized for their purpose in space without the need to account for the impacts of launch in their design. In addition to NASA, several commercial companies are taking advantage of the in-orbit fabrication services provided by Made In Space’s AMF.
Learn more in the Upward feature article, “The New Gold Rush: 3D Printing in Micro-G.”
ZBLAN, a type of fluoride glass optical fiber, has the potential to provide 10 to 100 times lower signal loss than the silica fibers traditionally used. Such high-quality optical fiber would be extremely valuable and could revolutionize the telecommunications industry. However, ZBLAN fibers produced on Earth are not usable for many commercial applications due to imperfections in the fibers that arise from gravity-driven phenomena during the solidification process. To achieve ZBLAN fibers with fewer imperfections, companies are producing the fibers in the microgravity environment of the ISS, potentially paving the way for future large-scale commercial manufacturing of ZBLAN in low Earth orbit.
Learn more in the Upward feature article, “Exotic Glass Fibers From Space: The Race to Manufacture ZBLAN.”
Synthetic Muscle Technology
To create prosthetics that are more lifelike, Lenore Rasumussen, founder and CEO of Ras Labs, developed an electroactive polymer-based product called Synthetic Muscle™. Electroactive polymers bend in response to electrical stimuli, eliminating the need for gears or motors. Through specific formulations and configurations of the polymers, Rasumussen was able to develop a material that mimics human muscle contraction. Testing the Synthetic Muscle™ material onboard the ISS National Lab provided additional insight into the characteristics of the polymers that enabled Ras Labs to improve the function of the material, and the company is now working toward advancing the product to market.
Learn more in the Upward feature article, “Bringing Motion to Life: Materials Science Research in Space” and the Upward spotlight, “Materials Science Space Station Investigations: Where are They Now?”
Retinal Implant Manufacturing
Startup company LambdaVision seeks to use the microgravity environment of the ISS National Lab to improve the manufacturing process for its protein-based retinal implant that is capable of restoring vision in patients with retinal degeneration. The implant consists of multiple layers of a light-activated protein called bacteriorhodopsin. However, when the implant is manufactured on Earth, gravity interferes with uniformity of the layers. By manufacturing the implant in microgravity, LambadaVision hopes to improve the overall uniformity and stability of the multilayer system to achieve a higher-quality retinal implant.
Learn more in the ISS360 article, “Setting Sights on Vision: Taking Flight to Improve Treatment for Retinal Degeneration.”
Shower Head Technology
Delta Faucet Company is aiming to leverage the ISS National Lab to further improve their proprietary H2OKinetic® shower head technology. H2OKinetic® technology allows for more precise control of water droplet size and the speed of the water drops as they leave the shower head. By creating larger water drops and increasing their speed, the technology enables a feeling of increased water pressure while using less water. However, it is unclear how gravity affects the formation of water droplets, which could affect the performance of the H2OKinetic® technology. By evaluating water droplet formation and water flow in microgravity, Delta Faucet hopes to learn how they might improve their H2OKinetic® technology back on Earth.
Learn more in the ISS360 article, “From Better Showers to Improved Tires: Commercial R&D on the Space Station” and the Upward spotlight “An Expanding Market of Nontraditional ISS Users.”
Radiation Detection Devices
Companies are aiming to use the refurbished Solidification Using a Baffle in Sealed Ampoules (SUBSA) furnace onboard the ISS to synthesize materials for use in radiation detection devices back on the ground. Gravity-driven phenomena can cause imperfections in the materials during production on Earth, and synthesis in microgravity could lead to higher-quality materials with improved radiation detection capabilities. Radiation Monitoring Devices, Inc. seeks to synthesize CLYC scintillator crystals for improved radiation detection devices, and Guardion Technologies aims to improve the synthesis of 2D nanomaterials for use in miniaturized ionizing radiation detectors.
Learn more in the Upward feature article, “The Little Furnace That Could: Using Space to Improve Radiation Detection” and the ISS360 article “Taking Chemistry Out of This World.”