At a Glance
- Sustainability continues to be priority area of research and development for the ISS National Lab.
- Remote sensing from the ISS provides powerful data for a wide range of applications to help improve water sustainability on Earth.
- The ISS National Lab partnered with Target Corporation for the ISS Cotton Sustainability Challenge, which sought to generate ideas for leveraging the ISS to enable sustainable cotton production.
- Commercial entities are using the ISS National Lab to enhance consumer products on the ground, several of which have important sustainability applications.
According to the United Nations, approximately two-thirds of Earth’s population—around 4 billion people—experience severe water scarcity during at least one month of the year, and more than 2 billion people have no safe water for use in their homes. Through World Water Day, observed on March 22 each year, the United Nations aims to draw attention to the basic human right to safe water and advocate for sustainable water management around the world.
Sustainability is a priority area of research and development (R&D) for the International Space Station (ISS) National Lab, and sustainability-related projects currently comprise about 13 percent of the ISS National Lab portfolio. At the 2018 ISS Research and Development Conference, the ISS National Lab held a subject matter expert workshop focused on water sustainability to discuss how the ISS can help raise awareness and uncover new solutions.
Below highlights some of the ways the ISS National Lab is being leveraged to help improve water sustainability on Earth.
Addressing Water Sustainability With Remote Sensing
From its position in low Earth orbit, the ISS National Lab is a powerful platform for remote sensing, providing scientists with important data that can be used to help improve the management of limited resources such as water, promote sustainable crop production, and enable water quality assessment. The Hyperspectral Imager for the Coastal Ocean (HICO), which operated on the ISS from 2009 until 2014, collected more than 10,000 images of Earth, providing valuable data for several ISS National Lab projects.
HICO imagery was used by a team of researchers at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County to develop algorithms to measure the ability of an ecosystem to convert carbon dioxide into biomass, a measurement called ecosystem productivity. By understanding changes that occur in ecosystem productivity during a day or growing season, farmers and foresters can better optimize the use of resources such as water and improve crop production.
To make it easier for researchers to analyze the vast amounts of remote sensing data, HySpeed Computing, LLC created an online web application providing on-demand remote sensing data analysis in the cloud to a global user community. The application, called the HICO Image Processing System (IPS), was developed in part through ISS National Lab funding and support. HySpeed Computing has gone on to develop three commercially available products based on the HICO IPS cloud-processing framework, one of which, WaterExtent, provides global insights on the location and quantity of water—critical information for environmental sustainability.
In June 2017, the Multi-User System for Earth Sensing (MUSES) platform launched to the ISS. MUSES, developed and managed by Teledyne Brown Engineering, is a commercial platform that can host several types of Earth-viewing instruments such as high-resolution digital cameras and hyperspectral imagers. MUSES can host up to four sensors at once, enabling remote sensing and Earth observation research with a wide variety of applications, including water sustainability.
Enabling Sustainable Cotton Production
Each year, more than 2 billion T-shirts are produced worldwide, and the production of a single T-shirt requires more than 700 gallons of water. To improve the efficiency and sustainability of cotton growth and production, the ISS National Lab partnered with Target Corporation for the ISS Cotton Sustainability Challenge. The challenge sought to generate ideas on how the ISS National Lab could be leveraged to improve the use of natural resources such as water for sustainable cotton production back on the ground.
In April 2018, the ISS National Lab and Target Corporation announced the selection of three projects from the ISS Cotton Sustainability Challenge. One selected project from Upstream Tech seeks to use remote sensing data from the ISS to expand the capabilities of a platform the company developed that enables automated monitoring and analysis of cotton production-related water use. Using machine learning algorithms to integrate and analyze the data, Upstream aims to provide real-time information to farmers to better manage water use and crop production.
Another project selected from ISS Cotton Sustainability Challenge, from Clemson University, seeks to examine gene expression patterns in cotton plant tissues in microgravity to better understand the molecular mechanisms involved in plant regeneration. The third project, from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, aims to study how cotton plants respond to the stress of microgravity and observe the resulting effects on growth and root behavior. Knowledge gained from these two projects could eventually lead to the development of cotton plants that use water more efficiently.
Promoting Water Conservation
An increasing number of commercial entities are using the ISS National Lab to improve their consumer products back on the ground, several with important sustainability applications. An upcoming investigation from Delta Faucet Company aims to further enhance their proprietary H2OKinetic® shower head technology to both provide a better user experience and conserve water.
Delta Faucet’s H2OKinetic® technology enables better control of the size of water droplets and increases speed of the droplets from the shower head. The use of larger, faster water droplets results in a feeling of increased water pressure for the user while reducing the amount of water used.
The effects of gravity on water droplet formation are not fully understood, which is why Delta Faucet took their R&D to the ISS National Lab. By studying water droplet formation and flow in microgravity, the company hopes to gain a better understanding of how they might be able to continue to improve their H2OKinetic® technology for use on Earth.
These are just a few of the ways the ISS National Lab is supporting space-based R&D focused on sustainability to provide tangible benefits to our planet and the people who inhabit it.