While two astronauts perform their third space walk outside the International Space Station today, they will be doing some maintenance and repair work such as picking up broken instruments and inspecting a broken solar wing joint. But they'll also be setting the stage for technological breakthroughs that may not be seen for years to come.
Earlier this week the astronauts connected the Columbus module, a bus-sized laboratory built by the European Space Agency, to the station, and today two astronauts mounted a solar observatory that will help researchers to monitor the sun, as well as a facility that will "allow them to expose materials to the weightlessness and environment of space, to see how they fare," NASA spokesman Bill Jeffs told us.
The Columbus is the second space-based laboratory on the station (the first is the U.S. Destiny lab), and a third, the Japan-built Kibo, is scheduled to be delivered to the space station later this year. The Columbus has 10 phonebooth-sized research bays designed to allow experiments in biology, physiology, and fluid dynamics, that may eventually benefit the space-bound as well as the chair-bound.
Experiments in Space
"A major effort of the research is to examine how the human body adapts to a weightless environment," Jeffs said. How is that relevant to us desk jockeys? It may lead to advances in fighting diseases such as osteoporosis. "Crew members on an extended mission tend to lose muscle mass as well as bone density," just as humans do as they age. But these crew members are aging, then, at an accelerated rate, losing 1-2 percent of their bone density per month.
Other elements of human physiology will go under the microscope as well in the European Physiology Module (EPM) that may affect the way other chronic diseases are treated. "Over time, in a long-duration mission the immune system tends to be somewhat suppressed in a weightless environment, so that experiment is of interest to us and the Europeans," Jeffs explained.
He also indicated that the European Technology Exposure Facility (EuTEF), which the two spacewalkers installed today, will allow researchers "to identify the role that weightlessness plays on all levels of development" of the microorganisms, cells, tissue cultures, small plants, and small invertebrates that will be exposed to the harsh environment of space. These experiments may help to prepare humans to spend long periods away from the earth.
Evidence on Earth
There is already some payback from the enormous expense put into the International Space Station, Jeffs said. The Advanced Diagnostic Ultrasound in Microgravity (ADUM) experiment that is used to monitor crews' health in space has found a use in examining patients in remote areas and then having the imagery sent to far-off physicians for evaluation. It's also used by some professional sports teams to check a player on site and have the ultrasound checked remotely. "So you've already seen some earth applications and spinoffs from experiments performed on the station," Jeffs said.
It may take years for other benefits of the station to become apparent, but with Columbus providing space for research into biology, physiology, and even fluids--which could lead to improvements in energy production--the mission is helping to separate science from science fiction.