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What Really Happens on the International Space Station?

VO: Ashley Bowman WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
The ISS is often cited as one of the most impressive feats of modern science and technology. Circling the Earth all day, everyday, it has become a symbol for human endeavour and international co-operation. But only a select few astronauts have ever experienced it for themselves. So, what really happens up there?
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What Really Happens on the International Space Station?


The International Space Station is typically regarded as one of the feats of modern science and technology. But do you really know what it does? Or why it even exists in the first place?

Just decades ago, the ISS would’ve seemed the stuff of science fiction, only. But construction of it began in 1998, with most of the earliest missions centred on assembling the space-based structure. A long list of astronauts have contributed to the build, with the bulk of the work being completed in 2011, when the final module was put into place. The efforts to expand didn’t stop there, though… And further components are expected to be added until it is eventually decommissioned in 2028.

While the ISS is generally seen to be a joint venture between America and Russia, it actually serves as a truly international hub. Its creation was in fact a joint project between five space agencies – America, Russia, Japan, Europe, and Canada – and it has been visited by the citizens of 18 different nations. So, no, as much as the movies might make it seem otherwise, it’s not just a group of NASA’s finest floating around up there.

The station itself currently comes in at 239 feet in length, 356 feet in width, and 66 feet in height. All in, it weighs nearly one million pounds. It also maintains an ‘out of this world’ altitude between 330 and 435 kilometers, and it travels through space at 27,600 km/hr, completing a total orbit around the Earth in just 92 minutes.

It’s all very impressive, isn’t it? But, what is the actual point of this undoubted technological marvel?

Believe it or not, astronauts aboard the ISS don’t just glide around all day pulling somersaults – although the temptation to cartwheel everywhere must be pretty difficult to ignore. Of course, anyone on board is a supremely talented scientist or expert in a particular field, so they’re actually conducting a steady stream of experiments that simply aren’t viable back here on Earth. Many of the studies have to do with observing how variables interact within the environment of space, and the data collected helps shape the latest missions into the great beyond.

For example, NASA is experimenting with the astronauts themselves to observe how the human body reacts in the weightlessness of space – with one eye on potential future projects which could see a return of manned missions to the moon, or long-term trips to Mars. Thanks to the work on the ISS – which simply cannot be replicated in any other laboratory, anywhere else – the team can observe hormonal differences, physiological and psychological changes in a person, and even shifts in bone density and bone loss. NASA records all of the risks brought on by extended space exposure, and attempts to create a countermeasure to prevent problems during future space exploration. In a specific case, the NASA astronaut Clayton Anderson revealed on Quora how there have been studies testing how the human optic nerve reacts in microgravity. Again, that couldn’t be done on plain old terra firma.

A paper published in 2012 in the “Journal of Bone and Mineral Research” revealed that experts have finally figured out how to maintain proper bone structure during an extended six-month stay in space. This would not have been possible without the experiments conducted by the astronauts aboard the ISS. Plus, these tests may also prove fruitful for treatment on Earth, potentially leading to advancements in understanding and treating osteoporosis. Studies involving a new chemotherapy drug have also proved successful aboard the ISS due to its microgravity environment. And there are now efforts to replicate it on Earth, entering it into clinical trials to target various forms of cancer. So, the Space Station’s biological studies are certainly monumental for future space missions, but they also tie in with medicinal advancement on Earth. That said, the Station is sometimes called into question, as its critics claim it is yet to yield a truly life-changing discovery.

It’s not only the human body that they’re studying up there, though. It’s also an important hub for analysing other potential risks in space, including environmental concerns, and for experimenting with new pieces of technology. There have been various tests focussing on the properties of fire in space in order to better understand it, control it, and prevent future disasters. Numerous studies have also been made on the ever-advancing technologies, digital systems and communications methods necessary for future space missions, many with the ultimate aim of producing a self-sufficient spacecraft capable of inter-planetary travel.

For example, there was the Amine Swingbed experiment (carried out in 2017), which involved combining a specific chemical with the vacuum of space to filter breathable cabin air. Another was the Aquapad, which quickly identified the purity and safety of drinking water using an absorbent cotton, and a computer app. Other tests, like the AMO-EXPRESS and AMO-TOCA, centred on the astronauts working with various computer systems, all designed to require less immediate input from ground control – a crucial skill for potential long-distance trips, where communication delays could amount to several hours. In general, every day’s an experiment when you’re on the ISS.

And there’s more to it than simply studying the effects of space, too. The station also collects information on the Earth itself. Thanks to its valuable (and unique) vantage point hundreds of kilometres in the air, it can report back on almost all facets of our planet’s climate and topography – including on weather patterns, the change in glaciers, mountain ranges, and coral reefs. There’s an onboard Agricultural Camera (or AgCam) which takes images of specific vegetated areas and relays these photos to requesting parties, like farmers and foresters. And amongst many other ultra-impressive bits of kit, there’s also the Cloud-Aerosol Transport System – which analyses pollution levels within our atmosphere, and investigates the effects of global warming.

Add into the equation that the station also points outwards, seeking to explore and understand the vast reaches of space itself, and its value only widens. The ASTERIA, or ‘Arcsecond Space Telescope Enabling Research in Astrophysics’, tests technologies aiming for ultra-advanced astronomical observations. Meanwhile, the CALorimetric Electron Telescope searches for enigmatic dark matter and – according to NASA – “sources of high energy particle acceleration” within the galaxy. With so much data passing through it, the station also offers a host of educational opportunities for everyday earth-bound students and budding astronauts. Whether it’s engineers surveying how certain machines work, or chemists interpreting the latest lab information, findings from the International Space Station itself offer a rare and exciting insight.

And then there’s the state-of-the-art machines. One extremely cool thing employed at the ISS is the Robonaut which, as its name suggests, is a robot astronaut. Robonaut is a humanoid device with a head, a torso, two arms, and two legs, currently working inside the station – but there are plans to operate it outside, one day. It can interact with various pieces of hardware, detect and respond to danger and potential catastrophes, and even work in high-risk environments deemed too risky for human astronauts. The tech used for robonaut is some of the more obviously futuristic, but we’re perhaps not far away from a team of robonauts featuring on all missions into space – which really would feel like science-fiction turned to fact!

However, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy – even on the ISS. And astronauts need free time just as much as everybody else. Regular exercise is especially important up there, given the cramped and unusual living conditions. Astronauts need to work-out for several hours every single day, as the lack of gravity could wreak havoc on their muscular systems. So, the station is stocked with gym equipment like exercise bikes, treadmills and specially adapted weight machines.

As for on-board entertainment, ISS occupants have much the same options we do here on Earth; they read, watch movies, play cards, etc. Clearly there’s one Space Station leisure pursuit incomparable to anything else on the ground, though – looking out of the window. Simply ‘observing your surroundings’ on the ISS means watching the Earth spin below you framed by a constant stream of sunsets and sunrises. Not only is it breath-taking, but also oddly satisfying – apparently.

Not many have called the International Space Station home, but the lucky few who have will’ve been (and are) at the centre of a remarkable achievement. As a unique hub for forward-thinking experiments and trial-runs of space-age tech, the ISS has consistently broken new ground. But in many ways, it’s but a ‘home from home’, as the astronauts are encouraged to keep fit, enjoy a variety of leisure pursuits and develop everyday friendships with the rest of the crew. Theirs is a daily life just like anybody else’s. Only, you know, it’s in space.
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