Since the International Space Station (ISS) first became habitable in 2000, researchers have been using it to study the impact of the near-zero-gravity environment, making new discoveries in the life sciences, biomedicine and materials science that are spurring development of ground-breaking high-tech spinoffs on Earth.
In Europe, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics are using plasma—electrically charged gas—to develop tools that can zap drug-resistant bacteria and viruses that cause infections in hospitals, where the Multiple-Drug-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) bacteria kills 37,000 people each year and affects more than 150,000 patients, adding about €380 million ($488 million) in extra costs to EU healthcare systems.
“Resistant bacteria are killed by plasma in a few seconds,” says Gregor Morfill, director of the Max Planck Institute based in Germany. “This is a great advantage to have that kind of a weapon at your disposal.”
Plasma research on the ISS initially took place in the Plasmakristall Experiment Nefedov lab, which was replaced in 2006 by the PK-3 Plus lab. Both were developed under a bilateral effort between the German and Russian space agencies. The European Space Agency (ESA) is funding development of a third-generation lab to continue complex plasma experiments on the ISS beyond 2013.
Research done to date is developing plasma technologies that work with the human immune system to treat infections and speed the healing of burn wounds by as much as 15%, Morfill says. ESA is also helping Morfill's team to develop a hand disinfection system for hospitals, though so-called cold plasma technology could eventually be used in the home to sanitize surfaces as well as hard-to-reach cracks and crevices.
A logical next step for plasma technology, Morfill says, is global hygiene in underdeveloped countries, “where we believe that bringing plasma into those areas, for instance to make water drinkable and remove bacterial infection, is a very, very important area for health globally.”
Morfill says plasma technology is also being used in dental hygiene and food sterilization and could one day be used to protect seeds from infection and even stimulate plants to grow more quickly.
“We didn't expect this at the time, but this is research,” Morfill says.
The 19-nation ESA has about 150 ISS research projects ongoing or in preparation as part of the European Program for Life and Physical Sciences (Elips), though officials say there is room for more.
Since 2002, Elips has served as the agency's clearinghouse for conducting life- and physical-science experiments aboard the ISS, though Elips utilizes a variety of platforms, including drop towers, parabolic flights and sounding rockets as well.
Christer Fuglesang, head of ESA's Science and Application Div., says the current batch of Elips projects are due for completion in 2017, with new announcements of opportunity likely in 2013-14.
Although ESA does not directly fund science experiments on the ISS, the agency does provide hardware, launch and operations services for science and technology initiatives paid for by participating member states.
ESA's own goals for ISS utilization are concentrated on preparation for manned space exploration, technology demos, climate-change studies and education.
In the area of Earth monitoring, ESA is hosting an investigation on its Columbus module that since June 2010 has been testing the viability of tracking global maritime traffic from the station's orbit hundreds of kilometers above the planet.
The ship-detection demo is based on the Automatic Identification System (AIS), the maritime equivalent of air-traffic control. All international vessels, cargo ships above certain weights and passenger carriers of certain sizes must carry “Class A” AIS transponders, continually broadcasting updated identity, position, course, speed and other data to and from other vessels and shore.
AIS relies on VHF radio signals with a horizontal range of just 40 nm, making it useful within coastal zones and on a ship-to-ship basis, but not in the open ocean. However, because AIS signals travel further vertically, the space station is an ideal location for space-based AIS signal reception.
In the area of materials science, ESA is supporting ISS research into processing, structure and properties of new high-performance metal alloys for industrial use in turbine blades and catalytic powders. The Intermetallic Materials Processing in Relation to Earth and Space Solidification Project (Impress), a joint effort between ESA and the European Commission, is one that utilizes the Materials Science Lab on the ISS to research the solidification process of liquid metals when they form solid structures, research that was previously possible only on the ground or through brief parabolic flights.
“ISS opens up a lot of possibilities that on a short parabolic flight or through other means there is no chance to have the exact length of time you need for solidification experiments in metals,” says Robert Guntlin, managing director of Access, an independent research center associated with the Technical University of Aachen in Germany.
Knowledge derived from ground research and space experiments have led to a macro-scale prototype of a light-weight turbine blade that could further the EU's goal of decreasing aircraft fuel consumption and emissions. The turbine blade developed on the station is 50% lighter than a conventional nickel-based super alloy blade.
Other real-world spinoffs use technology from the space station's Canadarm2 and Dextre, Canadian robots that service and maintain the ISS, to produce the world's first robot capable of performing brain surgery. Dubbed the neuroArm-TM, the technology is now licensed to a private, publicly traded medical device manufacturer planning to develop a two-armed version that will enable neurosurgeons to see three-dimensional images and apply pressure to tissue.
In the area of space medicine, Russia has made great strides in turning research conducted on the ISS into practical applications at home.
Georgy Karabadzhak of Russia's TsNIIMash says experiments on the station have led to a number of patents in the areas of human health and biotechnology.has also developed basic manufacturing processes in microgravity conditions, including investment projects in new bacterial and fungi strains to produce a Hepatitis-B vaccine and plant-growth stimulators that could be used to recultivate oil-polluted lands.
He says results from the Russian Biorisk experiment, which exposed plant seeds on the ISS for 23 months with no negative impact, confirm the feasibility of long-term storage of plant seeds in space. Russian research has also produced two patents for probiotic production in space.
The(JAXA) is increasingly focused on bio- and space-medicine sciences, including improved healthcare technologies for astronauts, says Makoto Asashima, a fellow at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, Japan's largest research organization. Using its Kibo experiment module on the ISS, JAXA is pursuing long-term targets over the next five years that include chemical science to support green combustion systems. In the near term, the agency is pursuing research in container-free processing and soft materials that could have applications on Earth.
Asashima says JAXA released a Kibo utilization announcement of opportunity in April, with proposals due June 29. A number of large-scale projects in these high-priority research areas will be selected, and there are plans to issue the solicitation annually.