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How the International Space Station Works

Work Aboard the ISS

International Space Station
NASA astronaut Rex Walheim works outside the Columbus lab shortly after it was installed in February 2008. Columbus, which has been part of the ISS for 11 years, holds 10 "racks" of experiments, each about the size of a phone booth. NASA

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Researchers from governments, industries and educational institutions can use the facilities on the ISS. But why would they want to? The ISS is used mostly for scientific research in the unique environment of microgravity. Gravity influences many physical processes on the blue planet we call home. For example, gravity alters the way that atoms come together to form crystals. Aboard the ISS, experimenters can develop bigger and better-structured crystals than they could on Earth. Such crystals could help us devise more efficient drugs to combat diseases — or improve radiation-detecting technologies [source: ISS: U.S. National Laboratory].

Also, microgravity does some interesting things to fire. When you strike a match here on Earth, gravity pulls cool, dense air downwards as hot gasses rise up — resulting in a teardrop-shaped flame. But on the ISS, flames take the form of tiny bluish spheres. These have already revolutionized our understanding of the combustion process. Down the road, ISS flame experiments could help engineers design more efficient burners and simultaneously reduce air pollution [source: NASA].

Long-term exposure to weightlessness causes our bodies to lose calcium from bones, tissue from muscles and fluids from our body. These effects of weightlessness — such as decreased muscle strength, osteoporosis — are similar to the effects of aging. So, exposure to microgravity may give us new insights into the aging process and associated treatments.

Indeed, trial runs of NELL-1 — an experimental protein that fights osteoporosis by (among other things) forming replacement bone — on lab mice aboard the station have yielded some encouraging results [source: Smith].

ISS astronauts can also test ecological life support systems. In their orbiting workplace, it's possible to grow various plants that release oxygen, absorb carbon dioxide and provide food. Those gardening skills will be important for long interplanetary space voyages, such as a trip to Mars.

Orbiting above the Earth's atmosphere and equipped with special instruments and telescopes, the ISS crew can monitor lots of different things on the planet's surface (like glacier distribution patterns) and in its atmosphere (like developing hurricanes). Crew members can also use telescopes to observe the sun, stars and galaxies without distortion from the Earth's atmosphere.

For details on specific projects and experiments, you can check out NASA's Space Station Experiments website. Now let's take a look at the future of the ISS.

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