The 17 Weirdest Experiments From The International Space Station
While floating through space on the International Space Station, astronauts have a lot of time on their hands. Rather than hanging around all day and doing nothing, they fill their days conducting research on the ISS, some which seem like they could be inspired by a cartoon mad scientist. However, while some of their projects have the distinction of being futuristically bizarre, many also have far-reaching medical implications.
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Astronauts Are Storing Freeze-Dried Reproductive Materials From Mice To Study Reproduction In SpacePhoto: NASA on The Commons / flickr / No known copyright restrictions
It's inevitable that at some point the first baby born in space is going to manifest. But before astronauts can mate in the ISS they have find to out how space radiation affects mammalian reproduction. It would be irresponsible (and probably illegal?) to force astronauts to sleep with each other in space until we understand exactly what impact that will have so, in the meantime, we're just making our researchers bring freeze-dried mouse sperm to the ISS which is held for a period of up to one or two years.
Just a bunch of highly-trained space scientists hanging out with a jug of mouse sperm. Looking at it. After the sperm stays on board for its cycle it's brought back to Earth where it will then be looked over my different highly-trained space scientists who will use it to fertilize mouse eggs that have never left Earth.
As weird as this may sound, it's a necessary test in order to find out if humans can sustain life on a long-term mission. So far there has been considerable DNA breakdown in the sperm after nine months on the ISS, but researchers are hoping to improve on those numbers. Also? We might finally learn what space mouse babies look like.
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Astronauts Are Growing Second Heads On Flatworms While Studying Regenerative TissuePhoto: sarnau / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0
Don't you hate it when you're experimenting on a flat worm in outer space and it suddenly grows two heads? That's what happened after researchers sent flatworms into space to study how the regenerative properties of flatworms are affected by microgravity and fluctuations in the geomagnetic field.
(This is another entry in the "F*ck it, let's just see what happens" camp of space experimentation.)
After the worms returned to Earth, they were compared to a collection of unlucky flatworms who never left the planet. After cutting off a piece of one of the space worms, researchers noted that it began to sprout a second head. Aside from regenerating at an alarming rate, the flatworms from space were also put into a state of shock once they were back on Earth. Researchers noted that the worms were "paralyzed and immobile" for up to two hours after they were reintroduced to the Earth's atmosphere.
The answer is clear: send the flatworms to space, let them grow as many heads as they want but NEVER BRING THEM BACK. It's honestly too shocking for all parties.
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Astronauts Are Building An Electronic Nose To Locate Harmful Mold And Eliminate AllergensPhoto: NASA Johnson / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0
Why on Earth (or in space) would astronauts want to build a robotic nose? Can't they put their own schnozzes to work? It turns out that not only is there a minor loss in olfactory aptitude once you're in space, but there's also a litany of new smells associated with being aboard the ISS thanks to the way the air circulates through the space station.
The nose would be used to know when food is going stale before it actually goes stale, locating mold, and discovering harmful levels of CO2 before the amount becomes problematic. After testing the nose in microgravity, it can then be used in Earthbound applications.
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Astronauts Are Attempting To Cure Osteoporosis By Studying Bones In MicrogravityPhoto: NASA Johnson / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0
While in space, astronauts have begun to test a new type of glue called Tetranite that acts as an adhesive for the inside of your bones. On a long space flight, astronauts can experience a rapid breakdown of their bodies (see: the previous entry that mentions the aptly named "Space Bone Disease"). Rather than fret about their possibly shortened lifespans (and shortened bones), astronauts have created fascinating ways to fight premature aging — especially when it comes to their bones.
Tetranite — otherwise known as "bone glue" — works by stimulating "the production of new bone in the space environment, that will have a translational value back on Earth" according to Brian Hess, founder and CEO of Launchpad Medical.
We don't want to be fear-mongers here, but we already know that reckless scientists are bringing adaptive spiders into space. Now they're messing around with just creating bones out of nothing? That's how you build skeletons, NASA. You're inventing the scariest haunted house in space!
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Astronauts Are Inadvertently Creating Wild Strains Of Bacteria To Ward Off Alien InvasionPhoto: clundh / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0
One of the biggest concerns in modern space travel is germs, specifically bacteria that can grow and mutate on long trips. Right now, astronauts are prepping for the lengthy trip to Mars and a stay on the planet's surface, and as they prep for that gargantuan task, they're also attempting to sterilize bacteria that may be harmful if it manages to survive in atmosphere of Mars.
NASA has reported that the atmosphere on Mars has been known to kill bacteria within 30 seconds, but they've discovered that spores from Bacillus pumilusSAFR-032 have managed to survive both UV radiation and peroxide treatments aboard the ISS. An even more disheartening fact is that the bacteria survived for 18 months on the European Technology Exposure Facility (EuTEF), a test facility mounted outside the space station which simulates the atmosphere of Mars.
So why is this study important? As a spokeswoman for the ISS says,
Future exploration missions can use the results of these investigations to help find ways to minimize the risk of contaminating another planet. The findings also will help prevent scientists from incorrectly identifying an organism that hitchhiked on the exploring spacecraft as a native of the planet, when in fact it’s an invader. That’s a good thing, because no one wants to be responsible for an alien invasion of Mars.
Uh, yeah! We agree, it would be a bad thing to go to Mars and ruin all of their nice stuff with a bunch of super diseases that we invented as a bizarre precaution.
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Astronauts Are Using Real Geckos To Help Change Their WorkflowPhoto: NASA Flight Opportunities / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0
Working in space creates a series of problems for astronauts who are used to performing simple tasks like setting things down or hanging up a clip board. To help astronauts aboard the ISS, a series of tests have begun that are inspired by the sticky surfaces of gecko feet.
A gecko's foot has millions of tiny hairs that create an attraction on the atomic level, allowing the foot to grip to anything... Engineers have created a similar surface covered in tiny hairs, smaller than that on a human head, which can stick to all kinds of walls and surfaces.
Tape and regular adhesives don't work very well in anti/microgravity environments, so researchers have begun to explore the idea of using a small electrical field to create a "stickiness" via the positive and negatives electrons rubbing together. Using an electrical field to create something sticky is important because it doesn't leave a residue on the surfaces of the ISS. Beyond micro usage in the ISS, NASA plans to use gecko grippers to enhance ability in making external repairs to equipment — grabbing satellites, for example, or attaching robotic task helpers to the outer wall of the ISS.