A Marriage of Minds Meets Earth and Space Clean Water Needs

In today’s A Lab Aloft, mWater co-founder John Feighery recalls how his background as an environmental engineer in the International Space Station Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston led to a novel approach to global clean water monitoring.

My wife Annie and I share a passion for humanitarian concerns, though our individual approaches may appear at first to be quite different. My career began in environmental engineering with aerospace projects for NASA, while she worked as a behavioral health scientist in East Africa. Through our mutual work, we began to see crossover potential where Earth needs could find answers from space applications. Specifically in regard to the precious resource of clean water for people living in low-resource regions or remote environments, NASA technologies developed for the extreme environment of space could help those impacted by contaminated water sources.

Annie and John Feighery, the husband and wife team behind the creation of mWater, and app. used for clean water monitoring on a global scale. (Credit: Ellen Fenter)
Annie and John Feighery, the husband and wife team behind the creation of the mWater mobile application used for clean water monitoring on a global scale. (Credit: Ellen Fenter)

We came up with the idea to provide an open source water and sanitation technology that would be mobile, accessible and inexpensive. Combining our desire to help improve the lives of others, we brought this dream into reality by founding mWater, an organization that uses low-cost kits for water testing in tandem with the mWater mobile phone app that can read the water tests.

The app communicates water source locations and their safety status on a map that water users can use to find safe water around them. Water source managers also can use the app to identify the biggest health risks in their community. Our co-founder, software engineer Clayton Grassick, designed the app in 2011, after we pitched him the challenge during the Random Hacks of Kindness Hackathon in Montreal Canada. We launched a beta version in August 2012, piloting the water test and app technology in Mwanza, Tanzania with funding from UN Habitat. With an investment grant from USAID Development Innovation Ventures, we began in June to train Mwanza’s water managers and environmental health workers to test water sources and monitor them with the mobile phone app.

Clayton Grassick, co-founder and software designer for the mWater app. (Credit: mWater)
Clayton Grassick, co-founder and software designer for the mWater app. (Credit: mWater)

The origin of this global resource has its roots in the work I did for the people leaving our planet—astronauts bound for the International Space Station. My efforts as the lead engineer for air and water equipment on the space station focused on requirements for efficient and highly portable testing capabilities that did not require incubators or other laboratory equipment to check for contamination in drinking water sources. The technology that mWater uses for testing for the presence of E. coli in 100 ml samples was inspired by the Microbial Water Analysis Kit (MWAK) that I helped develop to provide NASA with a simple water quality test. MWAK is part of the CHeCS EHS suite of hardware for environmental monitoring aboard the space station.

View of the Microbial Water Analysis Kit (MWAK) during flight tests aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)
View of the Microbial Water Analysis Kit (MWAK) during flight tests aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

The solutions I helped deliver to the station crew also applied to the needs I saw in my volunteer efforts on Earth. During a stint with the NASA Johnson Space Center chapter of Engineers Without Borders in El Salvador I was struck by the lack of clean water and the vision came together for me. I realized that I could help not only the crews bound for orbit, but also the billions of people here on Earth with the basic human need for a clean water supply.

The key innovation that came from my time at NASA was proving through the MWAK project that these types of tests can work at near ambient temperatures. This was essential for testing in the field, especially in developing countries, as incubators are expensive and require electricity. The mWater tests, however, can be done easily by anyone at room temperature.

Part of the problem with water testing up to this point was the expense of microbiology labs and the need to make the data accessible to the public quickly and efficiently. In essence, mWater works by combining an online global map of water sources reflecting inputs from an open, scalable and secure cloud-based database; inexpensive (only $5 per kit) and accurate water testing kits; and the cross-platform mobile phone app that reports test results and records water sources.

The first assembled mWater kit. (Credit: mWater)
The first assembled mWater kit. (Credit: mWater)

The app itself works with the phone’s camera and GPS to record the location of the sample and the results from the test kits, uploading the information to the free, mapped database. The water source gets its own unique numeric identifier, which governments, health workers, and citizens can use to check the health of their local supplies. The app, available for free on the Google Play Store, can function offline and is also compatible with iPhone, Windows, Android and Blackberry phones through their Web browsers.

We verified the app in real-time via a UN Habitat study that took place in Mwanza, Tanzania. The success of this validation testing allowed us to move forward to implement our tool for users around the world. What’s even better is that as people continue to use this resource, they share the water results in an open source forum online. We are building an open source/open access global water quality database that anyone can put into operation to better understand water safety across geography and time.

The ease of the app is another carryover from my days at NASA, mimicking the lessons learned from writing training plans for the crew of the space station to learn to use such a tool. We focused on simplicity and ease of use to reduce human error in the user interface. More than 1,000 Android users on the Google Play Store have downloaded the app during the beta release phase. Now, less than two years later, mWater has grown to fully implementing water quality monitoring and mobile surveys with the investment grant from USAID.

The mWater app running on an Android phone. (Credit: mWater)
The mWater app running on an Android phone. (Credit: mWater)

Scientists and concerned citizen groups from around the world are downloading the app because the technology reduces the cost of conducting large water studies. We have also collaborated with Riverkeeper, a non-profit organization in New York City, to monitor water here at home in the Hudson River Valley.

We have used this simple and affordable tool to test water in Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya, and we are expanding to Ethiopia later this year. These countries represent areas where people have access to the fewest safe water sources in the world. Diarrheal disease is the second leading cause of child mortality worldwide, behind lung infections. Drinking unsafe water also leads to malnutrition and stunting and lost wages for those who are ill and those who care for them.

In our research, most families choose between three water sources on average for their water each day. mWater’s app can help them make the safest choice available and inform them when they need to expend their precious resources on fuel to boil unsafe water. We can generate reports of water source status for communities that need assistance lobbying for government funding. Most importantly, in our view, we create a sustainable capacity for affordably monitoring water that can exist after we leave each community.

John Feighery helping to check water in Tanzania. (Credit: Annie Feighery)
John Feighery helping to check water in Tanzania. (Credit: Annie Feighery)

John Feighery is a social entrepreneur working to bring low-cost water monitoring to under-resourced communities, using mobile phone and mapping technology to share the results and respond rapidly to contamination. He will graduate this year with a doctorate in Earth and environmental engineering from Columbia University, where he measured and modeled microbial contamination of groundwater and drinking water in Bangladesh. Before returning to Columbia for his Ph.D., Feighery worked for NASA as manager of the Environmental Health System for the International Space Station and also helped develop advanced life support technology.


Women in Space Part One, Female Firsts in Flight for Space Exploration and Research

In today’s A Lab Aloft, guest blogger Liz Warren, Ph.D., recalls the inspirational contributions and strides made by women in space exploration and International Space Station research.

This month we celebrate the anniversaries of three “firsts” for female space explorers. On June 16, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova of the Soviet Union became the first woman in space. Then on June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became America’s first woman in space, followed by Liu Yang as China’s first woman in space on June 16, 2012. Though their flight anniversaries are not in June, I would be remiss if I did not mention the first European woman in space: Helen Sharman in 1991; the first Canadian woman: Roberta Bondar in 1992; and the first Japanese woman: Chiaki Mukai in 1994.

Women in space_1

At the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia, Dec. 2, 2010, NASA astronaut Cady Coleman (right), Expedition 26 flight engineer, meets with Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to fly in space, on the eve of Coleman’s departure for the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, where she and her crewmates, Russian cosmonaut Dmitry Kondratyev and Paolo Nespoli of the European Space Agency launched Dec. 16, Kazakhstan time, on the Soyuz TMA-20 spacecraft to the International Space Station. Tereshkova, 73, became the first woman to fly in space on June 16, 1963, aboard the USSR’s Vostok 6 spacecraft. (NASA/Mike Fossum)

Each of these milestones built upon each other by inspiring the next wave of female explorers, continuing through today with the women of the International Space Station and beyond. With this in mind, I’d like to take a moment to celebrate women in space and highlight those with a connection to space station research. It is amazing to me to see just how connected these seemingly separate events can be. The steps of the intrepid explorers who engage in space exploration set the course for future pioneers, blazing the trail and providing the inspiration for those who follow.

To date, 57 women including cosmonauts, astronauts, payload specialists and foreign nationals have flown in space. Our current woman in orbit is NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, working aboard the space station as a flight engineer for Expeditions 36 and 37. While Nyberg lives on the orbiting laboratory for the next six months, she will perform experiments in disciplines that range from technology development, physical sciences, human research, biology and biotechnology to Earth observations. She also will engage students through educational activities in addition to routine vehicle tasks and preparing her crewmates for extravehicular activities, or spacewalks.

Women in space_2

NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg performs a test for visual acuity, visual field and contrast sensitivity. This is the first use of the fundoscope hardware and new vision testing software used to gather information on intraocular pressure and eye anatomy. (NASA)

Many of the women who have flown before Nyberg include scientists who continued their microgravity work, even after they hung up their flight suits. In fact, some of them are investigators for research and technology experiments recently performed on the space station. Whether inspired by their own time in orbit or by the space environment, these women are microgravity research pioneers ultimately looking to improve the lives of those here on Earth.

Chiaki Mukai, M.D., Ph.D. of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, for instance, served aboard space shuttle missions STS-65 and STS-95. She now is an investigator for the space station investigations Biological Rhythms and Biological Rhythms 48, which look at human cardiovascular health. She also is the primary investigator for Hair, a study that looks at human gene expression and metabolism based on the human hair follicle during exposure to the space station environment. MycoMyco 2Myco 3, other investigations run by Mukai, look at the risk of microorganisms via inhalation and adhesion to the skin to see which fungi act as allergens aboard the space station. Finally, Synergy is an upcoming study Mukai is leading that will look at the re-adaptation of walking after spaceflight.

Women in Space_3

STS-95 payload specialist Chiaki Mukai is photographed working at the Vestibular Function Experiment Unit (VFEU) located in the Spacehab module. (NASA)

Peggy Whitson, Ph.D. served aboard the space shuttle and space station for STS-111Expedition 5STS-113, and Expedition 16. She also is the principal investigator for the Renal Stoneinvestigation, which examined a countermeasure for kidney stones. Results from this science have direct application possibilities by helping scientists understand kidney stone formation on Earth. Whitson, who blogged with A Lab Aloft on the importance of the human element to microgravity studies, also served as the chief of the NASA Astronaut Office at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston from 2009 to 2012.

Women in Space_4

Expedition 16 Commander Peggy Whitson prepares the Capillary Flow Experiment (CFE) Vane Gap-1 for video documentation in the International Space Station’s U.S. Laboratory. CFE observes the flow of fluid, in particular capillary phenomena, in microgravity. (NASA)

Sally Ride, Ph.D. (STS-7STS-41G) initiated the education payload Sally Ride EarthKAM, which was renamed in her honor after her passing last year. This camera system allows thousands of students to photograph Earth from orbit for study. They use the Internet to control the digital camera mounted aboard the space station to select, capture and review Earth’s coastlines, mountain ranges and other geographic areas of interest.

Women in Space_5

Astronaut Sally Ride, mission specialist on STS-7, monitors control panels from the pilot’s seat on space shuttle Challenger’s flight deck. Floating in front of her is a flight procedures notebook. (NASA)

Millie Hughes-Fulford, Ph.D. (STS-40) has been an investigator on several spaceflight studies, including Leukin-2 and the T-Cell Activation in Aging study, which is planned to fly aboard the space station during Expeditions 37 and 38. This research looks at how the human immune system responds to microgravity, taking advantage of the fact that astronauts experience suppression of their immune response during spaceflight to pinpoint the trigger for reactivation. This could lead to ways to “turn on” the body’s natural defenses for those suffering from immunosuppression on Earth.

Hughes-Fulford has been a mentor to me since I was in high school. It was Hughes-Fulford who encouraged me to pursue a career in life sciences, and she also invited me to attend her launch aboard space shuttle Columbia on STS-40, the first shuttle mission dedicated to space life sciences. In fact, STS-40 also was the first spaceflight mission with three women aboard: Hughes-Fulford; Tammy Jernigan, Ph.D.; and Rhea Seddon, M.D.

I followed Hughes-Fulford’s advice, and, years later, I found myself watching STS-84 roar into orbit carrying the life sciences investigation that I had worked on as a student at the University of California, Davis. In the pilot’s seat of shuttle Atlantis that morning was Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot and command the space shuttle. Our investigation, Effects of Gravity on Insect Circadian Rhythmicity, was transferred to the Russian space station Mir, where the sleep/wake cycle of insects was studied to understand the influence of spaceflight on the internal body clock.

Women in Space_6

Payload Specialist Millie Hughes-Fulford checks the Research Animal Holding Facility (RAHF) in the Spacelab Life Sciences (SLS-1) module aboard space shuttle Columbia. (NASA)

Women at NASA always have and continue to play key roles in space exploration. Today we have female flight controllers, flight directors, spacecraft commanders, engineers, doctors and scientists. In leadership positions, Lori Garver is at the helm as NASA’s deputy administrator, veteran astronaut Ellen Ochoa is director of Johnson; and Lesa Roe is director of NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

In space exploration and in science, we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. These women pushed the boundaries and continue to expand the limits of our knowledge. What an incredible heritage for the girls of today who will become the scientists, engineers, leaders and explorers of tomorrow.

Liz Warren

Liz Warren, Ph.D., communications coordinator for the International Space Station Program Science Office. (NASA)

Liz Warren, Ph.D., is a physiologist with Barrios Technology, a NASA contractor. Her role in the International Space Station Program Science Office is to communicate research results and benefits both internally to NASA and externally to the public. Warren previously served as the deputy project scientist for Spaceflight Analogs and later for the ISS Medical Project as a science operations lead at the Mission Control Center at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Born and raised near San Francisco, she has a Bachelor of Science degree in molecular, cellular and integrative physiology and a doctorate in physiology from the University of California at Davis. She completed post-doctoral fellowships in molecular and cell biology and then in neuroscience. Warren is an expert on the effects of spaceflight on the human body and has authored publications ranging from artificial gravity protocols to neuroscience to energy balance and metabolism.

Waste Not, Want Not: Translating What We Learn About Living On Space Station For Life On Earth

Intoday’s entry, guest blogger Jeff Smith, Ph.D., shares his thoughts on thesustainable aspects of the International Space Station with the readers of ALab Aloft, pointing out how these carefully planned efforts in space can leadto greener living on Earth.

The International Space Station is an amazing place. It’sa research lab, an observatory, a complex machine and a home. But, it’s notjust any home or workplace; the station is the most remote and mostenvironmentally conscious home or office ever created. Every bit of materials,supplies and consumables must be brought from Earth at a cost of thousands ofdollars per pound. All the on-board power comes from renewable solar energy.Anything that can be re-used, re-purposed or recycled gets to stay; everythingelse gets tabulated, quantified, packed and either returned to Earth, or packedout aboard Progress or another space vehicle designated to burn up over thePacific Ocean. 

In space, it costs a lot to bring in supplies and packout the waste. It is also extremely important to always make sure there areenough supplies and enough power to keep everything running smoothly 24 hours aday, 7 days a week for a crew (or family) of six. There is no grocery store,pharmacy or hardware shop in space. If it’s not aboard, you can’t just go outand pick it up at the corner store. You can’t even open the windows to get moreair. If you run out, that’s it. 

As a result of these limitations, the space station hasbecome an incredible example of sustainability and sustainable practicesanywhere on Earth, or beyond. The technologies and methods being developed andused by the crew can directly translate to improved sustainability for homesand offices here on Earth. 

NASA astronaut Catherine (Cady) Coleman, Expedition 26flight engineer, is pictured with a stowage container and its contents in theHarmony node of the International Space Station.
(NASA Image ISS026E011334)

Supplies are stored in a number of locations andcarefully tracked so they can be brought out when required. Since the crew is living,working, eating, sleeping, exercising and breathing—just as you and I would doon Earth—those supplies get used pretty quickly. All that packaging, food andother consumables become waste. The waste is also carefully measured andstored.

Some materials and samples are returned to Earth; but themajority is stowed aboard Progress or other space vehicles and allowed to burnup in the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean. At first this might not seem likea “sustainable” practice, but the space station must track everything thatcomes in or goes out. With the high cost of boosting supplies into space, stationcrews and ground-support personnel take many steps to reduce, re-use andrecycle everything they can.

The unpiloted ISS Progress 41 supply vehicle departs fromthe International Space Station April 22, 2011. Filled with trash and discardeditems, Progress 41 remained in orbit a safe distance from the station forengineering tests before being commanded by flight controllers to descend to adestructive re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean.
(NASA Image ISS027E015444)

Air and water are currently recycled aboard the spacestation, but NASA has plans to improve these systems and do even more torecycle waste. These new and advanced space-based life support systemsinclude air revitalization, water recovery, and waste management, as well ascontrol systems for many other important factors, such as temperature, humidityand cabin pressure.

To reduce the high cost of lifting resources into orbit,space life support systems must be extremely small and lightweight. Since thereis little power to spare in space, they must also be very energy efficient.Space life support systems also need to be extraordinarily reliable andlow-maintenance, as malfunctions can lead to mission failure and repairs inspace are time consuming and demanding on the crew. Additionally, these systemscan increase self-sufficiency by regenerating vital resources from wastematerials.

These requirements for sustainable systems inspace—small, lightweight, energy-efficient, low-maintenance, and low waste—arethe same as those that can make systems work even better here on Earth. Thus,the capabilities developed to enable human exploration inspace can be potentially applied on Earth to make cleaner, more sustainableliving possible here today. NASA’s technical excellence and engineeringexpertise offer critical resources for jump-starting sustainable systemstechnologies for use in private and commercial sectors. With a strongcommitment to public/private partnerships and commercial technology transfer,NASA knowledge and technologies can help make sustainable living practical andaffordable for everyone.

NASA advanced life support systems, air (left), water(middle) and solid waste (right) processing units for life support can providefuture space habitats with small, low-power, extremely efficient recyclingsystems. These space systems can have Earth-based applications to improvesustainability where we live and work. 
(Credit: NASAAmes ResearchCenter)

Today, some of the sustainable technologies developed forspace are being brought down to Earth in the Sustainability Base at NASA AmesResearch Center. This 50,000 square foot office building is one of thecleanest, greenest facilities ever constructed. 

NASA’s Sustainability Base is unlike any other governmentbuilding every created. It incorporates space technologies and know-how, bringingInternational Space Station and other NASA energy/sustainability practices downto Earth in one of the greenest, most efficient buildings ever.
(Credit: NASAAmes ResearchCenter)

Construction of the Sustainability Base will be completedsoon, showing that NASA really does translate advanced sustainable technologiesfrom space down to Earth, affecting our homes and workplaces for a cleanergreener tomorrow. Other ongoing activities, outlined in the NASA Ames Greenspace Website, include sustainable practices,clean energy technology development and green aviation research. Thesetechnologies and methods, whether used aboard station or to accomplish otherNASA missions, can make a big contribution to improve sustainability andenvironmentally friendly practices here on Earth.   

Jeff Smith, Ph.D.
(Credit: NASA)

JeffSmith, Ph.D., is Chief of the Space Biosciences Research Branch at NASA’s AmesResearch Center. The principal mission of the Branch is to advance spaceexploration by achieving new scientific discoveries and technologicaldevelopments in the biosciences. Smith has worked for NASA since 1996.

Destination Station Brings the Space Experience Home

In today’s post, International Space Station Program Scientist, Julie Robinson, Ph.D., shares the experience and benefits of Destination Station with the readers of A Lab Aloft.

Destination Station is a new endeavor that we have as a resource to help bring information about the International Space Station to the public. The goal of this traveling exhibit is to inform people around the country about this amazing orbiting laboratory and resource by visiting different host communities. Destination Station includes a fantastic museum exhibit that actually lets visitors walk through a mockup of the same shape and size of the modules on the space station. It also has interactive videos and posters, in addition to artifacts for people to look at.

The Destination Station exhibit will travel around the country to help inform the public about the International Space Station and promote research and education opportunities.
(Credit: NASA)

When the Destination Station exhibit arrives in a new community, there are about two weeks of different events that come with it. One major focus area includes educational activities, both linked to the host museum and to schools in the local community. NASA educators come in and bring some of our outstanding education programs out to different schools. They also set up communication events where students can experience a live downlink and talk with astronauts on orbit, asking them questions about station research and what it’s like to live in space.

Once Destination Station moves on, resources are left behind so that area teachers can continue to use space to get their students focused on science, math, and engineering. Studies have shown that students are interested in space—If you think about two things that get students excited about science, it’s space and dinosaurs. We can’t provide dinosaurs, but we do have a lot to share about space.

The Destination Station exhibit includes interactive posters, like the one pictured above showing a scale image of the station with a size comparison to a football field.
(Credit: NASA)

The other important aspect of Destination Station is reaching out to the business community. For example, at the most recent event in Denver, Colorado, there was a pretty large technology savvy population. Astronaut Mike Good and I had a chance to speak with state representatives and business leaders as part of the Destination Station scheduled talks. Through this forum, we had the opportunity to share with those leaders the importance of the space station and space exploration for the American economy. We focused on how research results and technology developments keep our country on the cutting edge, serving as an economic engine that drives innovation and business economies around the world.

The response from the Denver and Colorado-based business community was just outstanding! These community leaders were really interested in what is happening with the space station and the potential boost to economic growth. In fact, many of the businesses are already evolving technologies developed for aerospace and space research into Earth-focused products and services. Examples include things like clothing made from phase change materials, superior plant growth media, and GPS tracking services.

The Destination Station exhibit includes interactive posters, like the one pictured above sharing information about research in space.
(Credit: NASA)

In the Colorado area there are a number of companies that focus on working with scientists to help them do research on the space station. These businesses hosted a fair at Destination Station to reach out to those interested in translating their research from the university lab bench to the space environment. Scientists could go, see the hardware, and talk to providers experienced in taking ground-based research and putting it up into space. Bioserve Space Technologies demonstrated all of the hardware available at the fair.

Destination Station is a great combination of events for everyone from the students to the general public to researchers. Earlier in the year we also took the exhibit to the Ohio area, with events in Cleveland and Columbus. There are talks with universities and civic groups, it’s just a really exciting two weeks when Destination Station comes to town. We hope to see you at the next location for Destination Station stop in the San Francisco Bay area in early March 2012.

Julie A. Robinson, Ph.D.
International Space Station Program Scientist

Touching Lives via International Space Station Benefits

We are proud to announce the new International Space Station Benefits for Humanity website. Today’s entry highlights how this international collaborative effort communicates positive impacts to life here on Earth from space station research and technology.

Last month at the International Space Station Heads of Agencies meeting in Quebec, Canada, my international counterparts and I had the opportunity to share the results of more than a year’s worth of work across the international partnership. This collaboration culminated in the launch of the International Space Station Benefits for Humanity website, which looks at the early results from the space station and highlights those that have returned major benefits to humanity.

This website was translated into all the major partner languages and there also is a downloadable book format. The 28 stories found on the site focus on human health, education, and Earth observation and remote sensing, but these are just some of the benefit areas. Others, such as the knowledge gained for exploration or basic scientific discovery, are found on the space station results and news websites.

It can be a bit challenging at first see which station efforts will generate direct Earth benefits. This is because when we do the research, we finish things on orbit and then it can take two to five years for the results to publish, and possibly another five years after that before the knowledge yields concrete returns. I think each of us, while developing these stories, found things that surprised us. I suspect readers will, too. Some of these developments and findings are so amazing they go straight to your heart!

For example, the Canadian Space Agency robotic technology developed for the Canadarm was really cutting edge; now it has been applied to a robotic arm that can assist with surgery. Brain surgeons have used this robotic arm to help some patients who were not eligible for a standard operation, because the surgeries were too delicate for human hands. With the robotic assist, still in the testing phase, they were able to save the lives of several patients. This is a remarkable development.

Paige Nickason was the first patient to have brain surgery performed by the neuroArm robot, developed based on International Space Station technology. (Jason Stang) View large image

Another area where space technology returns offer a benefit to humanity is in the ability to provide clean water in remote regions and disaster areas. We also have stories about the ability to use station related telemedicine to improve the success and survival for women and their babies, if they anticipate complications during delivery. Providing a remote diagnosis to women in hard-to-reach areas enables them to seek life-saving medical care. These are just a few of the remarkable returns from space technologies.

Expectant women around the world can experience safer deliveries in part due to International Space Station technology in telemedicine. (Credit: Scott Dulchavsky)

The website also includes stories that focus on the research knowledge obtained during station investigations. One particular area gaining attention is vaccine development. Scientists are now creating candidate vaccines for salmonella that fight food poisoning, as well as one in the works for MRSA—an antibiotic resistant bacteria that is very dangerous in hospitals.

An example of Salmonella invading cultured human cells. (Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID, NIH) View large image

We also see ongoing benefits in the area of Earth observation, which our Japanese colleagues compellingly described after the Fukushima earthquake in Japan. The Japanese people were responding to that event in such courageous ways. Having information about what was going on really helped and the global community mobilized all the possible Earth remote sensing resources to provide aid via imagery of the disaster. The station provided imagery and data of the flooding from the original tsunami surge. I would like to share with you the comments of my JAXA colleague, Shigeki Kamigaichi, who was on the ground after the disaster:

“The Earth observation by astronauts from the International Space Station brought us several impressive image data offerings. Furthermore, the crew comments concerning the tsunami damage from March 11, 2011, to the people who suffered gave us a feeling of oneness and relief.”

Oblique image of the Japanese coastline north and east of Sendai following inundation by a tsunami. The photo was taken Mar. 13, 2011. Sunglint indicates the widespread presence of floodwaters and indicates oils and other materials on the water surface. (NASA) View large image

One of the exciting things about Earth observations work is that the station passes over populated parts of the world multiple times a day. Our Russian colleagues shared some examples of work they had done to track pollution in the Caspian Sea using data from the space station. They also used Uragan imagery to understand a major avalanche in the Russian Caucasus region, determining glacial melting as the root cause of the avalanche. These imaging efforts really help as we look at ways to better respond and predict disasters and prevent future loss of life.

Oil pollution in the northern part of the Caspian Sea, on the basis of data received from the Uragan experiment: 40 oilfields, equaling approximately 10 percent of the surface covered with oil film. (Roscosmos) View large image

Of course, there also are the compelling educational benefits from the space station. It is inspiring to see students get excited about science, technology, engineering and math, simply by connecting them to space exploration. Education is a bonus, since this is not why you build a laboratory like this. Once you have that laboratory, however, you can make a huge impact in children’s futures.

One of the most widely influential examples of educational benefits are when we hear students from all over the world, not just station partners, using HAM radio contacts to speak with astronauts aboard station. This happens on the astronauts’ free time, when they can just pick up the ham radio and contact hundreds of students through amateur radio networks. These children ask questions and learn about everything from space to life aboard the station to how to dream big. It is a recreational activity for the astronauts, taking just a few minutes, but the students are touched for a lifetime.

Because this effort is so readily routed internationally, students in developing countries can benefit just as easily as students in other areas. In fact, 63 countries already have participated with the space station; a much larger number than the 15 partner countries. Education activities are a core international benefit.

A student talks to a crew member aboard the International Space Station during an ARISS contact. (Credit: ARISS) View large image

While this initial launch of the Benefits for Humanity website was a big release, it is something we plan to maintain and continue over time with our partners. The work for these derivatives of station activities will continue to roll out over time, but we anticipate it to grow. When you have hundreds of experiments active during any six-month period on orbit, the throughput and the amount of crew time going to research each week is unprecedented!

The experiments are being completed faster than ever before and we are going to see these benefits and results coming out much more quickly, so it is an exciting time. It is important to start talking about these developments as we turn the corner from assembly to the full mission of research aboard this one-of-a-kind orbiting laboratory.

Julie A. Robinson, Ph.D.
International Space Station Program Scientist

Space Innovation and Mobile Healthcare

In today’s A Lab Aloft, our guest blogger is the Director of NASA’s Human Health and Performance Center, Dr. Jeffrey Davis. This center fosters a collaboration between space and Earth research and technologies. Dr. Davis shares with readers the potential behind cooperative efforts during the development stages of projects.

Mobile healthcare is the focus for the upcoming NASA Human Health and Performance Center, or NHHPC, Workshop, scheduled for June 7 in Washington, D.C., as part of D.C. Health Data and Innovation Week. This is our third workshop, and topics of interest include not only terrestrial global health issues, but also technologies for smartphone applications to collect data, to inform patients, to connect patients with their providers, etc.

A collaborative moment from the NASA Human Health and Performance Center Workshop, Jan. 19, 2011. (NASA Image)

For everything developed through the NHHPC, we would like to see an Earth and space application, as well as a transfer of knowledge in both directions. NASA technology could be adapted to terrestrial health issues, via spinoffs and other applications, but we hope to pull in ideas that exist in the public domain for the mutual benefit of everyone. That is the concept behind the center, to connect people and employ that bridge in both directions to benefit spaceflight and life on Earth.

While there are a number of projects ongoing between members, for this blog I am focusing on the Colorimetric Solid Phase Extraction, or CSPE, technology. This is a great example, because it’s different from flying a commercial off-the-shelf device on the International Space Station. It has the potential for development in more than one application.

The CSPE is a paint chip identification device originally designed to match paint colors. The technology was adapted, however, to measure silver and iodine in water and it is now flying on the space station for this purpose. Called the Colorimetric Water Quality Monitoring Kit, this tool enables the measurement of biocides found in water on orbit to allow for safe drinking water for the crew.

NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, Expedition 21 flight engineer, conducts a water quality analysis using the Colorimetric Water Quality Monitoring Kit, or CWQMK, in the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station. (NASA Image)

There are additional Earth benefits that could derive from the CSPE. It has the potential to be modified to measure arsenic and lead in water, which are global public health concerns. This other capability is not yet developed, but it is a great example of how an innovative design from a non-biomedical piece of equipment can have mutual space and Earth applications.

Through the NHHPC, we hope to find technology applications for space flight or that can use the space station as a testbed for evaluation in later flights. When we are able to fly technologies early in their development on station, we have the benefit of visualizing how the orbiting lab works as a platform for planning purposes.

The inverse of this is that as we continue to learn more about human adaptation to long duration space flight, we can expand that knowledge base through our member organizations and derive how existing NASA technologies or future technologies might adapt for Earth benefits. What we have found is that by approaching problem solving early enough with the NHHPC members, we can preemptively address issues or requirement questions. Creating a device that is low weight, low power and robust parallels many healthcare concerns, especially for remotely located populations.

We find that by asking the right questions, we can connect people in the early phases of technology planning and development. Technology sharing can always occur, but the goal is to identify common issues for use as collaboration platforms that can eventually turn into projects.

The NASA Human Health and Performance Center logo, showing the core goals of collaboration, innovation, and education in global human health and performance efforts in spaceflight between NASA and member institutions. (NASA Image)

The NHHPC is a global, collaborative virtual center designed to convene government, industry, academic, and non-profit organizations that support the advancement of human health and performance innovations for space flight, commercial aviation, and challenging environments on Earth. Our member organizations participate in face-to-face workshops, webcasts, and virtual working groups to address issues, share best practices, and formulate collaborative projects in various areas, including innovation, education, human health and technology development. You can read more about the NHHPC events and developments on our website and follow us on Twitter via @NASAHumanHealth.

Jeffrey R. Davis, MD, MS
NHHPC Director

Johnson Space Center

Jeffrey R. Davis, MD, MS, currently serves as Director, Space Life Sciences, and as the Chief Medical Officer for the NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Dr. Davis’ past positions include Professor, Preventive Medicine and Community Health at the University of Texas Medical Branch; Corporate Medical Director, American Airlines; and Chief, Medical Operations NASA Johnson Space Center.

Texas Talks Space

In today’s A Lab Aloft, Jessica Nimon, research communications managing editor for NASA’s International Space Station Program Science Office, talks about the impact of interacting with the public during Space Week 2013 in Austin, Texas.

Texas hosts Space Day at the Capitol in Austin every other year as part of Space Week. This year’s theme was “Human Exploration: the Journey Continues.” This was my second time representing the International Space Station Program Science Office to the students, members of the public and legislative staff who attended. I enjoy participating in such events because not only I can share the latest space station research and technology news, but it also gives me a chance to gauge perceptions from the audience I communicate with in my role as a writer and editor at NASA.

Keeping the exploration theme in mind, NASA’s International Space Station Program research and technology display shared a space with the agency’s Commercial Crew Program and Orion vehicle displays. Joining these exhibits in the lower level of the Capitol building’s rotunda were representatives from various commercial space companies, including SpaceX and Blue Origin. The in-the-round exhibit placement seemed symbolic of the partnerships taking place with NASA to continue and expand human space exploration.

Chelsey Bussey, International Space Station Program Science Office research scientist, answers a student’s questions during Space Day at the Capitol 2013 in Austin, Texas. (NASA/James Blair)

My colleagues, Scientific Communications Analyst Amelia Rai and Research Scientist Chelsey Bussey, helped tell the story of the amazing research, technology and educational opportunities and developments from our orbiting laboratory. We shared how the space station is a resource that goes beyond space exploration goals, reaching out to cross boundaries in areas of healthcare, pharmaceutical advancements and industry spinoffs. Some of my personal favorites to highlight include NeuroArm, a lifesaving robotic instrument for brain surgery developed using technology from the space station’s Canadarm, and advances made in vaccine development.

The inspiration shared at such events has the potential to touch not only the 3rd to 8th grade students targeted by Space Day, but also to inspire the imagination of new users with research goals for microgravity research. While speaking with the people visiting our exhibit, at least one scientist expressed interest in how he could use the space station as a platform for his research.

Amelia Rai, NASA scientific communications analyst, shares International Space Station research and technology facts with a visitor to Space Day at the Capitol 2013 in Austin, Texas. (NASA/Jessica Nimon)

One of the more frequent questions we received during the event had to do with NASA’s collaborative efforts with private businesses. Having our industry partners right next to us in the rotunda provided a great opportunity to share the way NASA does business. Visitors were surprised and excited to hear that NASA is working together with private companies to provide avenues for future exploration, as well as resupply and experiment sample return from the International Space Station.

Space Day followed on the heels of South by Southwest (SXSW), a multiday conference and festival highlighting music, film and technology, which also had a space-themed focus this year. Excitement for exploration was still abuzz all over Austin. Although we didn’t attend SXSW, Amelia, Chelsey and I did have our own follow-up activity by attending an Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) event on March 20 at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders in Austin. These students, who were not able to visit the Capitol for Space Day, were excited to have a more up close, personal connection with the space station.

Canadian Space Agency astronaut Chris Hadfield conducts an Amateur Radio on the International Space Station session in the Zvezda Service Module. (NASA)

Using a ham radio contact, which lasts for about 10 minutes, the 540 middle and high school girls were able to listen as their peers asked space-related questions directly to space station Commander Chris Hadfield, who answered from aboard the orbiting laboratory. The audience was so attentive you could hear a pin drop while Hadfield spoke!

Ana H. from the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders in Austin, Texas, asks a question for Commander Chris Hadfield to answer during an Amateur Radio on the International Space Station connection.(Catherine Serra-Fuentes)

Project Specialist Monica Martinez organized the ARISS event for the school and commented on the impact such an opportunity has on these young women. “The ARISS contact was an experience that truly wowed our entire student body, faculty and administrative team. The girls thought it was one of the best events of this entire school year and loved talking to Commander Hadfield. They were also so ecstatic to see that he had tweeted about our school right after the contact. Our students were inspired by his words and the overall experience.”

Students at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders in Austin, Texas, pose with NASA International Space Station Program Science Office representatives Jessica Nimon (fourth from left, back row), Chelsey Bussey (fifth from left, back row) and Amelia Rai (sixth from left, back row). (Catherine Serra-Fuentes)

The event was followed by a short space station presentation by Amelia, who shared space station facts and talked about some of the benefits for humanity that have already derived from related research and technology. Amelia’s talk was followed by a short question and answer session where the students’ interest in space-related topics and careers was evident, showing a bright future for human endeavors with space research and exploration.

Jessica Nimon, International Space Station Program Science Office research communications managing editor. (NASA)

Jessica Nimon has a background in the aerospace industry as a technical writer and now works with the International Space Station Program Science Office as the Research Communications Managing Editor. Jessica coordinates and composes Web features, blog entries and manages the @ISS_Research Twitter feed to share space station research and technology news with the public. She has a master’s degree in English from the University of Dallas.


Ringing Out 2012 by Chiming in on International Space Station Achievements

In today’s A Lab Aloft International Space Station Program Scientist Julie Robinson looks back at the year in review for research aboard the orbiting laboratory.

As the year comes to a close, I like to take a moment to look back at all the amazing accomplishments from the previous twelve months for the International Space Station. There are lessons to be learned and goals to be evaluated as part of planning for the new year. But this is also a time to enjoy achievements and strides made via this orbiting laboratory in research, technology and education.

Keeping a Helpful Eye on Earth

The vantage point of station offers not only an impressive view of our planet, but the chance to capture and study important aspects of the Earth’s atmosphere, waters, topography and more. The 2012 arrival of the ISS SERVIR Environmental Research and Visualization System, known as ISERV, will enhance the viewing capabilities from orbit used to support disaster assessment, humanitarian assistance and environmental management.

This year an externally-mounted station instrument contributed to the Environmental Protection Agency’s goal of monitoring and improving coastal health. The same Hyperspectral Imager for the Coastal Ocean, or HICO, also assists the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, with scans to determine depth below murky waters, bottom type, water clarity and other water optical properties.

Assisting with disaster response became the secondary mission for the International Space Station Agricultural Camera, or ISSAC. This imager was originally intended for agriculture vegetation surveys to assist with crop and grazing rotation. When that primary science objective ended, the camera became part of the space station’s response efforts for global disasters as part of the International Disaster Charter.

Map of chlorophyll-a for Pensacola Bay derived from HICO data. Higher values (yellow and red) indicate high chlorophyll concentrations in the water that suggest algal blooms are present. Algal blooms can reduce oxygen levels in the water, leading to fish and other animal kills. Some algal blooms also contain organisms that produce toxins harmful to other life, including humans. (EPA)

Inspiring Future Generations

This year NASA’s continued support in educational areas of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) led to some exciting student-based activities and resources. With the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program, or SSEP, for instance, 15 investigations were selected from close to 800 proposals of student inspiration and design. The results from these studies will be shared at the national conference held each year in Washington DC.

The YouTube Space Lab competition provided another opportunity that caught the attention and imagination of students around the world. Two investigations were selected as winners from more than 2,000 video submissions and many tuned in to watch as the experiments were conducted by astronauts live on orbit.

You can read about all of the education activities available to students to participate in space station science in our recently published “Inspiring the Next Generation: International Space Station Education Opportunities and Accomplishments, 2000-2012.” This retrospective book details station activities involving more than 42 million students and 2.8 million teachers across 48 countries from 2000 to 2012.

Joseph Avenoso (left), Gage Cane-Wissing (right), and Adam Elwood (not pictured), presented their findings on bone loss in microgravity as part of the 2012 SSEP National Conference. (NCESSE/Smithsonian)

Technology Testbed

The space station plays an important role as a microgravity testbed for emerging technologies. The JEM-Small Satellite Orbital Deployer, or J-SSOD, for instance, operated for the first time in 2012, launching multiple small satellites into orbit. This new capability provides a reliable, safe and economically viable deployment method for releasing small satellites, in addition to enabling the return samples to the ground for analysis.

Another exciting technology tested on station is the Robotic Refueling Mission, or RRM, which may help support future space exploration using advanced robotics to service vehicles and satellites in orbit. This capability does not currently exist, but is essential to long-duration exploration missions of tomorrow.

JAXA astronaut Aki Hoshide preparing the JEM Small Satellite Orbital Deployer aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

Exciting Discoveries for Human Health and Science Disciplines

Findings from station investigations are impacting human health both here on Earth and in orbit. For instance, recently published results related to bone health showed that a combination of nutrition, Vitamin D supplements, and high-intensity resistive exercise help the crew to preserve bone mass density without the need for pharmaceuticals. These findings also apply to the development of treatments for osteoporosis patients here on Earth, an estimated 44 million in the United States alone.

Crew health was highlighted in vision studies in 2012, as well, with the publication of two results papers focused on the impact of microgravity on astronaut vision changes. Research found that significant vision loss in 20 percent of crew members may derive from a combination of the spaceflight environment and changes in metabolism, with an enzyme related to cardiovascular health potentially playing a role.

A discovery of “Cool Flames” caused excitement in the physical sciences community this year. These low-temperature flames ignite via chemical reactions from fuel vapor and air, burning invisible to the eye. This knowledge can help with improving fire safety in orbit, but also has implications for cleaner and more fuel efficient combustion in engines here on Earth.

A burning heptane droplet during the FLEX investigation on the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

Ringing in the New Year

Looking forward to 2013, there are still so many exciting things to learn in the various disciplines studied aboard station. Whether in biology and biotechnology, Earth and space science, human research, the physical sciences or even technology developments, there remains a huge potential for discovery. The advent of updated and new facilities planned for the station will help enable investigators in their research in these areas.

Along with the research taking place aboard station, we continue to see Earth benefits that derive either directly or as a spinoff of station science. I look forward to continuing to share these findings and stories with you in the coming year and through the lifetime of this amazing microgravity laboratory.

Julie A. Robinson, Ph.D.
International Space Station Program Scientist


SAGE Wisdom for Atmospheric Research

In today’s A Lab Aloft, guest blogger Kristyn Damadeo shares the history of the SAGE investigation, scheduled for future use on the International Space Station. This technology can help researchers to better understand Earth’s atmosphere makeup, especially the health of our ozone layer.

The International Space Station houses some unique experiments and soon it will be home to an exciting new Earth science mission: SAGE III, the Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment III.

SAGE III mounts externally to the space station and is a mission to study Earth’s atmosphere sponsored by the NASA Science Mission Directorate and led by NASA Langley Research Center. It will be the first Earth-observing instrument of its kind aboard station, taking accurate measurements of the amount of ozone, aerosols—tiny particles—water vapor and other key components of Earth’s atmosphere.

The SAGE Legacy

SAGE III is the first of its kind to operate on station, but the SAGE family of instruments has been taking atmospheric measurements for more than 30 years. SAGE III is the fourth generation in its family operated by NASA.

The artwork above belongs to the SAGE III instrument, which is part of a family of SAGE technology developed to help research Earth’s atmosphere. (NASA Image)

The first SAGE instrument was flown on a satellite in 1979. SAGE I was a sun photometer that used solar occultation—a measurement technique using the sun as a backlight—to gather information on aerosols and important stratospheric gases in the atmosphere. SAGE I collected valuable data for nearly three years, until the power system on the satellite failed.

With SAGE I came the start of a global database for stratospheric aerosols, ozone, and nitrogen dioxide that is still used in the study of global climate. While SAGE I was active, it provided crucial input into the understanding of global, seasonal and inter-annual variability in climate and, in particular, trends in stratospheric ozone.

SAGE I was followed by SAGE II in 1984. SAGE II data helped to confirm human-driven changes to ozone and contributed to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which banned the use of chemicals that harm the ozone layer. SAGE II lasted 21 years on orbit, allowing us not only to determine the initial extent of ozone changes, but also to measure the effectiveness of the Montreal Protocol. SAGE II saw ozone stop decreasing and begin to recover during its time on orbit.

Engineers at NASA Langley work in a clean room with the SAGE III instrument. (NASA Image)

Then in the late 1990s, SAGE III was developed by Ball Aerospace and Technology Corp. The first of the instruments was launched in 2001 on a Russian satellite, METEOR-3M. The second instrument was stored for a future flight of opportunity. The third was removed from storage and prepared for flight on the space station. The mission will enable researchers to fill an anticipated gap in ozone and aerosol data in the second half of this decade.


SAGE III will study Earth’s protective ozone layer from aboard station. Ozone acts as Earth’s sunscreen. When ozone starts to break down, it impacts all of Earth’s inhabitants. Humans, plants and other animals are exposed to more harmful rays from the sun. This can cause long-term problems, such as cataracts and cancer in humans or reduced crop yield in plants.

When SAGE III begins making measurements from the space station in late 2014, some models predict that stratospheric ozone should have recovered by 50 percent. The precise pattern of ozone recovery measured by SAGE III will help improve the models and refine our understanding of the atmosphere.

Particles in the upper Earth’s atmosphere cause the blue layer shown in this image of a sunrise taken from aboard the space station. SAGE III will measure these atmospheric gases from a similar perspective. (NASA Image)

Measurement Technique

SAGE III takes its measurements using solar and lunar occultation. Occultation is a technique for pointing and locking onto the sun or the moon and scanning the limb—thin profile—of the atmosphere as the sun or moon rises or sets. SAGE III will operate mostly autonomously and the data will be transmitted to the ground through the space station’s communications systems.

The space station provides the perfect orbit from which to take measurements of the composition of the middle and lower atmosphere. Our location aboard station also gives us a great view for our solar/lunar occultation technique.

Back in Action

SAGE III is scheduled to launch to the space station aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon in mid-2014.

The SAGE III suite consists of a sensor assembly that has pointing and imaging subsystems and an ultraviolet/visible spectrometer; an European Space Agency- provided hexapod pointing system and a nadir viewing platform. The Canadian Space Agency-provided robotic arm will robotically move SAGE III from the Dragon trunk and install it on the Earth-facing side of the EXPRESS Logistics Carrier-4, or ELC 4, storage platform. 

The graphic above depicts the SAGE III instrument, which will collect data to help researchers better understand Earth’s atmosphere. (NASA Image)

The research results of the space station-mounted SAGE III will provide insights that will help humans better understand and protect Earth’s atmosphere. Only by understanding these changes will we be able to mediate future impacts on our environment. Much more data and research is needed to better understand and quantify our impact on our world’s climate system.

The SAGE program has a long heritage and is one of NASA’s longest running Earth-observing programs. Continuous long-term data collection is necessary to understand climate. Once it is on the space station, SAGE III will help to extend a long record of atmospheric measurements for the continued health of our Earth. The observations of SAGE III from station are crucial for providing a better understanding of how natural processes and human activities may influence our climate.

SAGE has been pivotal in monitoring ozone and making accurate measurements of the amount of ozone loss in Earth’s atmosphere. Today, the SAGE technique is still the best for the job. Although new technologies have come along to measure ozone, none are as thorough as solar occultation. Through this dataset, SAGE on the station will enhance our understanding of ozone recovery and climate change processes in the upper atmosphere. We also extend the scientific foundation for further sound decisions on environmental policy, both nationally and internationally.

Kristyn Damadeo is the Education and Public Outreach Lead for SAGE III on the International Space Station at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. She has previously worked as a science writer and a newspaper reporter, specializing in environmental reporting. Damadeo has a degree in Communication Arts from Ramapo College of New Jersey.

Flights of Flames for Fire Safety in Space

In today’s A Lab Aloft guest blogger, Sandra Olson, Ph.D., reveals some of the mysteries of how flames burn in microgravity, as well as how flame studies on the ground and aboard the International Space Station help with fire suppression and safety in space.

Whether dropping through a hole in the ground as part of a drop test or zipping through space aboard the International Space Station, flames behave in fascinating ways in microgravity! In the Zero Gravity Research Facility, or ZGRF, at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, I get to study solid fuel combustion behavior first hand. ZGRF is a historic landmark and the deepest drop tower in the world with a freefall of 432 feet. Drop test experiments, like the one pictured below, look at material flammability during the brief, 5.18-second period of microgravity achieved as the sample package falls.

During a Zero Gravity Research Facility tour, Facility Manager Eric Neumann (far left) shows International Space Station Program Scientist Julie Robinson (front center) and her colleagues one of the drop packages used in the facility. The top of the white vacuum drop shaft is in the background. (NASA/Marvin Smith)

The drop test was remotely run from the ZGRF control room. Controllers activated the miniature wind tunnel apparatus to establish a spacecraft ventilation flow environment, then ignited the material and dropped the experiment. Once the sample releases into freefall, the experiment is completely automated. The drop vehicle lands in the catch-bucket at the end of the 5.18 second test.

Experiment images (left) and catch-bucket facility images (right) appear on the ZGRF control room screen. (NASA/Marvin Smith)

We have performed many drop tests studying how materials burn in microgravity compared to how they burn in normal gravity, or 1g. What we have found is that many materials actually burn better in the spacecraft flow environment than in 1g. This is because on Earth the buoyant flow—created when less dense materials rise within greater density environments—is strong enough to blow the flame out with oxygen reduction. In low ventilation, however, the slow flow provides the oxygen at an optimum rate, so the flame can survive to lower oxygen levels than in 1g. To learn more about the concepts of microgravity and combustion in the space environment, watch this “NASA Connect” video.

A flame burning in microgravity at the end of a 5.18-second drop from the Zero Gravity Research Facility. The material for this test was cotton fabric burning in 5 centimeter per second air flow, which is the typical International Space Station atmosphere. Crew clothing is often made of cotton. (NASA)

Enhanced flammability in space was recently proven in longer duration burn experiments aboard the space station as part of the Burning and Suppression of Solids, or BASS, investigation. For this study, the crew of the space station gets to play with fire. As a co-investigator, I get to observe via video on the ground and directly talk to the crew as they ignite a flame in the controlled area of the Microgravity Science Glovebox, or MSG, filming the behavior of the burn.

After his recent return to Earth, Astronaut Don Pettit, who worked on the BASS flame study in space, testified to a Senate subcommittee about the investigation and the importance of combustion experiments in microgravity.

“If you look at fire, fire and its either discovery or learning how to tame fire is what literally brought us out of the cave and allows us to have our civilization in terms of what we know now,” said Pettit. “Fire gives us our electricity. Fire allows us to have vehicles, airplanes and cars, and machines. It literally turns the wheels of our civilization…space station now offers us the ability to dissect deeper down into what the processes are in combustion… by looking at it in an environment free from gravity, free from the gravitational-driven convection. And this allows us to look at things and figure out what’s going on at a level that you could never see without taking it to space…and what we found is that things are more flammable than what we thought.”

(Left) Astronaut Joe Acaba runs BASS in the Microgravity Science Glovebox, or MSG. (Right) Astronaut Don Pettit holds up a burned acrylic sphere to show the science team on the ground how a fine layer of soot coats the wake region of the material, while the front part of the sphere looks like a meteorite with the surface marred with many craters. (NASA)

These experiments so far have confirmed that when the air flow is turned off, the flame extinguishes rapidly as it runs out of oxygen, with no fresh air flow. The MSG provides an enclosed work area, sealed to contain fluids, gasses and equipment for the safe running of combustion experiments. The crew views the burning material through the front window. The flame can be seen through this window in the picture with Joe Acaba (above). You also can see Don Pettit working on a previous run of BASS aboard station in this video.

This finding reaffirms the space station fire alarm protocol to turn off any forced air flow in the event of a fire alarm. Surprisingly, though, when the astronauts used a small nitrogen jet built into the flow duct for fire suppression testing, the flame did not go out when the air flow was turned off, if the nitrogen jet was on. In fact, the flame appeared to get brighter. Researchers intend to continue to study this unexpected discovery in which the nitrogen jet was able to entrain air all by itself, as the finding has important implications for gaseous fire suppression systems like the
CO2 suppression system currently employed on station.

Acrylic sphere burning as part of the Burning and Suppression of Solids, or BASS, investigation aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

BASS results also catch the attention of future spacecraft designers. One of the sample materials burned in BASS is acrylic, also called Plexiglas. This material is under consideration for spacecraft windows because of its excellent strength, mass and optical properties. However, it also burns quite well in the space station air environment. BASS payload summary reports mentioning acrylic have spurred a number of recent inquiries to the investigator team about the flammability of this material. After all, you don’t want your spacecraft windows to catch on fire!

A wax candle flame in very low air flow is nearly spherical with an inner sooty layer near the wick, and an outer blue layer. This blue is due to chemiluminescence, which is when a chemical reaction emits light. (NASA)

The BASS investigation has direct applications to spacecraft fire safety and astronaut wellbeing. A combustion experiment, BASS was jointly designed by scientists and engineers at NASA and the Universities Space Research Association, or USRA. BASS operations are scheduled to begin again aboard the space station in the spring of 2013.

The best part of my job as a researcher is the thrill of discovering new phenomena unique to microgravity. It is exciting to work with something as beautiful and powerful as fire, especially in these unique microgravity environments. The fire images have inspired me to create art images from them. 

2009 Art “Fire’s Ribbons and Lace”
The delicate and fractal nature of charring cellulose is amplified here in repeated magnified images of a flame spread front over ashless filter paper. (Sandra Olson)

2011 Art “Flaming Star”
Microgravity flames converging toward the center of the starburst ‘implode’ against an outflow of wind, creating a diffusion flame ‘supernova.’ (Sandra Olson)

The more we understand the behavior of flames with given materials and conditions, the better prepared we will be to harness their potential and contribute to fire safety in future space exploration. What’s next will depend on what we discover from these ongoing tests, building on the knowledge already gained from these important combustion studies.

Sandra Olson, shown here with the microgravity wind tunnel drop apparatus.

Sandra Olson, Ph.D., is a spacecraft fire safety researcher at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, as well as the project scientist and co-investigator for the BASS investigation. She has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering and a M.S. and Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering. She has worked at NASA since 1983, most of that time studying microgravity combustion.