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

Part of the Mission, Part of the Science

In today’s A Lab Aloft entry, guest blogger and European Space Agency astronaut Christer Fuglesang talks about his role as a test subject while living aboard the International Space Station.

You may not know it, but being an astronaut also means being a guinea pig. A lot of the research done in space is about humans, in particular how our bodies are affected by the weightlessness. This is important to know in order to prepare ourselves for future human exploration, like when we will travel to Mars. But this research also gives us many new insights in how our bodily systems work. This knowledge can help scientists and doctors to improve medical treatments here on Earth. They can even find new and better ways to prevent illnesses based on microgravity studies.

European Space Agency astronauts Frank De Winne and Christer Fuglesang photographed during the installation of the new Minus Eighty Degree Laboratory Freezer for ISS, or MELFI, in the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station. (NASA Image)

Virtually every astronaut that has ever gone into space has participated in medical experiments as a test subject – or as I like to call it, a guinea pig. The inhabitants of the International Space Station almost daily have some activity related to human research. During a workout, for instance, we take measurements like blood pressure, heart rate, or body temperature to provide valuable research data.

Some studies, like the Neuroendocrine and Immune Responses in Humans During and After Long Term Stay at ISS, or Immuno, require taking a saliva sample to check the immune system. Then there’s the Nutrition Status Assessment, or Nutrition, which requires blood and urine samples that store in the Minus Eighty Degree Laboratory Freezer for ISS, or MELFI, aboard the station. They later return to the ground for analysis. Another investigation that comes to mind is Bodies In the Space Environment: Relative Contributions of Internal and External Cues to Self – Orientation, During and After Zero Gravity Exposure, or BISE, which measures brainwaves while the astronaut performing some visual tasks to investigate how microgravity affects the neurological system.

European Space Agency astronaut Christer Fuglesang trains for the Otolith Assessment During Postflight Re-adaptation, or Otolith, investigation prior to his departure to the International Space Station. (Credit: Christer Fuglesang)

It seems that almost every system in our bodies gets more or less affected by weightlessness: from muscles and bones to cells in the immune system, from the heart and lungs to eyes and the balance organs in the ears. Humans are designed to live in a 1-g environment, making their long-term exposure to microgravity a fascinating and biologically altering study of the entire body.

In my case, I have specifically participated in several experiments related to the balance system, or vestibular system, such as the Otolith Assessment During Postflight Re-adaptation, or Otolith, and the Ambiguous Tilt and Translation Motion Cues After Space Flight, or Zag. Before and after my flights, I stood on wobbling plates and sat in spinning and sliding chairs, trying to keep my balance or perform some set of actions.

Meanwhile, scientists observed me and compared my responses from before flight with how I performed right after about two weeks in weightlessness. They also looked into how my balance regained normality during the week after returning to Earth. This helped them to understand new things about how humans keep our balance. This  knowledge may eventually help doctors to better diagnose people who have medical disorders like disorientation and nausea.

Canadian astronaut Robert B. Thirsk wears sensors and hardware in preparation for the Canal and Otolith Interaction Study, or COIS, another vestibular system investigation. (NASA Image)

In almost all science, doing an experiment one time is not enough. This is particularly true in human research, since each test subject is somewhat different. Therefore, some 10 other astronauts also performed the above-mentioned experiment. As one can understand, with only so many crew members on orbit at a given time, it takes awhile to get enough guinea pigs to complete a round of human research in space.

These studies are well worth it, however, as is the discomfort of sitting in a chair that spins with 400 rotations per minute while sliding sideways. The research is important and yields unique results for the benefits of humans, both in space and on Earth.

Christer Fuglesang

Christer Fuglesang is an astronaut with the European Space Agency, or ESA. He flew as a Mission Specialist with STS-116 and STS-128 to the International Space Station where he participated in multiple extravehicular activities, or EVAs. He is the first Swedish astronaut to fly in space.

The Tool to Fill the Gaps of our Senses: AMS

In today’s A lab Aloft blog entry, International Space Station Associate Program Scientist Tara Ruttley shares her point of view on the importance of asking the big questions via station research.

When I do public speaking events, people always ask me what’s my favorite investigation. For me it’s usually the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, or AMS investigation. This incredible instrument is a particle physics detector mounted to the outside of the International Space Station. The AMS was developed by Professor Samuel Ting, a Nobel Laureate in physics, along with an international collaboration of 16 countries organized by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Estimated distribution of dark matter making up 22 percent of the mass of the universe and dark energy making up 74 percent, with ‘normal’ matter making up only 0.4 percent of the mass of the universe. (NASA)

The goal of AMS is almost like sci-fi, involving the search for dark matter, dark energy, antimatter, and even something called strangelets. You hear about these things growing up and on TV and you wonder, is that real? If you go past the scientific jargon, the purpose of AMS is to answer a fundamental question in our nature. To ask, as we have from the beginning of time, how did the universe begin?

The answer to this question intrigues me, like everyone else, because it inevitably addresses “who are we and what are we doing here?” Everybody would love to know, so we seek the answers the best way that we humans can: pushing technology limits to find evidence in ways that our own human senses cannot.

The researchers behind AMS are trying to get solid data to support one of the more prevalent theories: the big bang. In a nutshell, this theory says that the universe came together, particles condensed, and boom! You got us. It’s a little more complicated than that, but the theory behind it is that for the big bang to even occur, you had to have equal parts matter and antimatter.

Matter is something we can see and feel, it’s all around us and makes up everything. It’s so very obvious! Antimatter is a little more tricky for us. It is the opposite of matter and we can theorize that it exists and even make small, fleeting samples in laboratories. And so we are using AMS to look for these things that we mere mortals aren’t capable of perceiving for ourselves.

AMS’s space shuttle-mounted predecessor actually found evidence of antimatter a few years ago, so we are only teased by this potential and are now prompted to capture the particles in greater, consistent amounts for study. Now we’re ready to collect lots of evidence for antimatter levels that will keep Nobel laureates, post-docs, and graduate students busy analyzing for years. Since its installation on station, which marked a one year anniversary on May 19, AMS has been collecting about a billion observations per month and even the smallest bits of data are going to lead to hundreds of publications. These will cite the importance of AMS findings with a relevance that likely only super smart astrophysicists will understand, and that the rest of us will see in headlines here and there as new evidence unfolds.

A close view of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2, or AMS, in the space shuttle Endeavour’s payload bay prior to being mounted to the International Space Station’s starboard truss. (NASA)

Using AMS, we record as much data as we can and analyze it here on Earth. This is where we try to tell an ultimate story with it. It’s what we do in science: chip away at a question until we can come to a conclusion that is always just beyond the next discovery. Yet, as exciting as the headlines will be, I actually tend to struggle with what’s next on these findings. I struggle because, since as we gain bits and pieces of knowledge, inevitably we learn not only what we didn’t know, but how much more there is to know.

Can you sense my impatience and excitement?

Observing antimatter is the first data goal that goes back to the big bang theory. The next data set AMS looks for is dark matter or dark energy, which is fun for me because it further proves that there’s more out there than meets the eye. We humans have senses for sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, but we are limited to the capability of our receptors as we constantly take in our environment. We miss things that could be right there in front of us.

One of the limits of our eyesight, for instance, is that we can only see a certain spectrum of light. We don’t see the ghastly amounts of waves that pass all around us as our wireless devices talk to each other, or our radios blare during our morning jog. Our eyes see only 5 percent of the universe! We can sense that the other 95 percent of the universe exists, however, because we have found tantalizing evidence through research. We are using AMS as an extension of ourselves to fill in the gaps of our senses and help us understand the unknown. This includes the parts that we don’t even know we don’t know yet.

The starboard truss of the International Space Station is featured in this image, including the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-2, or AMS, at center left. (NASA)

AMS also is looking for evidence of a type of matter called strangelets. Yes, it does sound … well … strange. This would be a new form of matter that we have theorized existence of, but haven’t found in nature quite yet.

We’re taught in school that all matter is made of atoms, which we thought were the smallest form of matter. Now scientists are finding that atoms are made of even smaller quarks, and the prevailing theory regarding quarks is that there are six different types in the universe. We have classified all matter on Earth as being made up of only three types of quarks. So why does nature need the additional three? Some scientists theorize that there are other forms of matter out there that would be made up of a combination of these six quarks, and they’re calling them strangelets. It is a creative effort to try to answer what and where these strangelets are. Scientists have created such evidence as “strange” and “antistrange quarks” in heavy ion accelerators, which they theorize could lead to strangelet formation, but as of now, a strangelet is still a hypothetical particle. The prospects are endless.

Only the space station is capable of supporting the power and data transfer AMS requires to look for evidence of antimatter, dark matter, dark energy, and strangelets, and it will keep the scientific community busy for years. The human species develops tools like AMS to find the things we might otherwise miss, because we seek answers — lots of answers. It’s our nature.

AMS is an instrument that is taking it all in and ultimately it’s humans who will try to make sense of the information and apply it to what we know or think we know. We’ll learn what we didn’t know and try to tell our own local story. As we advance as a species, we build on that knowledge that may one day expand with the universe, beyond our little planet. It’s a good time to be a science geek.

Tara Ruttley, Ph.D.
(NASA Image)

Tara Ruttley, Ph.D., is Associate Program Scientist for the International Space Station for NASA at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Ruttley previously served as the lead flight hardware engineer for the ISS Health Maintenance System, and later for the ISS Human Research Facility. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology and a Master of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from Colorado State University, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Neuroscience from the University of Texas Medical Branch. Ruttley has authored publications ranging from hardware design to neurological science, and holds a U.S. utility patent.

Putting on a Thinking Cap for Brain Research on the Space Station

In today’s A Lab Aloft, guest blogger astronaut Bob Thirsk shares with readers his perspective as a test subject for International Space Station investigations.

I operated many different science payloads during my six-month International Space Station expedition in 2009. Some payloads only required me to power up and check out the hardware. Once activated, either automated software or the ground science team took control of payload operations and completed the rest of the experiment.

Neurospat, on the other hand, was a payload that fully engaged me in the science and data collection. A cognitive function experiment from Belgium and Hungary, it depended on astronauts to operate all aspects of the experiment from start to finish and even to serve as experiment test subjects. As a fundamental neuroscience research investigation, Neurospat may help researchers better understand the human brain and how it functions.

Frank De Winne, my European crewmate, and I were the very first subjects for Neurospat. When Frank served as a subject, I would help him set up the hardware. When I was a subject, Frank would help me in return. The biggest challenge of hardware setup was to place the cap on our crewmate’s head without laughing. It’s impossible to keep a straight face when your crewmate is wearing a scalp-hugging red or blue polka dot cap with an electrical pony-tail and wires dangling around the face. We looked like jesters! 

In reality, this odd-looking cap is a sophisticated electroencephalographic, or EEG, measurement device that incorporates 64 electrodes within the fabric to monitor our brain waves. A few other electrodes hanging from the cap are applied elsewhere on our skin to monitor eye movements, muscle activity and cardiac rhythm.

An important task of the assistant was to apply just the right amount of electro-conductive gel beneath each electrode using a syringe. The gel reduces the electrical impedance between the electrode and the subject’s scalp, improving the signal quality.

Bob Thirsk uses a syringe to inject a small amount of electro-conductive gel beneath each electrode of Frank De Winne’s EEG cap. Meanwhile, Frank initiates the Neurospat software for his upcoming experiment session. (NASA)

The pony-tail of the cap connects to the Multi-Electrode EEG Mapping Module—say that three times quickly!—which is a unit within a payload rack in ESA’s Columbus laboratory. This unit not only collected the data from the 64 electrodes, it also transmitted it to the ground. At the end of each Neurospat session, there was a lot of data that needed to be transmitted!

The fun began once the hardware was ready, the cables were connected and the data was flowing. For the next 70 minutes Frank and I repetitively performed four different experiment tasks while free-floating.

A computer screen, which we viewed through a tunnel adapter, presented specific tasks to us. Two of these tasks assessed our perception of visual orientation. Using buttons on a keypad, we evaluated the orientations of lines and estimated the locations of dots on the face of an imaginary clock face. This portion of the experiment was tedious. Frank and I joked to ourselves that while Neurospat claims to be a cognitive function experiment, this portion of the experiment was secretly a sleep induction investigation!

The other two Neurospat tasks were visuomotor “docking” tasks that kept us attentive and wide awake. The objectives were to alternately pilot a simulated Soyuz-like vehicle to a docking port on the space station, or to manually dock a Progress-like vehicle as if we were a cosmonaut working from a control station inside the station. This was similar to a video game requiring the use of a joystick. As we worked to complete each docking task quickly and accurately, the EEG cap monitored the functions of our cerebral cortex. I loved this portion of the experiment, since the tasks appealed to my competitive instincts.

After the Neurospat equipment has been set up, the free-floating test subject performs 70 minutes of cognitive function tasks. (NASA)

Researchers are already analyzing the data from Frank, myself, and all of the other astronauts who have participated in Neurospat to date. They compare our performance in space to our performance on the ground, both before and after flight. The scientists are particularly interested in our brain wave patterns, since these provide insight into our neural and cognitive processes while we performed the tasks.

Scientists hypothesize that long-duration spaceflight affects an astronaut’s sensorimotor system and cognitive abilities. Specifically, they think astronauts may have difficulty determining which way is up, and that our cognitive processes in space may be degraded by stress, fatigue and disrupted sleep.

Neurospat data collection is scheduled to continue on the station through September 2012. The research team expects to have enough astronaut subjects by the end of this year to complete their analysis and publish their results. I enjoyed Neurospat, as it was an experiment that fully engaged me in the science and data collection, putting my training and skills to the test. For an astronaut who is interested in payload operations, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Dr. Robert (Bob) Thirsk is an astronaut with the Canadian Space Agency. He holds degrees in mechanical engineering, an MBA, and is also a medical doctor. Dr. Thirsk has been involved in various Canadian Space Agency and NASA projects and is a veteran of two space flights: STS-78 in 1996 and Expedition 20-21 in 2009.

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.

International Space Station Engages with Education

In today’s A Lab Aloft Assistant International Space Station Program Scientist Camille Alleyne talks about a new education publication that highlights more than a decade of inspiring student opportunities with space station investigations and activities.

This October I was excited to see the publication of a book that was not only an international collaboration, but more than a decade in the making: “Inspiring the Next Generation: International Space Station Education Opportunities and Accomplishments, 2000-2012.” Readers can find the PDF version of the publication here and are encouraged to visit the space station’s opportunity site for current education activities.

From a personal perspective, the value of the space station is as a platform for promoting Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education, and engaging and exciting students in their studies in these areas. We can really inspire and increase interest in these subjects so that our youth go on to become the next generation of scientists, engineers and explorers.

In the past 12 years of operation, there have been more than 42 million students, 2.8 million teachers and 25,000 schools from 44 countries involved in education activities aboard the space station. This is a bonus in addition to our space station research for exploration, scientific discovery and applied research.

This publication is the follow up to “Inspiring the Next Generation: Student Experiments and Educational Activities on the International Space Station, 2000–2006,” and is a product of NASA’s ISS Program Science Office. The new document is the first time we worked to share these education activities in partnership with our international partners to show the benefits of space station research and education interactions that impact our life here on Earth. There was a team of education leads from each of the international partners that contributed to this publication, which is a comprehensive documentation of all the education activities conducted on the space station since 2000. This includes activities that are ongoing and will continue for the next few years.

Cover of the education publication: “Inspiring the Next Generation: International Space Station Education Opportunities and Accomplishments, 2000-2012.” (NASA)

This book looks at education activities in several different categories. Students are able to get involved with experiments that fly on the space station. They also have opportunities to take part in competitions, with the winners getting to either fly their experiments on station or have a crew member perform some aspect of the challenge. Finally, students have the ability to participate in classroom versions of station investigations by either mimicking or outright partaking in the experiments happening aboard station.

An example of this is Tomatosphere, a Canadian Space Agency-sponsored plant investigation. Researchers fly tomato seeds aboard station, while students on the ground grow their own seeds in the classroom. The young scientists participate in the scientific process by comparing the differences in germination from seeds flown in space vs. those that never left Earth.

During a previous Tomatosphere program, students studied the growth of tomato plants in Miss Smith’s grade three class at Langley Fundamental Elementary in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The students took their plants home to grow in their gardens over the summer. (Tomatosphere)

When students engage directly with researchers flying their investigations aboard station, they usually play a role in data analysis and the setting up of studies before they fly. For instance, with the International Space Station Agricultural Camera, or ISSAC, a student-based staff participated in designing, building and controlling the camera remotely during primary science operations. So there are many ways for students to engage with the space station.

There are also opportunities to learn from demonstrations by astronauts previously done aboard station. Teachers can access and play these experiments in the classroom to demonstrate different scientific concepts and theories. Taking this one step further, students can even engage in real-time crew interactions via live downlinks or ham radio contacts.

With inquiry-based activities, students get to learn how real researchers work and how the scientific process functions simply by being allowed to ask questions, develop hypothesis and analyze data. They learn to think deeply and critically about different scientific concepts, which is a true value of education engagement with the space station.

A student at Lamar Elementary School in Greenville, Texas, proudly talks to an astronaut in space. (NASA)

The opportunity to collaborate with the international partners for this project was really interesting. I was able to gain insight into their education objectives and how they compare to those here at NASA. The Japanese Space Agency, or JAXA, for instance, puts a lot of emphasis not only on STEM education, but on using cultural activities as a way of inspiring the public. That is not something we focus on at NASA, but it was fascinating to see the diverse connection between art and science in these space-related education activities. Take for example the Space Poem Chain project, which used poetry to break barriers by using space as an inspiration for contributors from ages 8 to 98 from around the globe.

It was also fantastic to have Russian Space Agency contributions and to see the ways they go about inspiring their children. Also different from the U.S., the Russians use satellite development and communications technology as their main vehicle for engaging students, while simultaneously building their sense of wonder and skill. Seeing the different cultures and what their missions are in terms of educational goals, including how they manifest into activities, was fun to learn and then to share in this collaboration.

Students from Charminade College Preparatory, West Hills, Calif., run preliminary variations of their experiment in the lab. (SSEP)

We have one story from each partner highlighted on our Benefits website in the area of education. Now we get to take all of our collective efforts and extend the benefits of these activities across the partnerships to other students in other countries around the world. Building this education book with my colleague, Susan Mayo, was a unique experience; a very rewarding one. I look forward to the continuing and growing impacts of the space station.

I feel it is important to note that the inquiry-based approach to science education, like that done with the space station, is what scholars cite as the value that excites students to pursue careers in STEM based areas. I see more of an emphasis on this type of station educational activity in the future. I would also like to see younger participants for these station activities. Consider the Kids in Micro-g project, where we had 5th graders competing to design microgravity experiments. A group of nine year-old girls won and had their investigation conducted aboard station. This led to an actual scientific discovery that nobody expected, contributing to the body of knowledge in that area of physics.

NASA astronauts Catherine (Cady) Coleman and Ronald (Ron) Garan perform the Attracting Water Drops experiment from Chabad Hebrew Academy. (NASA)

The audience for this book is primarily space station stakeholders, but the activities that make up the content have the ability to impact students everywhere, no matter what culture or language. This book has some engaging opportunities that students all over the world could participate in. The thought that 8, 9, and 10 year-olds can teach us something new about exploration and going beyond what we think we know is really exciting! I would like to see what other young minds can contribute using space station education.

Camille Alleyne is an assistant program scientist for the International Space Station Program Science Office with NASA’s Johnson Space Center where she is responsible for leading the areas of communications and education. Prior to this, she served as the Deputy Manager for the Orion Crew and Service Module Test and Verification program.  She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from Howard University, a Master of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering (Composite Materials) from Florida A&M University and a Master of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering (Hypersonics) from University of Maryland. She is currently working on her Doctorate in Educational Leadership at the University of Houston.

Three Misconceptions about the International Space Station

This week on A Lab Aloft, International Space Station Program Science Office Research Communications Specialist Jessica Nimon shares answers to some of the more frequently asked questions she receives about the International Space Station.

Recently I attended two different public forums as a representative for the International Space Station Program Scientist’s Office. It was an exciting opportunity to share information about the station with the public and to get some feedback in return. The first event, Space Day on the Capitol in Austin, Texas, was a chance to speak with state legislators, visiting students and even tourists. A week later, I went to Colorado Springs for the National Space Symposium, which was more of a traditional conference setting for space businesses and enthusiasts.

Children and educators converge
at the State Capitol for inspiring
and informational activities.
(Credit: NASA)

My main objective at these events was to educate and answer questions regarding the research done on the space station. I anticipated a varied set of queries, but was surprised to find that when it came down to it, attendees at both events had similar misconceptions regarding the station. So in this blog, I hope to take a few moments of your time to correct the three most frequent misunderstandings regarding this amazing orbiting laboratory.

Misconception 1: The space station ends with the space shuttle

While the public seems well aware of the impending retirement of the space shuttle fleet, they are mixed in their understanding of what this means for the space station. Quite a few people asked me, “Does the space station retire with the shuttle?” In a word, no. The international partner agreements plan to continue to operate the space station through the year 2020. Now that we are finally at assembly complete, the entire International Space Station program is ready for full utilization for research and technology investigations!

While we may not arrive there via the space shuttle any longer, we continue to have crew travel capabilities with the Russian Soyuz. In fact, American astronauts have successfully and safely flown with the Russians on Soyuz for many years. American companies are also pursuing new crew vehicle options to offer transportation to the space station in the future. The question of upmass—the capability to lift large amounts of payload and supply weight—will continue to be addressed with international partner unmanned transport vehicles: JAXA HTV and ESA ATV, as well as two new American commercial resupply vehicles: Space X Dragon and Orbital Cygnus.

Misconception 2: Scientists do not need the space station

One of my favorite questions to pose to the student groups that would visit the NASA booth at the National Space Symposium was “what is the space station used for?” Sometimes a shy hand would raise and a boy or girl would offer that the station was built for research. More often than not, however, I was met with complete silence and a sea of blinking eyes. What an opportunity to educate these young minds on the fascinating purpose of the station!

Pointing to the scale model—which was to 1/100 the size of the space station, situated above a mini football field to illustrate the actual size—my colleagues and I took turns explaining. From the very beginning, the point of this unique facility was to perform experiments in the microgravity environment of low Earth orbit. It is interesting to note that investigations were conducted during the course of assembly, as well. Because the research did not have to wait for station completion, we are already seeing results from the early studies in space, which is remarkable!

Not only can scientists use the space station for short- and long-duration investigations, but they can also participate in the growing body of knowledge generated from their predecessors. Space station research has been published in prestigious science journals and continues to generate spinoff benefits. This information stands to serve people across the globe. When investigations yield results, they have the potential to cross all boundaries—gender, race, socioeconomic, etc. Reading this blog and the space station research and technology Web pages are a great way to keep up with emerging benefits.

The International Space Station length and width is about
the size of a football field.
(NASA Image)

Misconception 3: When the shuttle retires, there won’t be Americans in orbit

While I was at the National Space Symposium, there was a space station sighting opportunity for the Colorado Springs area. I shared this viewing prospect with visitors at the NASA exhibit. Some were amazed that they could go out onto their lawn, gaze at the sky, and see what appears to be a bright, fast-moving star and really be looking at an international orbiting laboratory. It was fun to remind people that while they stare up, the crew may be looking down, too.

This idea of humans in orbit provides the chance to share an important milestone reached in November of 2010—the space station now has a track record of over a decade of continued human presence in orbit! With the impending shuttle retirement, however, some fear that the days of Americans in space are numbered. Since crewmembers will fly via the Russian Soyuz, there is a misapprehension that only Russians will get to view back at Earth from the station in the future. The population of the space station, however, will remain as international as the collaboration that built it. Not only will we still have an American presence in space, but we will continue to have participants from all over the world. Currently we have two Americans, three Russians, and a European crewmember working in orbit.

NASA astronaut Catherine (Cady) Coleman and European Space Agency
astronaut Paolo Nespoli, both Expedition 26 flight engineers, use still cameras
at windows in the Zvezda Service Module of the International Space Station
during rendezvous and docking activities of space shuttle Discovery (STS-133).
(NASA Image ISS026-E-030172)

The international investment has already been made in the space station. Now is the time to not only continue use, but to ramp up our employment of this unique resource. Scientists have the upcoming decade to ask questions and send up investigations to make the most of the asset we have in this incredible laboratory.

Jessica Nimon worked in the aerospace industry as a technical writer for seven years before joining the International Space Station Program Science Office as the Research Communications Specialist. Jessica 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.


The Importance of the Recent MAXI X-ray Nova Discovery

(Originally posted October 27, 2010)

About a month ago, I received a really interesting press release from JAXA about the discovery of a new X-ray nova via the International Space Station Monitor of All-sky X‑ray Image (MAXI) instrument. One of the first things I did was contact colleagues in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate to ask what they thought of the finding. I have a background in Earth science, not space science, so I was interested in their point of view on what sounded like an exciting discovery. They were full of additional questions and wanted more information. So we contacted our Japanese associates to better understand the discovery and impacts.

Of particular assistance was Masaru Matsuoka, the JAXA lead member on the MAXI team. I wanted to know if this was a new X-ray nova occurring or an existing one that was missed in previous surveys. He responded that the X-ray nova discovered by MAXI was a new X-ray source, not previously identified or catalogued. In other words, he continued, this nova occurred as an outburst in this location for the first time, which is why RIKEN named it MAXI J1659-152.

Matsuoka-san added that what makes this X-ray source especially interesting is that it is the type that likely has a black hole at its center. A new find like this is made once or twice a year overall. This is the first new source discovered by MAXI.


              Comparison of all-sky images before and after September 25 when the nova was found.
(Image courtesy of JAXA press release)

The MAXI instrument was able to locate this recent find by using two slit cameras (a gas slit camera and a solid-state camera) to continuously monitor astronomical X-ray objects. MAXI performs an entire sky scan once every rotation of the space station around the Earth. Mounted to the exterior of the KIBO module, MAXI has open access to the space environment where it identified the X-ray nova event. The information from the sky scans downloads to RIKEN, where the MAXI team disseminates data to scientists around the globe for study.

This is a promising result from the operations of this instrument. The more X-ray sources we find and study, the better knowledge astronomers can gain about the nature of black holes and their distribution in the universe.

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


(Update: Originally posted December 3, 2010)

On October 17, 2010, MAXI discovered yet another new X-ray nova, located in Centaurs. Since the emerging nova was dark, scientists continued to collect data while waiting for it to brighten. They announced the discovery on October 20, 2010 and named it MAXI J1409-619. The nova was confirmed as an unprecedented bright X-ray source, after NASA’s astronomical satellite, Swift, conducted an urgent target-of-opportunity observation. This nova is either a black hole or a neutron star with a companion star of a massive star existing over several ten thousands light-years.

Images of areas of 10 degrees in radius around the nova MAXI J1409-619. A celestial body that was not observed on Oct. 12 shone bright on the 17th. Right ascension 14 hr. 09 min. 2 sec., Declination -61 deg. 57 min. The detailed X-ray image shot by the Swift satellite. An unknown bright new celestial body was seen in the brighter part (0.2 degrees in radius) observed by the MAXI.

(Images courtesy of JAXA Press Release)

Who will be the Carl Sagan for the International Space Station?

(Originally published October 19, 2010)

At the 2010 meeting of the International Astronautical Congress, I moderated a session of international investigators talking about the importance of the International Space Station for their disciplines: ISS Research—A Decade of Progress and a Decade of Promise. As part of a wide-ranging discussion, Professor Urade from Japan shared an amazing video summarizing tests for a new treatment for Duschenne’s muscular dystrophy, which were developed using information from space station research. The crowd collectively caught their breath at the possibility and potential impacts on human lives.


One of the first questions from the audience inspired my title for this post: Who will be the Carl Sagan for the International Space Station? It is a great question—how do we get the message about this amazing research platform out to the world?


I grew up with Carl Sagan and Cosmos—everyone understood his simple message: with “billions upon billions” of stars, other life is out there and astronomy is the key to our future in the universe. He made astronomy popular and respected. His work is one of the reasons we are so moved by the deep-space images from Hubble. Carl prepared us to understand them.


It is a tall order to do the same for a platform with the potential to touch dozens, even hundreds of research disciplines.


As scientists, we are taught that good experiments control each variable in turn. Centuries of scientific research, however, have never controlled gravity as such a variable. How many errors in scientific theory trace back to our assumptions about gravity? What breakthrough will result from completing one of these ultimate experiments in orbit—with the effects of gravity removed? Buckle up, because we are about to find out!


This is the first entry of an ongoing blog on space station research and results. We will have no single spokesperson and no single catchphrase, because the potential for discovery on the station is much larger than that. Working with my team of scientists, our research community, and our international colleagues, we will bring you the stories of the people and the discoveries as they unfold.


Please join us on our journey into uncharted territory by following our blog: A Lab Aloft.


Julie A. Robinson, Ph.D.

International Space Station Program Scientist