Sultan Al Neyadi
During his six months aboard the ISS, UAE astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi conducted more than 200 advanced research experiments and studies, in collaboration with 10 international space agencies and 25 leading UAE and global universities. Image Credit: MBRC & WAM

UAE astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi spent six months in space doing around 200 scientific experiments. Results from these experiments would yield new discoveries and technological breakthroughs that could benefit future space missions and people on Earth.

Space offers a unique environment for experiments. The International Space Station (ISS) has been an orbiting laboratory since it was inhabited in 2000, and thousands of experiments have been carried out in the last 23 years.

Why are so many experiments conducted in the space station? Can’t these be done on Earth? What are the benefits of running experiments aboard the ISS?

The simple answer is these experiments can’t be done on Earth, where gravity impacts everything. It determines how blood is pumped from human hearts and how plants grow their roots. So gravity becomes a significant factor, which is not the case in the space station.

What is microgravity?

The space station, which floats 400km above the Earth, offers a laboratory where gravity is so low that objects float around. Microgravity, or weightlessness, is the best reason to run tests aboard the ISS. The space station offers permanent weightlessness as it circles the Earth every 90 minutes. That makes the ISS a laboratory with a perennial microgravity environment.

Is zero gravity the same as microgravity?

Although the two terms are used interchangeably, gravity in space is often called microgravity since a small amount of gravity is everywhere. Gravity keeps the moon in orbit around Earth and the Earth in an orbit around the sun. It’s impossible to “turn off” gravity. To simulate microgravity, gravity’s pull has to be balanced with another force (falling, in the case of ISS, NASA simulator planes, freefall rides or towers).

Why do astronauts experience weightlessness in space?

When the space station orbits the Earth, gravity constantly pulls it towards the ground. Since the station also moves very fast (ISS travels at 28,000 km/hour) in orbit, its motion matches Earth’s curvature. It’s falling around the Earth, and this constant falling motion creates a sense of weightlessness, a report in Science News Explores said.

Can microgravity be created on Earth?

Microgravity can be created on Earth, but only for short periods. NASA creates microgravity by flying planes in up-and-down parabolas. At the top of the parabola, people and objects inside the plane feel weightlessness (free fall) for about 20-30 seconds. Fleeting microgravity experiences occurs during rollercoaster rides and freefall rides at amusement parks.

How does microgravity affect physical and chemical processes?

Many physical and chemical processes change in the absence of gravity, providing new opportunities to study boiling, melting, fluid and gas mixing in ways that are not possible on Earth, according to the NASA website.

Without gravity, hot air does not rise, and flames become spherical. Fluids too behave differently as microgravity affects surface tension and capillary forces.

What are the experiments conducted aboard ISS?

These are some of the scientific and medical experiments conducted in microgravity. Some of the results have had applications on Earth.

Study of fundamental physics: In the near-weightless environment, researchers can investigate the behaviour of matter and physical processes that are obscured by the influence of gravity on Earth. This includes experiments related to fluid dynamics, combustion, heat transfer, and crystal growth, which can lead to advancements in various scientific and industrial fields.

Biomedical research: Microgravity offers insights into the effects of spaceflight on the human body. Researchers can study changes in bone density, muscle atrophy, cardiovascular health, and the immune system in astronauts. These studies help scientists understand the health challenges astronauts face during long-duration space missions and may have applications in improving healthcare on Earth, such as in osteoporosis research or the treatment of muscle-related diseases.

Drug development and protein crystal growth: Microgravity allows for the growth of higher-quality protein crystals, which are essential for structural biology and drug development. These crystals can be more precisely studied, leading to a better understanding of the structures of biomolecules and potentially accelerating the development of new medications.

Fluid and material sciences: Microgravity enables researchers to conduct experiments on liquids and materials that would be impossible or impractical on Earth. For instance, the behaviour of fluids, foams, and granular materials can be explored, leading to advances in materials science and aerospace engineering.

Space medicine: Medical research in microgravity can help identify and mitigate health risks associated with space travel. This includes studying the effects of radiation exposure, fluid shifts in the body, changes in vision, and psychological factors. These findings can lead to developing countermeasures and strategies to protect astronauts on long-duration missions.

Life sciences: Microgravity allows studying various life forms, from microorganisms to plants and animals, in a unique environment. Understanding how these organisms adapt to and interact with microgravity can provide insights into fundamental biological processes and may have applications in agriculture and medicine.

Technological advancements: Conducting experiments in microgravity often requires developing specialised equipment and technologies. These innovations can have broader applications beyond space research and lead to the creation of new technologies and industries.

Sultan Al Neyadi ISS experiments
Image Credit: Gulf News

Why can’t microgravity experiments be done on Earth?

Microgravity cannot be created on Earth for sustained periods long enough to conduct experiments. Space with its microgravity offers the best place for such trials, making the International Space Station in a low Earth orbit the ideal place to carry out such experiments. And hundreds of research studies are conducted aboard the ISS every year.

What are the other benefits of ISS lab?

Besides microgravity, the space station environment offers increased exposure to high levels of radiation, which can be used to study the effects of radiation on materials and living organisms.

The space station also offers an excellent view of the Earth at varying conditions, making it an observation post. Crew and instruments aboard the ISS can observe 85 per cent of Earth’s surface and take photographs. It helps track urban growth, study weather patterns, monitor hurricanes and volcanic eruptions, document melting glaciers and deforestation, and measure carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The extreme temperature fluctuations in space allow scientists to test the durability of materials and materials in hostile conditions.

Can the space station help in monitoring climate change?

From their vantage point on the ISS, astronauts gather images and data to monitor Earth's landmasses, water, air, vegetation and other resources. The data helps in tracking storms, fires and other extreme weather events.

“Monitoring water and energy cycles, ecosystem changes, population migration patterns and other developments help inform environmental research and climate science,” a World Economic Forum report said.

When researchers become guinea pigs

Astronauts conduct an array of science experiments in the space station, but they themselves become subjects of some experiments. They are both scientists and guinea pigs.

“We participate in studies on osteoporosis, DNA mutations, as well as blood vessels, and their changes (in microgravity). Our aim is to understand the effects of zero gravity on humans and the potential dangers of deep space travel,” Al Neyadi had said.

While some of these experiments yield solutions for diseases on Earth, results of many studies will be invaluable when humans travel to Mars and deep space in future. Interstellar voyages may no longer be science fiction.