This week saw the return of an investigation on the International Space Station inspired by the first American woman in space, connecting students on Earth with a camera in space.
The orbiting laboratory has proven to be a valuable platform for Earth observation, circling the Earth approximately 230 miles overhead once every 90 minutes. This vantage point not only provides good images for working scientists, but for the budding scientist as well.
Roscosmos (Russian Federal Space Agency) cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko completed setting up the Sally Ride Earth Knowledge Acquired by Middle School Students (Sally Ride EarthKAM) camera for the program’s autumn 2015 session on the space station. The Sally Ride EarthKAM program — created by the veteran astronaut who was America’s first woman in space — allows students to request photographs of specific Earth features when the station passes over that area. The images are posted online for the public and students in participating classrooms around the world to view. The first image of the new session was the area just north of the Brazilian capital of Brasilia in South America. More than 20,000 students representing 247 schools in participated in the latest session. EarthKAM is the only program providing students with such direct control of an instrument on a spacecraft orbiting Earth, teaching them about environmental science, geography and space communications.
The environment of the space station removes gravity from the equation when it comes to examining how different states of material mix together, making it easier to see the finer points of how various phenomenon occur.
The final round of the Soret Facet investigation was successfully completed. Results from this JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) investigation can be applied to mass transport phenomena, including planet formation, the movement of items in the ocean, and the refinement of crude oil. Soret Facet observes the effect of microgravity on the thermal diffusion process, the Soret effect, in the Solution Crystallization Observation Facility (SCOF).
Named after Swiss physicist Charles Soret, the Soret effect is a phenomenon observed in liquid mixtures of particles where the different particle types exhibit different responses to the force of a temperature gradient, where temperatures can change in different areas and in different directions. The investigation will help better understand the effect, including the supercooled liquid phase, which may be the first verification linking Soret physics and thermodynamics. These results can be applied to studies of mass transport, including heat and energy in Earth’s interior, oceans and atmosphere. The investigation also applies to refinement of crude oil, which is crucial for transportation and many other uses on Earth.
In future exploration of planets or other terrestrial bodies, astronauts may rely on rovers controlled from orbit. Investigations into the early stages of this technology are underway on the space station. NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren completed the first half of a new session of ESA’s (European Space Agency) Haptics (ESA-Haptics-1) investigation. This investigation examines the viability of using a remote control to guide planetary rovers from orbit. It could lead to methods to control advance-scouting rovers on asteroids, moons, or planets from nearby orbit, relying on human control of a remote vehicle when landing a crew is not necessary. The hardware is a basic joystick lever that can be moved freely to play simple computer games. An intricate system of servomotors generates counterforces or vibrations that crewmembers can feel through the joystick, just like a standard video gaming controller when a player encounters an in-game obstacle. To prevent the joystick’s force feedback pushing its free-floating user around, it is mounted to a body harness that can be fixed to station equipment.
Ideally, astronauts circling a planet would have as much feedback as possible to help control the robots exploring below them. An important aspect of this is called haptic feedback — transferring touch and vibrations to the controller mechanism. Haptics is looking at developing robots that transmit touch information to the astronaut, but until now, no research has been carried out to see how people in space respond to physical feedback. It is unknown if astronauts can feel and react in space as they would on Earth and transfer vibrations to the controller, or how the feedback even feels in space to the astronauts.
The station is an ideal laboratory for studying fluid motions in a microgravity environment. NASA is performing a series of slosh dynamic experiments on the space station to explore the coupling of liquid slosh with the motion of an unconstrained tank in microgravity, collecting data that will improve the safety and efficiency of future rockets. Lindgren and JAXA astronaut Kimiya Yui connected a video camera to a Slosh tank to make some high-definition recordings of liquid settling and reaction force physics as part of the SPHERES Slosh investigation. SPHERES stands for Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites. As the SPHERE moves around the lab, sensors can measure how the fluid moves in the slosh tank. Many satellites launch on rockets powered by liquid fuel, and improved understanding of these propellants could enhance efficiency, potentially lowering costs for satellite launches. More generally, the investigation’s results provide new data for fluid dynamics simulations.