Life in Space: Microorganisms to Humans
On November 2nd, 2000, history was made when three astronauts from Russia and the United States docked with the International Space Station (ISS), marking the first time humans lived outside the planet Earth. The ISS has since been one of the most unique and fascinating laboratories, providing researchers with a platform to investigate topics in biology, physics, astronomy, and even medicine. In this article, we will look at some of the coolest discoveries we’ve made in the 20 years since the ISS was launched.
One of the primary interests of researchers is the survival of life in space, from microorganisms to plants, animals, and humans. The microgravity laboratory of the ISS has hosted nearly 3,000 research investigations, according to NASA, which has provided us with a chance to see how we can prepare astronauts for future trips to explore more distant corners of the universe. For example, in 2017, crew members collected a sample of microbes present in the station and sequenced its DNA, which allowed research to be done much more quickly and efficiently.
One of the biggest challenges for astronauts on extended missions like to Mars is the availability of food. In 2014, the United States launched its first space garden, Veggie, to the ISS, and in 2015, NASA astronauts ate their first space-grown lettuce. They are now growing radishes, according to the agency. Such experiments will help us understand how we can grow food in space to feed future astronauts.
NASA has also closely monitored microgravity’s effects on the human body, with the biggest effort being the “twin study” launched in 2015. The study followed a pair of identical twin astronauts, Mark and Scott Kelly, with Scott spending a year in the ISS while Mark stayed on Earth. After Scott returned to Earth, researchers compared the measurements and found that although some of Scott’s gene expression changed, almost everything else remained quite similar to his twin brother. Such experiments will help us understand how the human body reacts to space travel and how we can better prepare astronauts for longer missions.
Another way the ISS has assisted in fighting disease is by studying cells without the effects of gravity, which can uncover unknown properties, behaviors, and responses to treatments than those possible on Earth. Researchers tested new cancer therapies and worked to identify the structures of disease-causing proteins like the one associated with the genetic disorder Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). Research on diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or asthma has also been done in the station.
Observing Earth from the ISS
But the ISS has also helped us better understand our planet Earth. Its orbit every 90 minutes, which allows its six-person crew to watch 16 sunrises and sunsets every day, allows the station to capture real-time data on carbon storages in forests, water stress in plants, and changes in our planet’s climate. Additionally, astronauts can “snap images of disasters such as storms and fires throughout their progression, documenting cloud cover, flooding, and changes to the land,” according to NASA. This information will help us understand how our planet is changing and how we can better protect it.
The ISS has also allowed us to dig deeper into physics, such as new insight into states of matter like gases, solids, liquids, and plasmas. The ultracold atom facilities on the ISS produced a fifth state of matter in 2018, the Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC). This was the first time it was successfully created outside our planet. The station’s unique microgravity conditions have also made it possible to burn fuel without a visible, hot flame. What the researchers observed was a phenomenon called “cool flames,” which could potentially be useful to design vehicles that pollute less on Earth.
Overall, the past 20 years of human habitation on the ISS have been a remarkable achievement for humanity. From growing lettuce in space to discovering new states of matter, the research conducted on the station has expanded our understanding of the universe and helped us to prepare for future space exploration. As we look to the future, the ISS will continue to play a critical role in advancing scientific discovery and unlocking the mysteries of the universe.