Science on the ISS

By Katherine Luk, Community Outreach Coordinator, HP Small Business Solutions

2017 March

The International Space Station (ISS) has long been a testament to humanity’s technological achievements. Continuously inhabited since 2000, there are many different systems that support the station and assist in groundbreaking research every day. Learn more about the latest experiments onboard and the technology that keeps everything together below.

Space offers unique opportunities for a multitude of research fields. Some of the current projects being worked on include detecting disease, recording lightning, and examining the Earth’s atmosphere. One of the experiments headed up to the station in February is focused on testing the growth of antibodies in microgravity for their potential to cure disease. The ISS is a preferred testing platform for many bacteria-related experimentation due to the accelerated growth of bacteria in microgravity. The experiment also provides an opportunity to test a new device known as the gene-RADAR, used to detect the genetic fingerprints of various diseases.

Earth science is another key component of ISS experiments. NASA recently launched a new instrument, the Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment (SAGE III) to more closely study the human impact and long-term sustainability of the ozone layer. The instrument was carried to the ISS aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket earlier this month.

SpaceX is just one of several private aerospace companies NASA is working with to send cargo to the ISS. After the retirement of the space shuttle Atlantis in 2011, NASA has turned to the Russian Soyuz platform to carry American astronauts. SpaceX is currently developing a crew capsule named Dragon that is compatible with the Falcon launch platform. While unmanned launches have been successful, and Dragon has even successfully docked with the ISS to deliver cargo, no human payload has been delivered on a private spaceship. Another private space company, Orbital ATK, has also carried out ISS delivery missions through their Cygnus spacecraft.

The ISS would not be operational without a multitude of computers created for various different purposes. Designing computers that reliably operate in space presents a unique set of challenges. Computers not only assist in research but maintain the ISS, so they have to work properly one hundred percent of the time - astronauts’ lives are at stake.

To further complicate the issue, radioactive particles from space that are normally blocked by the Earth’s atmosphere can interfere with memory storage and cause errors. While it’s possible to minimize this risk by using “rad-hard” computer chips, the process is expensive and the chips are incredibly slow compared to modern Earth processors. An alternative solution is to have multiple computers run the same calculations and compare answers, known as redundancy. While this allows you use faster, processors, redundancy can’t replace rad-hardened computers in all scenarios.

Not all the computers on the ISS are built for the hardships of space, however. There are currently about one hundred laptops on board the ISS for a crew of just six people. These laptops are used for things like communications, entertainment, and experimentation. That’s not to say that these laptops aren’t built tough; the current laptop of choice is an HP ZBook business laptop that meets military-grade hardware standards. Plus the extra processing power when compared to rad-hardened computers allows astronauts to crunch more data on laptops instead of sending it to a dedicated mainframe. But even MIL-STD laptops only have a shelf life of four years on the ISS.

Despite the refresh rate of laptops aboard the ISS, the station itself is expected to maintain operations through 2028. While no one has concretely decided what to do with the station afterwards, suggestions floated include adding on expandable habit modules or reusing parts for new spacecraft. Regardless of what happens in 2028, you can easily find the ISS right now; check out an ISS tracker and find the right time to look up at the night sky!