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Tomorrow’s Technology on the Space Station Today

Tomorrow’s Technology on the Space Station Today

Tablets, smart
appliances, and other technologies that are an indispensable part of daily life
are no longer state-of-the-art compared to the research and technology
development going on over our heads. As we celebrate 20 years of humans continuously
living and working in space aboard the International
Space Station, we’re recapping some
of the out-of-this-world tech development and research being done on the
orbiting lab too.

Our Space Technology
Mission Directorate (STMD) helps redefine state-of-the-art tech for living and
working in space. Here are 10 technologies tried and tested on the space
station with helping hands from its astronaut occupants over the years.

1. Astronaut Wanna-Bees

Astronauts on the space
station are responsible for everything from conducting science experiments and deploying
satellites to tracking inventory and cleaning. While all are necessary, the
crew can delegate some jobs to the newest robotic inhabitants – Astrobees.

These cube-shaped robots can work
independently or in tandem, carrying out research activities. Once they prove
themselves, the bots will take on some
of the more time-consuming tasks, such as monitoring the status of dozens of
experiments. The three robots – named Bumble, Honey, and Queen – can operate
autonomously following a programmed set of instructions or controlled remotely.
Each uses cameras for navigation, fans for propulsion, and a rechargeable
battery for power. The robots also have a perching arm that lets them grip
handrails or hold items. These free-flying helpers take advantage of another STMD
technology called Gecko Grippers that “stick” to any surface.

2. Getting a Grip in Microgravity

We wanted to develop tools for
grabbing space junk, and something strong and super-sticky is necessary to
collect the diverse material orbiting Earth. So, engineers studied the gecko
lizard, perhaps the most efficient “grabber” on this planet. Millions of
extremely fine hairs on the bottom of their feet make an incredible amount of contact
with surfaces so the gecko can hold onto anything. That inspired our engineers
to create a similar material.

Now the Gecko Gripper made
by OnRobot is sold on the commercial market, supporting industrial activities
such as materials handling and assembly. The NASA gecko adhesive gripper that’s
being tested in microgravity on the Astrobee robots was fabricated on Earth.

But other small plastic
parts can now be manufactured in space.

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3. Make It, or Don’t
Take It

Frequent resupply trips from Earth to
the Moon, Mars, and other solar system bodies are simply not realistic. In
order to become truly Earth-independent and increase sustainability, we had to
come up with ways to manufacture supplies on demand.

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A demonstration of the first 3D
printer in space was tested on the space station in 2014, proving it worked in
microgravity. This paved the way for the first commercial 3D printer in space, which is operated by Made
In Space. It has successfully produced more than 150 parts since its activation
in 2016. Designs for tools, parts, and many other objects are transmitted to
the station by the company, which also oversees the print jobs. Different kinds
of plastic filaments use heat and pressure in a process that’s similar to the
way a hot glue gun works. The molten material is precisely deposited using a
back-and-forth motion until the part forms. The next logical step for efficient
3D printing was using recycled plastics to create needed objects.

4. The Nine Lives of Plastic

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To help fragile technology survive
launch and keep food safe for consumption, NASA employs a lot of single-use
plastics. That material is a valuable resource, so we are developing a number
of ways to repurpose it. The Refabricator,
delivered to the station in 2018, is designed to reuse everything from plastic
bags to packing foam. The waste plastic is super-heated and transformed into
the feedstock for its built-in 3D printer. The filament can be used repeatedly:
a 3D-printed wrench that’s no longer needed can be dropped into the machine and
used to make any one of the pre-programmed objects, such as a spoon. The
dorm-fridge-sized machine created by Tethers Unlimited Inc. successfully
manufactured its first object, but the technology experienced some issues in
the bonding process likely due to microgravity’s effect on the materials. Thus,
the Refabricator continues to undergo additional testing to perfect its performance.

5. Speed Metal

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An upcoming hardware test on the station
will try out a new kind of 3D printer. The on-demand digital manufacturing
technology is capable of using different kinds of materials, including plastic
and metals, to create new parts. We commissioned TechShot Inc. to build the
hardware to fabricate objects made from aerospace-grade metals and electronics.
On Earth, FabLab has already demonstrated its ability to
manufacture strong, complex metal tools and other items. The unit includes a
metal additive manufacturing process, furnace, and endmill for post-processing.
It also has built-in monitoring for in-process inspection. When the FabLab is
installed on the space station, it will be remotely operated by controllers on Earth.
Right now, another printer created by the same company is doing a different
kind of 3D printing on station.

6. A Doctor’s BFF

Today scientists are also learning
to 3D print living tissues. However, the force of gravity on this planet makes
it hard to print cells that maintain their shape. So on Earth, scientists use
scaffolding to help keep the printed structures from collapsing.

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The 3D BioFabrication Facility
(BFF) created by TechShot Inc. could provide researchers a gamechanger that
sidesteps the need to use scaffolds by bioprinting in microgravity. This first
American bioprinter in space uses bio-inks that contain adult human cells along
with a cell-culturing system to strengthen the tissue over time. Eventually,
that means that these manufactured tissues will keep their shape once returned
to Earth’s gravity! While the road to bioprinting human organs is likely still
many years away, these efforts on the space station may move us closer to that
much-needed capability for the more than 100,000 people on the wait list for organ
transplant.

7. Growing Vitamins

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Conditions in space are hard on the
human body, and they also can be punishing on food. Regular deliveries of food
to the space station refresh the supply of nutritious meals for astronauts. But
prepackaged food stored on the Moon or sent to Mars in advance of astronauts could
lose some nutritional value over time.

That’s why the BioNutrients experiment
is underway. Two different strains of baker’s yeast which are engineered to
produce essential nutrients on demand are being checked for shelf life in
orbit. Samples of the yeast are being stored at room temperature aboard the
space station and then are activated at different intervals, frozen, and
returned to Earth for evaluation. These tests will allow scientists to check
how long their specially-engineered microbes can be stored on the shelf, while
still supplying fresh nutrients that humans need to stay healthy in space. Such
microbes must be able to be stored for months, even years, to support the
longer durations of exploration missions.

If successful, these
space-adapted organisms could also be engineered for the potential production
of medicines. Similar organisms
used in this system could provide fresh foods like yogurt or kefir on demand.
Although designed for space, this system also could help provide nutrition for
people in remote areas of our planet.

8. Rough and Ready

Everything from paints and container
seals to switches and thermal protection systems must withstand the punishing
environment of space. Atomic oxygen, charged-particle radiation, collisions
with meteoroids and space debris, and temperature extremes (all combined with
the vacuum) are just some conditions that are only found in space. Not
all of these can be replicated on Earth. In 2001, we addressed this testing problem
with the Materials International Space Station Experiment (MISSE). Technologists can
send small samples of just about any technology or material into low-Earth
orbit for six months or more. Mounted to the exterior of the space station,
MISSE has tested more than 4,000 materials. More sophisticated hardware
developed over time now supports automatic monitoring that sends photos and
data back to researchers on Earth. Renamed the MISSE Flight Facility, this
permanent external platform is
now owned and operated by the small business, Alpha Space Test & Research
Alliance LLC. The woman-owned company is developing two similar platforms for testing materials
and technologies on the lunar surface.

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9. Parachuting to Earth

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Small satellites could provide a
cheaper, faster way to deliver small payloads to Earth from the space station. To
do just that, the Technology Education Satellite, or TechEdSat, develops the essential
technologies with a series of CubeSats built by college students in partnership
with NASA. In 2017, TechEdSat-6 deployed from the station, equipped
with a custom-built parachute called exo-brake to see if a controlled de-orbit
was possible. After popping out of the back of the CubeSat, struts and flexible
cords warped the parachute like a wing to control the direction in which it
travelled. The exo-brake uses atmospheric drag to steer a small satellite toward
a designated landing site. The most recent mission in the series, TechEdSat-10, was deployed from the station in July with an improved
version of an exo-brake. The CubeSat is actively being navigated to the target
entry point in the vicinity of the NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops
Island, Virginia.

10. X-ray Vision for a Galactic Position
System

Independent navigation for
spacecraft in deep space is challenging because objects move rapidly and the
distances between are measured in millions of miles, not the mere thousands of
miles we’re used to on Earth. From a mission perched
on the outside of the station, we were able to prove that X-rays from pulsars
could be helpful. A number of spinning neutron stars consistently emit pulsating
beams of X-rays, like the rotating beacon of a lighthouse. Because the rapid
pulsations of light are extremely regular, they can provide the precise timing
required to measure distances.

The Station Explorer for
X-Ray Timing and Navigation (SEXTANT) demonstration conducted on the space station in 2017
successfully measured pulsar data and used navigation algorithms to locate the
station as it moved in its orbit. The washing machine-sized hardware, which
also produced new neutron star science via the Neutron star Interior
Composition Explorer (NICER), can now be miniaturized to develop detectors and
other hardware to make pulsar-based navigation available for use on future
spacecraft.

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As NASA continues to
identify challenges and problems for upcoming deep space missions such as Artemis, human on Mars, and exploring distant
moons such as Titan, STMD will continue to
further technology development on the space station and Earth.

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