The most surprising experiments carried out on the International Space Station

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It has just been 25 years since the first module of the International Space Station (EEI) to space. Since then, and with only two decades of research, the applications developed in space extend to many fields: from energy, materials or electronics, to the feedingbotany, medicine, and even the textile industry.

More than 3,000 experiments have already been conducted on the ISS. Some of them have yielded improved cancer drugs and treatmentshave enabled us to better understanding of aging and to count today with materials unique for space exploration.

Why do experiments in space?

To say that space is an inhospitable environment would be an understatement. To begin with, the effect of gravity is practically nil. Moreover, without the protection of our atmosphere and its ozone layer, radiation poses a serious threat, not only to living beings, but also to electronic equipment and spacecraft structures. To give us an idea, astronauts who spend six months in space are exposed to radiation equivalent to about 1,000 chest X-rays.

But these dangerous and different conditions also offer us many advantages, allowing us to study phenomena that would be unthinkable on land. Most of the physical or biological processes we are used to depend on gravity and terrestrial conditions, so they work completely differently in space.

Is it possible to fry potatoes in the ISS?

Processes such as convection (heat rising and cold falling) or buoyancy do not even exist. This can make something as simple as frying potatoes in the ISS complicated.

But we can rest assured, the European Space Agency (ESA) has conducted several experiments in weightlessness using high-resolution cameras to analyze the bubbles in the oil and the potatoes. He has concluded that it is possible to fry potatoes in space!

Although it may seem silly, this research can be of great help in several fields. For example, in the production of hydrogen from solar energy.

The success of amorphous metals

One of the major achievements of space research in materials science has been the development of the so-called bulk metallic glasses (BMG) or amorphous metals.

While most conventional alloys (such as steel, aluminum or titanium) have a highly ordered atomic structure, the atoms of BMGs do not follow an ordered, crystalline structure, and are produced by cooling the metal in a liquid state by vitrification. Their structure allows them to have a high strength and hardness, but at the same time a low melting temperature, facilitating the manufacture of durable and reflective parts.

One of the most widely used BMGs in the industry is Vitreloy 106, an alloy made of zirconium, niobium, copper, nickel and aluminum.

In 2001, this alloy was used on NASA's Genesis mission to collect samples of solar wind (charged particles that are released from the Sun and cause phenomena such as auroras).

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The Genesis probe collecting solar wind flux data. Wikimedia commons/NASA/JPL-Caltech, CC BY

After completing the mission, the probe crashed due to a parachute failure. Parts made from Vitreloy 106 were among the few to survive the impact.The solar wind is a very important factor in the solar wind, allowing us to solve some fundamental questions about the solar wind.

Anti-cancer drugs

The space environment also offers great opportunities for other fields, such as the design and development of new drugs.

Some pharmaceutical companies use the laboratories of the IEE to study and understand the crystallization processes of some drugs (e.g. pembrolizumab, a drug for the treatment of cancer) in order to improve its manufacturing.

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Crystals of the drug pembrolizumab produced on Earth (left) and in space (right). In the absence of gravity, much more uniform and homogeneous crystals are obtained. Merck/Nature, CC BY

The cells of our body also behave differently in space.

Among other consequences, astronauts often suffer from loss of muscle and bone mass, and their immune system weakens. These symptoms closely resemble the effects we all suffer as we age. Thus, research in space helps us to study the effects of aging faster, facilitating the development of new drugs or treatments.

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Former NASA astronauts and identical twins Scott Kelly (right) and Mark Kelly. Scott spent a year in the ISS between 2015 and 2016 while Mark remained on Earth, allowing scientists to study the effects of living in space on Scott's body and compare the changes to Mark's. Wikimedia commons, CC BY

Some stem cells even appear to grow faster in spaceThis opens the door to try to replicate these conditions on Earth and help in the treatment of diseases such as heart attack.

In addition, thanks to NASA and ESA studies on the effects of space radiation on astronautsIn the so-called microsatellites, regions of our DNA that are susceptible to damage and mutations, we can better understand the consequences of radiation therapy in cancer patients, or even identify new markers and methods to detect cancer more effectively.

Plasma against infections

Another example is provided by cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, who little imagined in 2001 that his research on complex plasmas (a state of matter that is very difficult to achieve on Earth due to gravity) would lead to the present day. to improve the fight against bacterial infections.

His research in the ISS allowed the development of a cold plasma at room temperature, capable of destroying pathogens such as bacteria, fungi, viruses and spores, without affecting our own cells in any way.

As a result of this discovery, the company Terraplasma Medical is currently developing portable cold plasma devices. for the treatment of skin and wound infections.

Although the ISS is scheduled to cease to be used in 2030, space will continue to offer us an immense laboratory in which to continue our research. Not only to continue our quest to explore the vast universe around us or to colonize new planets, but above all, and more importantly, to improve the lives of earthlings.The Conversation

Jesús Ordoño FernándezPostdoctoral Researcher, Tissue Engineering and Biomaterials, IMDEA MATERIALS

This article was originally published in The Conversation. read the original.