When the first module of the International Space Station (ISS) launched from Kazakhstan in 1998, humans just had a small orbiting home, about the size of a bus. Over the past two decades it has expanded beyond recognition, and is now an orbiting science laboratory that is literally out of this world!
With the help of the ISS we’ve discovered so many things about life, the Earth, and the universe, and along the way some of the things designed for the ISS have found uses here on Earth. So here’s our run down of some of the best things the ISS has done for us!
- Robotic surgery
There are lots of objects attached to the outside of the ISS, things like experiments and visiting vehicles (even the astronauts themselves!), and sometimes they need to be moved from one place to another with extreme care and precision.
One of the ways this is done is by using the Canadian Space Agency’s Canadarm2. The Canadarm2 has been helping maintain and build the ISS since it was launched in 2001, but the technology it makes use of is also finding life changing applications back here on Earth.
Robots can be capable of much finer and more controlled movements than humans, making them really well suited to small, fiddly situations, similar to those that surgeons find themselves in when operating. With the advancements made in robot technology during the development of the Canadarm2, applications are now being found where surgery can be robotically performed in MRI scanners. Today, descendants of Canadarm2 find themselves in at least 30 hospitals across the US and Canada, giving surgeons levels of precision in brain and spine surgery that is making enormous differences to peoples life.
Out of the development of a robotic arm used to build an orbiting spacecraft 200 miles above Earth, people are now able to receive levels of care and treatment not possible before.
2. Water filters
Water is a valuable commodity up on the ISS. With a litre costing over $6,000 to deliver to the orbiting laboratory, and each of the 6 crew needing around 2 litres a day to drink, it would be a very expensive logistical challenge to provide them with fresh water. Instead, they take up a shipment of water, and just keep using it!
Any water used on the ISS is reclaimed and made safe to be reused again. Urine is cleaned and distilled back into usable drinking water using advanced filters, but that isn’t enough to get all the water back that is needed. Humans actually breathe out around 30% of the water we take in, so there are also special dehumidifiers onboard the ISS. These cutting edge dehumidifiers remove exhaled moisture from the air, cleans it, and gets it ready to be used again.
The nanotechnology in the water filters on the ISS is now used for a wide ranging number of applications for creating a clean water supply on Earth. The filters work by flowing the water through hundreds of pores in the nano-material, trapping any particles and using silver ions to kill any harmful bacteria. It has been adapted to work in a bottle that will purify water just by giving it a squeeze, a bottle that has found use for people working in developing countries and those simply travelling around the planet. From saving water and keeping astronauts safe and healthy in space, the same ideas are now used to keep people safe on all parts of the Earth!
3. Remote controlled appliances
Samples, such as blood and urine specimens from the astronauts, often need to be stored in specially controlled conditions. This can be either to preserve them ready for return to Earth aboard a US Dragon or Russian Soyuz capsule, or to prepare them for experiments in space.
Rather than waste the astronauts time turning on ovens and fridges and setting them to the required temperature (each minute the astronauts are in space works out at about $6,000, so there are a lot of demands on astronauts time to get value for money!), it turns out to be better to better to be able to turn on the ovens and fridges remotely from Earth. To do this, engineers on Earth developed a way to connect them on using the internet. As there is an internet connection even on the ISS, it now acts as the ultimate smart home with remote controlled ovens and fridges! This technology, first used on the ISS, is now available for everyday consumers. These new ovens can be controlled over the internet via an app on your phone, another technology developed for space that is making life easier here on Earth!
4. Self driving cars
While building the ISS on orbit, NASA engineers back on the ground needed to be able to see EVERYTHING that was happening up in space. With the ISS being an international collaboration, some of the modules were built on different continents and were only assembled for the first time when in space. Engineers needed to have a full 360º view as the modules were being put together, but at the time there wasn’t a way to do this. So instead of just hoping for the best when guiding robots and assembling the space station, they invented a new type of camera that can see in every direction, all 360º.
This amazing way of capturing an image in all directions at the same time now has all sorts of implications, including self-driving cars. Any self driving car needs to know all about its surroundings at all times, so 360º cameras are a great option for self-driving cars. We’re also seeing more and more applications of 360º videos with the growth of virtual reality. Thanks to the technology developed by NASA for building the space station, we can now experience things like skydiving from the comfort of your sofa, or see what it would look like to swim with sharks by viewing a 360º video on a VR headset.
5. Better golf clubs
While golf has in fact been played on the moon, it hasn’t yet been played on the ISS as far as we know. But that’s not too say the ISS hasn’t contributed to research in golf!
A special metal alloy developed at NASA’s Marshall Space Centre has been adapted so it can be built into the face of golf clubs, allowing more spin to be put on the ball without loosing power. This metal is what’s known as a Shape Memory Effect (SME) metal. SME metals are special as they can change their shape depending on the temperature. By tweaking the metal, it’s been turned into a really good material for golf clubs as it allows the club face to deform on impact like rubber, putting more spin on the ball, but wih without sacrificing distance. With the new clubs you may not be able to hit the ball as far as Alan Shepard did on the moon, but it’ll certainly help!