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Space Touch

A device delivered to the ISS in the summer of 2002 has added something important to space station research: the human touch.

by Dr Tony Phillips and Steve Price

When Mary Etta Wright was a child, she loved to experiment. She mixed powders from her chemistry set, took apart the family radio € and, oh yes, there was that time when she dropped (and shattered) her father's piggy bank. "It seemed I was always getting in trouble," laughs Wright. "But touching things was how I learned about them."

Now Wright, who works at NASA's Microgravity Development Lab at the Marshall Space Flight Centre, is helping astronauts get their hands on things, too. She's the lead engineer for the Microgravity Science Glovebox - a device that will allow astronauts to reach in and touch some of the amazing experiments onboard the International Space Station (ISS) .

"Humans are natural scientists," says Wright. "We can observe, react to the unexpected and tinker with things to squeeze the most out of any experiment." Yet until now, that was often impossible on the ISS. Many experiments took place inside sealed compartments, and reaching in was not allowed.

The barriers were for the crew's own good. Liquids in zero-g, for example, don't always stay in their test tubes. And if fumes get thick, astronauts can't throw open the nearest window for fresh air. Floating contaminants pose a danger to the crew and to the station itself - they must be contained.

Scientists needed something that would keep contaminants in ... yet not keep astronauts out. The solution is the ESA-built Microgravity Science Glovebox, or "MSG" as it's known around NASA.

A diagram of the Microgravity Glovebox

The glovebox is a tightly sealed aluminium chamber ... with hands. "The MSG is about the size of a spacious juke box," says Wright. There's room for experiments as large as 255 liters (67 gallons). Astronauts can reach into the chamber using rubber gloves attached to the front and sides. Large windows made of Lexan (a tough plastic widely used on Earth for items ranging from water bottles to bus stops) provide a clear view of what's happening inside.

"It's a beautiful setup, like a small laboratory," says Aleksander Ostrogorsky, a professor at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who will soon use the glovebox to study semiconductors.

The glovebox is laid out much like a traditional lab bench. There are power supplies, vacuum ports and computer interfaces. The familiar arrangement helps scientists design space-experiments using their own lab benches on Earth. Human participation allows for simpler designs. Experiments can be developed for the glovebox within two to three years at a fraction of the cost of totally automated systems

This isn't the first time a glovebox has flown to space. Astronauts have used them on NASA's space shuttle and on the Russian space station Mir. But the MSG is bigger and better than its predecessors in many ways. For example, cameras mounted inside the MSG can transmit live images to Earth, where scientists can monitor and even control their own experiments. As a result, astronauts and scientists form a team of creative, brain-storming co-workers - "something we couldn't do before," says Wright.

On Earth, Aleksander Ostrogorsky peers into the MSG through its large clear windows.

Scientists are looking forward to using the MSG for many things - to probe the physics of fluids, the strange behaviour of flames, the inner workings of cells, the growth of tissues ... the list goes on and on. Some of the experiments slated for flight are so cutting-edge they sound more like science fiction than ordinary science.

Imagine, for example, a fluid that stiffens when you hold a magnet near it, and softens again when the magnet goes away. Sounds amazing, but it's a real effect. An upcoming experiment called InSPACE will use the glovebox to explore these exotic liquids, called "magnetorheological fluids."

The possibilities are mind-boggling: In theory, surfaces coated with such fluids could change form at the bidding of magnetic controls. A single magnetorehelogical mould could cast an infinite variety of shapes. Book makers could publish magnetic texts in Braille - as easily scrolled and edited as words on a computer screen. Medical engineers could build magnetorheological limbs that bend and move as if alive.

Valery Korzun, the commander of the International Space Station (Expedition 5), floats beside the newly-installed Microgravity Science Glovebox

"But first," cautions Jack Lekan, the project manager for InSPACE at the Glenn Research Centre, "we have to learn more about the basic physics of these fluids." That's what InSPACE aims to do.

During the experiment, astronauts will observe what happens when a floating magnetorehelogical fluid is exposed to magnetic pulses. To collect the data scientists need, astronauts will reach into the glovebox to align and focus cameras on a spot only 0.2 mm wide. If a fluid bubble gets in the way of the shot ... flick! they can remove it. "Astronauts are an integral part of our study," says Lekan.

Shuttle Endeavour (STS-111) delivered the glovebox to the space station this week - good news for scientists on Earth and for the station's crew. Says Wright: "astronauts love doing hands-on experiments." And now they can.

Note - The Microgravity Science Glovebox was built for NASA by the European Space Agency (ESA). In exchange, the ESA will be able to use other facilities inside the Destiny lab until that agency's own laboratory €“ the Columbus Orbital Facility €“ is attached to the space station in a couple of years.


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First Science 2014