Books

How a little DIY saved the International Space Station from a leak

Julien Harrod says remarkable experiments are taking place on the International Space Station. But some basic DIY helps too

Last month a spacecraft that was docked to the International Space Station sprung a small leak – a reminder that there are only a few millimetres of metal and protective shielding that keep astronauts above us alive. Thanks to intensive training and being prepared for everything, the six astronauts quickly found the small hole and European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst blocked it by using, yes, his finger. More permanent repairs followed using tape and epoxy glue.

The incident is a reminder of how fragile life outside our planet is and a testament to all the people on Earth who build, design and maintain the spacecraft that orbit our planet quietly with very small margins for error. Astronauts take the limelight and quite rightly so, they are putting their lives at risk, but why do space agencies go to all the effort and expense? To find answers to questions we haven’t yet thought to ask.

Experiments that cannot be done anywhere else.

This year the European laboratory Columbus that is part of the International Space Station is celebrating 10 years in orbit. It has circled our planet over 55, 000 times and over 5,000 people on Earth have been involved in planning and running experiments that cannot be done anywhere else.

The attraction for scientists to have their experiment run in space – aside from the cocktail-party bragging rights – is that there is nowhere else to investigate phenomena for long periods of time without gravity getting in the way. Studying how something behaves in a controlled environment is the essence of a scientific experiment and laboratories on Earth can control almost every aspect of the world around us, but there is only one European laboratory that can remove gravity from the equation: Columbus.

No wonder that 60 experiments are run each year on Columbus alone as its state-of-the-art research facilities can accommodate disciplines as diverse as medicine, geophysics, fundamental science and biology. Experiments have revealed why plants grow in a corkscrew fashion – first described by Charles Darwin – and that it takes exactly 42 seconds for cells from mammals to adapt to weightlessness.

Benefits for us earthlings come both from space research but also research for space. Technology developed to track astronauts’ eyes is now used in most laser surgery to correct eyesight – if something is robust enough to work in space, it is often perfect for use on Earth. Research that models how atoms behave in three dimensions was hampered by gravity, so researchers built a facility that suspends dust particles in cold plasma to recreate how atoms behave. These insights into the nano-world are running continuously, while the technology behind it has spawned medical equipment that disinfects wounds and hospitals, a much-needed new line of defence against antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Columbus in Space by Julien Harrod
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'Columbus in Space' by Julien Harrod and the European Space Agency is out now (Century £8.99)

The Columbus laboratory was designed and launched before the era of smartphones and ubiquitous internet. Relying on over  two million moving parts to work without fail during its launch, the mission to bring the 12.8 tonne module to the International Space Station took just over 12 days in February 2008, since then it has stayed attached and sends down around 500 gigabytes of data to scientists every month.

The book Columbus in Space looks at the space lab’s history and installation, how it works, the people on Earth who keep it running smoothly and the results coming in from 10 years of research – focusing on the people and machines that keep the laboratory running.

In space nothing can be taken for granted, and each aspect of survival needs to be considered carefully. Hot air does not rise as on Earth, so keeping things at the right temperature – including astronauts – requires active cooling. The Space Station and Columbus use water to transfer heat to external ammonia-filled radiators. Ammonia’s advantage is it has a low freezing point so continues to circulate outside the Space Station, but it is toxic to humans so better kept outside. Even something as simple as a household annoyance like dust requires thought and planning. At home dust settles on table tops and ornaments that require weekly cleaning, but in space dust stays suspended forever and can irritate astronaut’s eyes and lungs if not filtered out by the air conditioning system.

The International Space Station project is a mind-boggling endeavour – the facts and numbers are impressive but hard to really comprehend. In the end, the human element of sending astronauts into space to live, work and bring back benefits for Earth-bound humans is what fascinates most. When Columbus was installed, a water valve was leaking and causing problems until the solution was offered that any computer whiz in the family will suggest: have you tried turning it off and on again? From blocking a hole with your finger or applying the first step of any electronics issues, research in the most inhospitable place for humans is first and foremost a wonderful discovery of what humans require to live and thrive and how, despite being a large international project made of down-to-earth-humans, we manage to build things that almost defy imagination.

Image: Flight Engineer Alexander Gerst of the European Space Agency seated in the Columbus laboratory module researching how the nervous system adapts to microgravity. Flickr/NasaJohnson-nasa2explore

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