Physical Sciences Research on the ISS

The reduced-gravity platforms currently available to researchers in the physical sciences are aircraft, drop towers, sounding rockets (in Europe and Japan), the space shuttle, and the ISS. Aircraft provide partial gravity for 20 to 25 s, with a g-jitter of 10–2 g. Drop towers allow microgravity for a few seconds, and sounding rockets for a few minutes. In the space shuttle, gravity levels on the order of 10–4 g can be sustained for long periods of time. However, the ISS is a very long duration experiment platform providing acceleration levels on the order of 10–5 to 10–6 g under the right conditions.8 The premise of the ISS has been that it will serve as a laboratory for research and for the development and testing of technologies that facilitate space exploration. It also provides a platform for basic and applied research in biological and physical sciences aimed at enhancing a fundamental understanding of phenomena and processes with eventual space and terrestrial applications.

The facilities available on the ISS for U.S. researchers in the physical sciences include the Microgravity Science Glovebox, the Combustion Integrated Rack, the Fluids Integrated Rack, the Materials Science Research Rack, the Space Dynamically Responding Ultrasound Matrix System (Space DRUMS), and several multiuser EXPRESS Racks.9 In addition, the European Space Agency has the Fluid Science Laboratory, and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency has the Ryutai and Kobairo Racks for fluid physics and materials science research. Through international collaboration, all of these facilities can be used to advance research in the physical sciences.

As of 2009, NASA had carried out 20 expeditions to the ISS. These expeditions have led to 52 experiments in the physical sciences, and 15 more were planned for expeditions 21 and 22. Some of the recent experiments that have been conducted in the basic fluid physics area include gelation and phase separation in colloidal suspensions, critical phenomena, crystallization of glasses, growth of dendritic crystals, properties of magneto-rheological fluids, properties of particle growth in liquid-metal mixtures, and stress/strain response in polymeric liquids under shearing. In the area of combustion and fire safety, investigations have included smoke and aerosol measurements and the study of soot emission from gas-jet flames.

The fundamental and applied microgravity research in the physical sciences for which the ISS can serve as a laboratory is described in detail elsewhere in this report (see Chapters 8, 9, and 10). Here only a brief summary is presented. In the fundamental physics area, the topics of interest are soft matter and complex fluids (materials with multiple levels of structure), including colloids, polymer and colloidal gels, foams, emulsions, liquid crystals, dusty plasmas, and granular materials. Because of the gradients that develop in their properties under gravity, the microgravity environment provides ideal conditions for understanding the dynamic behavior of such materials, allowing the testing of ideas about fundamental physical processes—varying from examination of the constitutive equations that describe the strain-rate relationships for granular materials through to analysis of crystal growth—without the confounding effects of convection-based imperfections in material deposition. Precision measurements of fundamental forces and symmetries are another area that can benefit greatly from the microgravity environment of the ISS. Some of the subtopics of interest are the study of the equivalence principle and theories behind the standard model and general relativity to ask whether different kinds of matter interact with gravity in the same way. The study of quantum gases can lead to a range of new technologies and understanding, from developing ultraprecise atomic clocks and quantum sensors to resolving the mechanism of superconductivity in high-temperature superconductors. Major advances in the understanding of phenomena near the critical point can be achieved through well-conceived experiments conducted on the ISS. The completion of the Low Temperature Microgravity Physics Facility would significantly enhance the capability of the ISS to support experiments in fundamental physics.

Applied physical sciences include fluid physics and heat transfer, combustion, and materials science. In the fluid physics area, multiphase flow phenomena and associated heat transfer have been identified as a critical area that would benefit greatly from experiments in the long-duration microgravity environment of the ISS. Experiments on pool boiling; forced-flow boiling, including phase separation and flow stability; closure relations for interfacial and wall heat, mass and momentum transfer; condensation; and capillary-driven flows would provide significant knowledge and a database with which computer models could be validated and systems could be designed. In addition, research aimed at increasing the efficiency and lifetime of power-generation and energy-storage systems would reduce costs by reducing mass and redundancy. All of these systems would benefit from research, prototyping, and testing on the ISS. For example, key advantages of spaceborne power systems based on the Rankine

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