About research in space
There is not a single aspect or a single moment of our life on Earth that is not influenced by an amazing force, which is the force of gravity. To understand in full the mechanisms governing our life and physics, we need to study what life would be like without it.
If this seems difficult to grasp, just imagine that you want to know how important a football player - say Zinedine Zidane - is for his team and how good the team would be if he was not there. Well, just play a match without him!
So, this is what research in space is: research in a weightless environment, free from the constraints of gravity, on a privileged Earth observation post that scans regularly our planet and observes the stars and the universe without the veiling effect of the Earth's atmosphere.
Research in space is, in the first instance, about improving our life on Earth. From this research will come knowledge, discoveries, improvements to our daily lives on Earth and - maybe one day - in the solar system.
Research in space, or the studies of life and physical sciences in space, are well established fields closely coupled to terrestrial research programmes and issues. Biology, physiology, fluid physics and combustion, material sciences, fundamental physics, astrobiology are all disciplines that will be studied in space, observing in particular how gravity affects the basic phenomena as observed on Earth, and expanding our knowledge of nature.
The space environment offers unique possibilities to study health problems releated to various diseases, ageing and immobility. Research will focus in the first instance on osteoporosis, cardiovascular problems, muscle atrophy and nutrition, and will try to understand the effects of physiological adaptation and the environment on health and safety, to develop clinical counter measures and advanced instrumentation for monitoring and diagnostics.
The improvement of industrial production methods and the development of new technologies are essential for a European industry that wants to be on the leading edge.
With the progress made in research in weightlessness during the last two decades, a number of research topics have emerged that have a clear relevance for industrial production processes. In order to model or improve production methods, it is important to understand the processes which are gravity dependent: as an example, even a small increase in accuracy of the thermophysical properties of molten metals or crude oils can have important economic benefits for the casting of petrochemical industries. Also a better understanding of the mechanisms behind the solidification or crystal growth mechanisms, or the behaviour of foams, can lead to optimised production methods or even new materials.
The development of new technologies can also be the primary goal of experiments in weightlessness, or the spin off of experiments performed: projects related to the development of technology for clinical and pharmaceutical applications, such as artificial organs and reconstituted tissues for drug screening and telemedicine are foreseen aboard the ISS; also innovative materials could be developed such as magnetic fluids, advanced foams and advanced sensing systems.
Finally, basic research projects could develop new technology concepts for the future, based for example on cold-atom or plasma physics technologies.
Caring for the environment
Studies in weightlessness can reveal properties that are important for energy production and environment protection. This can provide, for instance, a better understanding of combustion processes, flows in porous media and behaviour of dust particles in the atmosphere.
The results are expected to lead to low-pollution and higher efficiency combustion (cleaner or more efficient combustion) in powerplants and on aircraft and car engines, improved oil recovery methods and innovative air and water purification techniques. Increased knowledge of life support technologies can be used to make the nutrition cycle safer.
The classical example of burning a candle in space shows that the well-known shape of a flame is determined by the convection surrounding and mixing the burning components. This convection is driven by the force of gravity: in space a candle flame is spherical and almost transparent-blue due to the absence of soot production.
This opens up ways of studying the combustion process in high detail and determine specific parameters that can be used in the numerical modelling and optimising of combustion on Earth. Interested parties are designers of electrical powerplants who want to improve the effieciency or developers of car engines who want to reduce environmental loads.
Last update: 12 August 2004