Microgravity space lab
The ISS is the biggest human-made structure in space, measuring 358ft in length, which is about as long as a football pitch. A collaboration between Nasa, Russia’s Roscosmos, Japan’s Jaxa, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and the European Space Agency (ESA), the ISS essentially acts as a unique orbiting laboratory where astronauts test out new technologies and carry out scientific experiments in microgravity.
Around 250 to 300 scientific investigations are carried out at any given time and help prepare for future space missions — as well as helping us. For example, the first UK-led experiment on the ISS recently studied a horde of worms to test the effect of muscle loss in space. That could also help us to understand muscle loss in old age.
Remember ‘Beam me up, Scotty’ from Star Trek? The UK’s first major industrial contribution to the ISS, the COLKa communications terminal, was delivered into orbit earlier this year to make it faster for astronauts to communicate with people back on Earth. Libby Jackson, human exploration programme manager at the UK Space Agency, says: ‘COLKa’s installation means data will no longer have to be returned to Earth on hard disks but instead can be beamed down — a much quicker process.’
In order to carry out all this research, the ISS is jam-packed with tech. There are around 100 laptops and tablets on board and everything that goes up has to be certified safe for use in the harsh conditions of space, including extreme temperatures and radiation. It can take years to design and test space-hardened computer chips, meaning that many of the laptops on the ISS are laughably out of date.
A prototype supercomputer from Hewlett Packard Enterprise, which recently completed a stay on the ISS, aims to put that right. Special software on the Spaceborne Computer automatically slows it down when conditions in space get particularly bad, like if there’s a radiation spike. This is to stop the hardware from failing and could mean that more up-to-date consumer computers could be used in space in future.
The ISS is also equipped with multiple cameras, enabling astronauts to grab stellar shots of our home planet. The Nikon D5 is the astros’ snapper of choice, with at least ten currently residing on the space station. Unlike previous models, the D5 didn’t have to be specially modified for space so it’s exactly the same model used by us non-astronauts. Another consumer camera, the Sony a7S II, was mounted on the outside of ISS by Japan’s space agency to capture stunning 4K footage of planet Earth.
All sorts of specially modified space tech has been sent up to the ISS, including gym equipment, a 3D printer and even a coffee machine called the ISSpresso. Robots are also a permanent fixture on our orbiting space base, including a massive 23ft-long robotic arm that helped to build the ISS and now assists with maintenance and wrangling arriving cargo ships.
The first humanoid robot, named Robonaut, boarded the ISS in 2011 to assist astronauts with manual repetitive tasks. Originally just a creepy torso with a head and arms, Robonaut was later fitted with legs to help it manoeuvre around and is now back on Earth for upgrading and repairs before returning to orbit.
A more recent edition is CIMON-2 (Crew Interactive MObile companioN), an AI-powered free-floating orb with a friendly face, developed by IBM and Airbus. The spherical robot is designed to support astronauts during scientific experiments and repairs. It can also react to emotions so it could be a handy conversation pal on longer missions.
From space tourists to (wo)man on the Moon
The hope is that the ISS will stay in orbit until at least 2030. While the three-seater Russian Soyuz has been rocketing crews to the ISS since 2011, the new SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule completed a historic test flight to the ISS in May and is set to ferry its first full crew of seven to the station later this year.
The extra seat also opens up possibilities for space tourists, with Tom Cruise set to blast off on the SpaceX craft (a seat costs $55million) to the ISS next October to film a Nasa-backed movie.
Meanwhile, a new mini space station is slated for construction in lunar orbit. The Lunar Gateway is intended to act as a stepping stone for astronauts on missions to the Moon.
And finally, Nasa’s Artemis mission aims to land the first woman, and next man, on the Moon in 2024, marking the first return to the lunar surface since 1972.
THE ISS IN NUMBERS
17,500 — Miles per hour. The speed the ISS hurtles around Earth.
42 — The number of space flights it took to build the ISS, including 37 missions on the US space shuttle and five on the Russian Soyuz.
15 — Nations involved in the construction of the ISS, among them the US, Russia, Canada, Japan and various members of the European Space Agency including the UK.
3,000+ — The number of scientific experiments that have been carried out aboard the ISS.
340 — Days completed by Nasa astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Gennady Padalka during their ‘one-year mission’, marking the longest stay on the ISS
6 — Months. The average ISS stay for astronauts.
13 — The most astronauts that have ever stayed on board at one time.
CONNECTING TO THE COSMOS: THE BEST SPACE STATION APPS
The ISS might be far away but that doesn’t mean you can’t see it with the naked eye. It sometimes appears as a solid bright light travelling across the night sky and this nifty app tells you when and where to look up to catch a glimpse of the station flying overhead. iOS, Android
Packed with stunning space images and all the latest news, the official Nasa app will give you details on the latest missions along with collated Twitter feeds from all the Nasa facilities and astronauts. A Nasa TV feed even lets you watch live rocket launches from your phone. iOS, Android
This excellent interactive app lets you explore a 3D digital model of the ISS. Just hold the phone in landscape mode and you can swipe the screen to rotate around the space station’s various modules, zooming into any section for more details. iOS, Android
People In Space
A pleasingly simple idea, this app tells you how many humans are in space right now. Swipe left on and it will give you a picture and bio for each astronaut and cosmonaut, including how long they’ve been in space, plus an overall total of all their days in space across multiple missions. iOS