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Forecasting Volcanoes & Earthquakes and Making Better Mayonnaise

This is the 4th in a series of posts to highlight the scientific research being conducted on board the International Space Station.

I spent the last week at the European Astronaut Center just outside the beautiful city of Cologne, Germany. I have one more week here before I head to Star City Russia for more training with the Russian Space Agency. This past week, I received training on the International Space Station’s European Laboratory known as "Columbus." In addition to learning about the systems and equipment of the Columbus Laboratory, I also received training on two of the laboratory's research facilities: The Fluid Science Laboratory and BioLab.

Fluid Science Laboratory – As its name suggests, this facility studies the properties of fluids. One of the experiments called GeoFlow, will take advantage of the weightless environment to improve our understanding of how fluids behave. Why do we need to do this research in space, you ask?  The weightless environment of the Space Station allows us to vastly simplify or eliminate the following processes that are involved in the study of fluids:


  • Convection is the process where heated fluids, due to their lower density, rise and cooled fluids fall. This process doesn’t take place in the absence of gravity.

  • Hydrostatic Pressure is the pressure exerted by a fluid due to its weight. An environment where objects are weightless= no hydrostatic pressure.

  • Sedimentation is the tendency for particles in suspension to settle out of  a fluid.  In a weightless environment this process is vastly simplified and particles are much more likely to remain suspended in the fluid.

  • Stratification, or the building up of layers is also greatly simplified in an environment where gravity does not cause changes in density.

All this simplification, afforded by a weightless environment, will allow us to build better mathematical models and improve our understanding of the geophysics of the inner core of the Earth. This could lead to better methods of forecasting volcanoes and earthquakes.

Another experiment in the Fluid Science Laboratory is called FASES.  This experiment will study the characteristics of emulations. An emulsion is a mixture of two or more unblendable liquids. Emulsions in foods like mayonnaise are mixtures of oil and water. These normally do not mix and will separate if left without an emulsifier. This research can lead to improvements in food production and storage, advanced cooling fluids and a better understanding of how fluids flow.

BioLab -  is a biological research facility designed to perform experiments on micro-organisms, cells, tissue cultures, small plants and small invertebrates. The major objective of these experiments is to identify the role that weightlessness plays at all levels of an organism, from single cells to complex organisms including humans.  Some of the experiments we will be doing onboard will expand our understanding of how plants grow in harsh climates and poor soil conditions. This research can lead to more effective food production in areas of the world where it’s presently very challenging to farm. Other experiments in this facility should lead to a better understanding of the human immune system with the hope that this research will lead to better methods of boosting the immune systems. Another interesting experiment will research how our biological clocks are effected by gravity, digestion and light.

Next week I will continue training on many more interesting experiments.  It really is rewarding to be a part of an international science team whose research will make life better on Planet Earth.