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Science that can't be done on Earth

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Science that can't be done
on Earth

The space shuttle Columbia left Earth today on a dedicated scientific research mission.

NASA

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see captionJanuary 16, 2003: The year was 1643. Evangelista Torricelli, an assistant of Galileo, poured some mercury into a glass tube and put his thumb over one end. Then he tried to pour the mercury out, but it wouldn't come. A little void had formed between his thumb and the mercury; somehow it held the heavy liquid in place.

He had discovered vacuum.

Nowadays, kids in restaurants routinely do the same thing using straws and water or milk, but in Torricelli's day the notion of a vacuum was radical. Artistotle himself had declared that nature abhorred vacuums. Scientists, however, soon learned to love them.

Right: Evangelista Torricelli--the first space researcher? [more]

A laboratory vacuum chamber is like a piece of outer space on Earth. It's a wonderful place to do experiments that would be impossible in our planet's thick atmosphere. Research involving vacuums and air pressure has led to light bulbs, integrated circuits, freeze-dried foods, particle accelerators, electron microscopes--even weather forecasting and human flight. Torricelli would be amazed.

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It might be said that Torricelli's work marked the beginning of space research. "But there are many aspects of space we can't mimic on Earth," says Dr. John Charles of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. "We can turn down air pressure in laboratory vacuum chambers and bombard samples with space-like radiation. We can't turn off gravity, though, or look down on Earth from above."

Some experiments simply can't be done on Earth. That's why NASA is building the International Space Station, a full-time low-gravity research lab. It's also why NASA schedules space shuttle missions dedicated to scientific research.

One such mission began this morning when the space shuttle Columbia (STS-107) blasted off carrying 80+ scientific experiments. About half are commercial, sponsored by businesses who hope to make the next big profit-making discovery. The rest are pure science. "We'll be doing experiments in fundamental physics, biology, firefighting, medicine, climate ... the variety is impressive," says Charles, who is the STS-107 mission scientist.

"Space is a truly alien environment," says Charles. "Many things behave differently up there."

see captionFlames are a good example. On Earth, flames have a teardrop shape caused by hot air rising in a gravitational field. On board a spaceship, however, flames break apart into little balls that move around like UFOs. They burn using almost no fuel--something researchers would like to replicate in gas-saving auto engines. One of the experiments on STS-107, called SOFBALL-2, will ignite some flame balls and measure their properties. Scientists hope to learn how they burn and what keeps them lit.

Left: Tiny flame balls photographed onboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1997. [more]

Human brains are another example. An astronaut just arriving in orbit has some big adjustments to make: There is no "up" or "down." If you drop something it doesn't fall. And just try catching a ball tossed by a crewmate! The brain adapts to weightlessness by building "a model" or mental subroutine that tells the body how to interpret these very unusual experiences. Before long, sleeping upside down is no problem. No one knows how the brain constructs such models, but neuroscientists want to find out because many believe model-building is a key to everyday human learning. NASA researchers will study this process among STS-107 crewmembers.

How different is space? Not even flowers smell the same. Perfume industry giant International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF) found that out in 1998 when they sent a miniature rose called "Overnight Scentsation" into orbit onboard the space shuttle Discovery (STS-95). The flower developed a "floral rose aroma" quite distinct from its normal odor on Earth. The new fragrance has since been incorporated into "Zen", a perfume produced by the Japanese company Shiseido. This time on STS-107 IFF scientists will send two flowers into orbit--a rose and an Asian rice flower. They hope the pair together will produce scents even more exotic than before.

see captionRight: Most of the experiments onboard STS-107 will take place within a SPACEHAB moduletwice as big as the one pictured here in the cargo bay of space shuttle Discovery in 1998. [more]

"Those are just three examples," says Charles. "There are about 77 more experiments onboard Columbia--all just as exciting."

Managing so many experiments is a big job. To get it done, Columbia's crew of seven will be split into two teams, Blue and Red, that will work 12 hour shifts. This will allow research to take place 24 hours-a-day during the entire 16-day mission.

All of the investigations onboard Columbia have some specific goal such as improving auto engines or discovering new aromas. But the big prizes, says Charles, are unknown. "No one in the 17th century could have predicted where Torricelli's simple experiment would lead. Similarly, no one can predict where low-gravity research will take us now."

"It's almost certain, though, that anything we do predict from our rudimentary experience so far will be only a small fraction of the ultimate benefits."

Editor's note: Contrary to popular belief, there is gravity in Earth orbit. Otherwise the shuttle would fly out into space instead of circling our planet. Astronauts (and their science experiments) experience weightlessness because the shuttle is in free fall. Next week we will publish a story about tiny deviations from weightlessness on STS-107, and how that matters to some of the experiments onboard.

Web Links

Space Research and You -- (NASA/OBPR) the home page of the STS-107 research mission.

Science@NASA stories about STS-107:

Shear Mystery -- Some fluids have a mysterious property: one moment they're thick, the next they're thin. Physicists aim to find out why with the aid of an experiment in space.

The Physics of Sandcastles -- An upcoming shuttle mission will carry small columns of sand into space, and will return with valuable lessons for earthquake engineers, farmers and physicists.

Space Scents -- Researchers hunting for new and profitable fragrances will soon send a pair of flowers into Earth orbit.

Balancing Brains -- NASA researchers are learning new things about the human brain by studying how astronauts regain their balance.

Floating Flame Balls -- Flames do something odd in space: they form tiny almost-invisible balls that might reveal the secrets of combustion here on Earth.

Sowing Seeds in a Magnetic Field -- Scientists hope that an unusual experiment slated for launch on STS-107 will reveal how plants know up from down.

Mossy Space Spirals -- Samples of fire moss that travel onboard the space shuttle do something odd: they spiral. Scientists say it's a clue to the fundamental inner workings of plant cells.

Confounded by Coffee -- Here's something to ponder over your next cup of joe: the physics of a humble bag of coffee grounds still holds surprises for scientists.

Evangelista Torricelli's discovery of vacuum triggered a revolution in scientific thinking about the nature of air and matter. It also enabled new kinds of experiments, which could be done only in the "alien environment" of a vacuum chamber. Learn more: A Short History of Vacuum Terminology and Technology (McAllister Technical Services); Understanding Pressure and Vacuums (The Bakken Library and Museum)


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