MAKING SPACE FOR SCIENCE

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by Jacqueline M. Hames

 

Most of us have glanced up while we’re outside at night and wondered what that bright, star-like object moving across the sky might be. A plane? A satellite? Either are viable answers, but in this digital age, we can confirm through apps on our phones when it’s the International Space Station (ISS). Moving at about 17,500 miles per hour in orbit around Earth, the space station is home to an international crew tending a variety of science experiments, ranging from biology to physics. While some experiments are being conducted to determine the human body’s tolerance of space flight, or our technological ability to survive on a new planet, most of the experiments have one goal—to help advance science on Earth.

“I really want to emphasize the majority of what we do is for the benefit of those on Earth,” said Army Lt. Col. Anne McClain, a NASA astronaut and flight engineer for ISS Expedition 58 and 59. Microgravity provides a unique environment to conduct experiments that otherwise would fail on Earth.

“One [experiment] that I like to highlight is protein crystal growth. It is a good example of why … we have an international research laboratory in space,” McClain said. “Protein crystals are very fragile. They don’t grow well on Earth.” Protein crystals can sometimes grow incorrectly in the human body, which can be a cause of Parkinson’s disease, she explained. Earthbound researchers had not been able to grow these crystals large enough to understand their structure and their makeup, and therefore the treatment and blockage of the crystal growths.

The experiment, official known as Crystallization of LRRK2 Under Microgravity Conditions-2, or CASIS PCG 16, grew protein crystals of leucine-rich repeat kinase 2 on the space station. The crew used larger sample wells than the previous iteration of the experiment, filled the wells during flight and monitored the crystals while they grew.

“We did imaging of their structures and we also studied them, protected them and flew them back to the researchers on Earth,” McClain said. “They grew enormously bigger than they would have on Earth, and that in itself accelerated the case of Parkinson’s research and treatment exponentially.”

So, the next time you see the ISS gliding across the sky, give it a little nod. It is a great international collaboration and marvelous feat of engineering, after all—and those aboard it are working for you.

 


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