ISS nears completion

Following the installation of the Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module in the past week the International Space Station, which began construction in 1998, is now awaiting its final pressurised module. This will be the Russian-built Nauka module, which is scheduled to launch mid-way through 2012 and will attach to the Russian Orbital Segment.

Watch the video below to see how the ISS has expanded from the single ‘Zarya’ module into the giant space station it is today.

Credit: NASA

What’s it like on the ISS?

Man has had a continuous presence in space since 1998 on the International Space Station. Eleven years ago, the Zarya was launched into orbit by the Russian Federal Space Agency. This was the first piece of the ISS. Now that it is nearing completion, the ISS is the largest satellite to ever orbit the Earth. When completed in 2012, it also promises to be the most expensive object ever constructed.

The ISS wasn’t the first space station; in 1971 the Soviet Union launched the Salyut, which was the first in a series of space stations. Two years later, NASA launched Skylab. However, both of these programmes were single modules with limited life spans. In 1986, the Soviet Union launched the Mir, which was intended to be built upon and added to over time. The United States planned to launch its own space station, Freedom, just a few years later, but budgetary restraints ended the project. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States began negotiating with Russia, along with several other countries, to build a multinational space station. Until Expedition 20 in May 2009, crews on the International Space Station consisted of two-to-three astronauts and cosmonauts, who stayed for six months. Now the ISS is large enough to support a six-man crew, the stay has been reduced to three months.

Credit: NASA

The crew typically works for ten hours a day during the week and five hours on Saturdays. During their eight scheduled night hours, the crew sleeps in cabins while attached to bunk beds, or in sleeping bags secured to the wall. They also wear sleep masks, as it would be difficult to sleep otherwise with a sunrise occurring every 90 minutes. All food is processed so it is easy to reheat in a special oven, usually with the addition of water. This includes beverages, which the crew drinks with straws from plastic bags. Exercise is a very important part of daily life for the crew of the ISS because of microgravity’s adverse effects on the body. The astronauts and cosmonauts may experience muscle atrophy, bone loss, a weakened immune system and a slowed cardiovascular system, among other problems. To help counteract this, the crew exercises while strapped to treadmills and exercise bicycles.

Research is the main reason for the station’s existence in low Earth orbit (about 330 kilometres above the planet’s surface). Several scientific experiments spanning fields including astronomy, physics, materials science, earth science and biology take place on the station simultaneously. For example, US astronauts are currently conducting about ten different experiments, with an additional five automated experiments. They are also partnering on more than 20 manned and automated experiments with astronauts and cosmonauts from other countries. Since 1998, more than 130 experiments have been conducted on the ISS, and each month brings more published research.

In this awesome image, the ISS can be seen crossing a full moon

One of the overarching research goals for the station is to learn about the long-term effects of space on the human body. Many of the experiments also study the different ways things react in a low gravity, low temperature environment. There is also an exerpiermetn involving the use of ultrasounds so that remote doctors can diagnose medical problems (there is no doctor on the ISS(, with the hope that the technology can also be used on Earth.

The current plan shows the ISS de-orbiting in 2016, and the international funding is scheduled to run out in that year. However, a US committee named the Augustine Commission is exploring the possibilities of keeping the programme going until at least 2020. NASA is also conducting studies on whether the station’s components could be viable until 2028.