Human Space Activities / Utilization of the Space Environment Space Environment Utilization and Space Experiment

About Space Environment Utilization and Space Experiment

The space environment has various distinctive features that cannot be obtained on Earth, such as microgravity, high vacuum, excellent unobstructed views, and cosmic radiation. Using such an environment, we can conduct a broad range of research, experiments, and observations in numerous fields.
JAXA has been carrying out scientific experiments through small rockets, the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station (ISS). With the completion of the construction of the Japanese Experiment Module "Kibo," the range of our activities has been further expanded to space medicine and for cultural and educational purposes. The achievements through these activities contribute to enriching our lives and enhancing industries' competitiveness in Japan.

Major Research Projects in Space

1. Material science research in the microgravity environment

The International Space Station (ISS) and Space Shuttle, which are flying around the Earth, are in free fall; therefore, the gravity inside the ISS and Space Shuttle is one millionth that on Earth. Such an environment is called a "microgravity environment." It is possible to perform new research for materials in a microgravity environment because matters are mixed evenly without moving around or separating due to differences in weight or specific gravity.
One example of such experiments is the "ice crystal growth in space" using the Fluid Physics Experiment Facility in the Kibo's Pressurized Module. Unlike an experiment on Earth, we can study the crystal growth mechanism in the microgravity environment where there is no influence of gravity and convection currents caused by temperature differences. As in the abovementioned experiment, we would like to focus on crystal growth, its mechanism, and convection current phenomena around it in order to gain knowledge to elucidate the basic mechanism of physical phenomena on material creation processes.

"Ice crystal growth in space" experiment conducted in the Kibo's Pressurized Module

2. Life science research in the space environment

Life on Earth has been evolving while it is constantly exposed to the Earth's gravity (1G.) By growing life in a microgravity environment for a prolonged period of time, we can find how the 1G affects living organisms. For example, plants on Earth have developed cell walls to support their body to grow up against gravity. By studying changes in cell walls while growing a plant in space, we can examine the growth mechanism of plants on the ground. It has already been discovered that small fish like Japanese killifish (medaka) swim in a circle under microgravity because they loose their sense of balance in the microgravity environment. In such an experiment, we can also study the impact of gravity on human beings.

JAXA has been carrying out protein crystal growth experiments. Protein, which is a major component of living organisms, has been attracting researchers' attention to clarify its functions and structure. Thus, protein experiments play an important role for molecular-level medicine design and ultimately for medical treatment. For high precision analysis, a crystal made of a single molecule is required. In space, such high-quality crystallization is possible. In that sense, experiments in space are expected to contribute to medical treatment and medicine development.

Astronut Furukawa supports CsPINs experiment

Another important difference between the environments of space and Earth is "cosmic radiation," which comes from the sun and far-away galaxies. The magnetic field and the atmosphere protect the Earth like a barrier from the radiation reaching on the Earth's surface, but, in space, we have to cope with the direct impact of the radiation. The radiation is known to damage the DNA in our cells, thus, if we are exposed to a large amount of radiation, DNA cannot function properly, and that may result in a mutation. Therefore, it is very important to study the influence of space radiation for future space exploration by mankind.

At the ISS, we can conduct a longer-term research compared to conventional activities by small rockets or the Space Shuttle. Hence it enables us to examine the influence of the space environment on living organisms while they are going through the alternation of generations.

3. Extravehicular experiments in the exposed environment of space

The ISS circles approximately 400 km above the Earth. The atmospheric pressure around there is 10-5Pa, which is almost vacuum. At the ISS, we can observe celestial bodies without any obstacles such as the atmosphere from the Earth. In addition, as it takes only about 90 minutes for the ISS to circle around the Earth or it makes about 16 circular trips per day, astronomical observations covering a broad range of space can be performed in a short period of time by pointing an observation device to the outside from the ISS. If we turn the device toward Earth, we can observe an extensive area of the surface of our planet.
On the Kibo's Exposed Facility, a multiple number of experiment devices can be set exposed to the space environment. Using such an exposed environment, we have already started a variety of experiments including all-sky observations by X-rays, space environment measurements around the ISS, and the measurement of ozone layer depleting materials on Earth.

Monitor of All-sky X-ray Image (MAXI)

4. Research on life in space that can be applied to life on the Earth

In order for humans to expand into space, we need to examine the effects of the space environment and of the closed space station on the human body and mind. Therefore, space medicine, which looks for treatments for various symptoms caused in the space environment, is also a very important research subject. Technologies to shuttle between space and Earth, and to make life in space comfortable for humans, are also required. In addition, research on devices and technologies needed to build robots, create communications systems and generate energy for our future space activities, will be conducted by exposing the experimental devices to space and examining their durability and functions. The results of these experiments are expected to be utilized not only to solve problems in space activities but also to enhance life on Earth and to treat diseases.

Astronaut Wakata exercising at a treadmill
(TVIS, Treadmill Vibration Isolation System)

For example, it has already been confirmed thanks to previous astronaut space stays that bones get weaker in the space microgravity environment as bone mass is decreasing much more rapidly compared to that on the ground. Studying preventive measures for bone mass decrease can be helpful to osteoporosis treatment.

Delicious space food is the most important factor for astronauts who stay at the ISS for a prolonged period of time to maintain their nutritious and healthy state and to reduce their mental stress. Since 2007, JAXA started a system to certify some delicious space food recipes as "Japanese Space Food," and those that have been certified have already been enjoyed by space missions that include Japanese astronauts.

5. Application to culture, humanities and social sciences, and education

"The Earth is blue." "There is no border around the Earth."
Humans who flew out to space left many witty words to express their impressions of the Earth, and that provided a new perspective on the Earth and space. People are awed by space, and it inspires our spirit. JAXA has already started to apply the space environment not only to physical and scientific fields, but also to art areas with the aim to discover touching or surprising feelings and experiences in space through artistic expressions.

Through our trial to apply space to educational, cultural, and humanitarian activities using the Kibo, JAXA hopes to "foster people on Earth" "explore the future for mankind," and "create new values through space use." Applying artistic expression in space for the future is expected to be one of the imperative activities for mankind to lead an affluent life in space.

EPO Mission [Spiral Top /Takuro Osaka]