It’s not cheap, but space station is finally hosting heavy duty science. Are media missing a sharp story angle?

Two astronauts set up Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, 2010 / NASA

   Sam Ting to the rescue of an intellectual legacy for ISS?

   For years – since well before 1998 when the International Space Station finally started coming together in orbit thanks to heroic work by  engineers and astronauts – many including yours truly have scoffed at it as a waste of money. Just to design and build it (marvelous USA Today graphic) cost around $100 billion. I can't lay hands on the operating budget, but it cannot be small. It's a waste, at least, if one scores it on scientific merit rather than as a display of mostly-US aerospace engineering prowess and dominance. Just maybe, the worm is turning. Not that this complex of solar panels, pressurized modules, and docking ports for space freighters devoted mostly to keeping a few people alive inside to run the place will go down as an entirely sensible investment. But even if automated platforms could have done nearly all of it cheaper there is no undoing the ISS. It may also and at last soon accumulate a resume of meaningful, grandly important research.

  Last week tracker Faye Flam's roundup post here at the tracker looked over accounts by the world's science press on hints of paydirt from a big detector that astronauts fastened two years ago to one of the  space station's girders. It is not the first experiment to do so, but it has revealed the strongest signs yet of an unexpected irregularity in the flow of antimatter particles streaming in from way out there.  According to the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer experiment team, led by Nobel-winning physicist Samuel Ting of MIT, the data meander might be handiwork by particles of that elusive inter-galactic glue, dark matter. If so, that's fab. Dark matter is a tantalizing mystery of the first rank, inferred by such subtle but vast effects as gravitational interference with the rotations and relative motions of clustered galaxies. At a guess only dark energy with its confusingly similar name out-ranks dark matter among cosmic stumpers.

   Maybe the Alpha detector's A-level adventure in science aboard the ISS is even a trend. If one goes by media attention one has  a few hints to go on including: 1) NICER, for Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer, has been given a green-light by NASA as an Explorer-class mission (which means fairly modest by space-dollar standards, or less than $55 million). It is to be hooked to ISS in 2017. It will not only gather information on the physics of neutron stars, but use their pulsar emanations as beacons to undergird a sort of global positioning system for the whole solar system.


Grist for the Mill: NASA Goddard Press Release ; Quantum entanglement – Plans are afoot to put an experiment aboard ISS to give so-called spooky action at a distance its toughest test so far. The orbiting instruments also should anchor a prototype global quantum communication network. Whatever that means.

Grist for the Mill: Institute of Physics (UK) Press Release ;  New Journal of Physics article abstract ;

   These last items didn't get much attention from major media. But they and the dark matter data coming in from the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer  do seem to signal a new rigor to research on board the station, as though it is assuming a role in major league science. None of the coverage that met the tracker's eye makes note of this angle, a transition from highest hi-tech trailer park ever to serious international laboratory. It is a theme worth a deeper look than this post's quick riff.

    To be sure, if one reads NASA's websites the impression one gets of the International Space Station is that it has been aswarm with nifty science all along. An agency-sponsored blog called A Lab Aloft has a post up right now on the research by a university group whose project – tended by astronauts – explores plant signaling. The young principal investigator declares, and there's little doubt of its truth to her, that the work is inspiring and generates immense enthusiasm among students on the team. Another post reviews the 2012 science year on ISS, listing studies of productivity in the world's oceans as sensed from orbit, refinement of space applications for robots, bone loss in microgravity, effects on microgravity on astronauts' and other occupants' vision, and the slow flames and distinctive rates of chemical reactions that occur in the spherical zones of burning around bits of lit fuel with too little gravity to drive buoyant convection. Elsewhere, we find a perennial topic for NASA's p.r. machine – a talk session between school children (in Texas this time) and astronauts aboard ISS.

  In 2008, when major construction was largely complete, NASA released a long report on what science had already been done by astronauts and other ISS crewmembers when not tied up by housekeeping and fastening on new parts. It listed more than 100 research projects and experiments. Most appear to revolve around space station science that studied the space station itself, durability of materials in space, and the biological side of living and traveling in space generally. It has been decent research so far but self-referential – not much of the lofty sort that changes the way we view ourselves or the workings of the cosmos. No wonder the station has such a low profile in both public and scientific consciousness.

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