Besides the space station itself—which, as an almost million-pound laboratory and living quarters suspended in space and hurtling through orbit at a speed of five miles per second, is quite the gadget—the International Space Station is home to countless ingenious doo-dads. These gadgets help the regularly rotating crew of six astronauts and scientists carry out space-specific experiments while also managing the day-to-day concerns of life in low-Earth orbit.
1. Zero-Gravity 3D Printer
Last year, a specialized 3D printer was delivered to the ISS and, shortly after, it produced a socket wrench, the first tool ever manufactured away from the Earth’s surface. The goal is to get to the point where the printer can produce spare parts to fix broken equipment far faster than a rocket could bring up replacements.
Robonaut is a humanoid robot torso on the ISS that looks like, well, half an astronaut. The similarities are purposeful: His humanlike arms and hands allow him to operate the same tools the real astronauts use. Robonaut can be controlled by engineers back on Earth or by an ISS crewmember wearing a specialized 3D visor, vest, and gloves. Recently, Robonaut received a set of legs, which will allow it to do even more, including space walks.
3. Avian Development Facility (ADF)
In 2001, this pair of centrifuges housed a rotating cast of Japanese-quail eggs. The quail eggs are studied in the ISS to get a better understanding of how space affects embryo development. As NASA writes on its site, “Bird eggs are ideally suited for microgravity research: they are self-contained, self-sustaining, and don’t miss their mothers.”
4. Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED)
Working out is always a good idea for optimal health, but in space it’s extra important. Living in microgravity for extended amounts of time can cause personnel aboard the ISS to lose bone density and up to 15 percent of their muscle mass—changes that could be permanent. To combat this, NASA keeps its astronauts on a strict exercise regimen. But the microgravity rules out most normal exercises, which is where the ARED comes in. The specialized resistance machine allows astronauts to weight lift in a weightless environment. There’s also a treadmill that straps them in for running.
5. Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG)
The Glovebox makes it possible for astronauts on board the ISS to carry out experiments involving liquids, combustibles, and other hazardous materials they might not want floating around the cabin. Scientists use built-in gloves to access the versatile facility in order to maintain a completely sealed environment.
6. Mobile Servicing System
Better known as Canadarm2—because the Canadian government chipped in $1.1 billion for its construction—this giant robot crane can move everything from fragile astronauts to objects with an Earth weight of more than 200,000 pounds. It’s 57.7 feet long when fully extended and contains seven joints for a range of flexibility. Astronauts inside the ISS control the crane using a closed circuit TV, but it’s also equipped with an artificial sense of “touch” and an automatic collision avoidance system.
7. Trace Gas Analyzer
A gas leak anywhere is bad news; on the ISS, it’s a disaster. To make sure they’re not inadvertently causing any leaks while working on the station, astronauts wear a shoebox-sized system strapped to the front of their suits that contains one of the world’s smallest high-performance mass spectrometers. The tiny, two-inch long system can detect leaking water, seeping rocket fuel, or escaping oxygen.
8. Water Reclamation System (WRS)
Launched in 2008, the WRS allowed the ISS to support a larger team without needing to import more water from Earth regularly—a costly undertaking, as you can imagine. The system collects all the waste water onboard—the astronauts' urine, humidity condensation on the walls and windows, Extra Vehicular Activity waste, and used washing water—and then purifies it through a series of distillation units and filters. The cleaned water is suitable for drinking or washing.
9. Oxygen Generation System (OGS)
Some of the reclaimed water goes towards the ISS system for generating its own oxygen. Similar to the process of photosynthesis used by plants, the OGS turns water into oxygen by using an electric current, supplied by the ISS’s solar panels, to break the individual molecules into hydrogen and oxygen atoms. This process produces around two kilograms of oxygen per day, which reduces the need to import oxygen from Earth.
10. Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS)
Delivered to the ISS in 2011, this $2 billion scientific instrument took 15 years to develop. It’s designed to detect and sort hundreds of billions of high-energy charged particles whizzing through space using a giant ring magnet that creates a magnetic field 3,000 times as strong as Earth’s to bend particles passing through it in meaningful ways. Scientists are hoping the data collected will help them to better understand why, when the universe was first born, matter and anti-matter didn’t annihilate themselves and negate everything after the Big Bang.
11. Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI)
This incredibly useful gadget is forthcoming. With plans to be installed in 2018, the $94 million device will beam three infrared lasers at Earth 240 times per second, or 16 billion times per year. Why? Super-specific sensors will measure down to the nanosecond how long it takes for the light pulses to hit the forest floor or canopy and bounce back, indicating the presence of trees and even their height. GEDI will be more precise than any other satellite collecting data about forests and allow scientists to create incredibly accurate 3D maps.
These gadgets are just a small preview of the innovation that’s happening in space. See more innovative aerospace and defense technology at Boeing.com.