11 Amazing Gadgets You’ll Find on the International Space Station


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. 

2. Robonaut 

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.


Friday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Digital Projectors, Ugly Christmas Sweaters, and Speakers

As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 4. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

10 Surprising Facts About Wham!’s 'Last Christmas'

Michael Putland/Getty Images
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Over the course of his illustrious career, George Michael gave the world many gifts. One that keeps on giving is “Last Christmas,” the 1984 holiday classic by Wham!, Michael's pop duo with Andrew Ridgeley. “Last Christmas” is such a uniquely beloved song that it inspired a 2019 film of the same name. That’s just one interesting part of the “Last Christmas” story. Read on for 10 fascinating facts about this seasonal synth-pop favorite.

1. George Michael wrote "Last Christmas" in his childhood bedroom.

“Last Christmas” was born one day in 1984 when George Michael and Wham! bandmate Andrew Ridgeley were visiting Michael’s parents. While they were sitting around watching TV, Michael suddenly dashed upstairs to his childhood bedroom and composed the modern Xmas classic in about an hour. “George had performed musical alchemy, distilling the essence of Christmas into music,” Ridgeley said. “Adding a lyric which told the tale of betrayed love was a masterstroke and, as he did so often, he touched hearts."

2. “Last Christmas” isn’t really a Christmas song.

There’s nothing in “Last Christmas” about Santa, reindeer, trees, snow, or anything we typically associate with the holiday. Rather, the song is about a failed romance that just happens to have begun on December 25, when Michael gave someone his heart, and ended on December 26, when this ungrateful person “gave it away.”

3. George Michael wrote and produced the song—but that’s not all.

Dave Hogan/Getty Images

By the time Wham! recorded “Last Christmas” in August (yes, August) 1984, Michael had taken full control of the group. In addition to writing and producing the song, Michael insisted on playing the Roland Juno-60 synth in the studio. “George wasn’t a musician,” engineer Chris Porter said. “It was a laborious process, because he was literally playing the keyboards with two or three fingers.” Michael even jangled those sweet sleigh bells himself.

4. “Last Christmas” didn’t reach #1 on the UK charts.

As the movie Love Actually reminds us, scoring a Christmas #1 in the UK is a really big deal. Unfortunately, “Last Christmas” didn’t give Wham! that honor. It stalled at #2, and to this day it has the distinction of being the highest-selling UK single of all time to not reach #1.

5. George Michael sang on the song that kept “Last Christmas” at #2.

“Last Christmas” was bested on the UK charts by Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” an all-star charity single benefiting Ethiopian famine relief. Michael sang on “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” and was so committed to the cause that he donated his profits from “Last Christmas” to helping the African nation.

6. George Michael was sued for plagiarism over “Last Christmas.”

In the mid-1980s, the publishing company Dick James Music sued George Michael on behalf of the writers of “Can’t Smile Without You,” a schmaltzy love song recorded by The Carpenters and Barry Manilow, among others. According to Chris Porter, the recording engineer on “Last Christmas,” the suit was dismissed after a musicologist presented 60-plus songs that have a similar chord progression and melody.

7. "Last Christmas" has been covered by a lot of other artists.

Michael Putland/Getty Images

Jimmy Eat World, Hilary Duff, Good Charlotte, Ariana Grande, Carly Rae Jepsen, Gwen Stefani, and Taylor Swift are just a few of the artists who’ve covered “Last Christmas” over the years. The strangest rendition may be the 2006 dance version by the Swedish CGI character Crazy Frog, which reached #16 on the UK charts.

8. Some people make a concerted effort to avoid hearing “Last Christmas.”

While millions of people delight in hearing “Last Christmas” every year, an internet game called Whamageddon encourages players to avoid the song from December 1 to 24. The rules are simple: Once you hear the original Wham! version of “Last Christmas” (remixes and covers don’t count), you’re out. You then admit defeat on social media with the hashtag #Whamageddon and wait for your friends to suffer the same fate. Note: The rules prohibit you from “deliberately sending your friends to Whamhalla.”

9. “Last Christmas” finally charted in America following George Michael’s death in 2016.

Back in 1984, “Last Christmas” wasn’t released as a commercial single in the United States, and therefore it wasn’t eligible for the Billboard Hot 100 chart. However, Billboard changed its rules in 1998, and in the wake of George Michael’s unexpected death on Christmas Day 2016, the song finally made its Hot 100 debut. In December 2018, it reentered the charts and peaked at #25.

10. George Michael was involved in 2019's Last Christmas movie.

November 2019 saw the release of Paul Feig's Last Christmas, a romantic comedy inspired by the song starring Game of Thrones's Emilia Clarke. Producer David Livingstone came up with the idea while George Michael was still alive, and when he pitched the pop star on the project, he was given the greenlight—with one condition: Michael stipulated that actress and author Emma Thompson write the movie. Thompson co-authored the story and the screenplay, and she even wound up playing a supporting role.