What's happening on the space station?
High above us, beyond the skies, is the International Space Station, which weighs nearly 1 million pounds and has a wingspan the length of a football field. It has nine rooms, two bathrooms, two kitchens and two mini-gyms, and it is the largest spacecraft orbiting the Earth.
NASA announced this week that an instrument called ISS-RapidScat will be launched to the station in 2014 to improve weather forecasts, by doing things like monitoring hurricanes. It will also help scientists explore the Earth's global wind field; tropical clouds and tropical systems are affected by wind variations caused by the sun.
Another experiment on board is called InSPACE, which stands for "Investigating the Structure of Paramagnetic Aggregates From Colloidal Emulsions." All that means that scientists are studying magnetorheological fluids, which are complex substances that change form or harden when exposed to magnetic fields. These substances could one day be useful in robots, NASA says, acting as a "blood" to make the movement of joints and limbs like that of a living creature.
Its mission is multifaceted. One of the space station's main goals is to find ways to extend the length of time a human can survive in space. Other experiments include growing cells where there is no gravity and observing bodily fluid changes in different atmospheres. In 2003, scientists aboard the station studied the behavior, mating activity and irregular motility responses of young flies they brought with them from Earth.
"The International Space Station is the most complex scientific and technological endeavor ever undertaken," according to a NASA statement.
To lighten things up a bit (let's not forget the ISS is the astronauts' workplace and their home), astronauts periodically capture breathtaking aerial views of the Earth, which they send back down to earthlings via Twitter. Recently, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield did a video while on the space station about cutting your nails when there's no gravity.
It was former President Ronald Reagan who pushed the idea of a manned space station in Earth's orbit. In what he called a "new frontier" at his 1984 State of the Union address, he acknowledged that "(t)he Space Age is barely a quarter of a century old. But already we've pushed civilization forward with our advances and technology. Opportunities and jobs will multiply as we cross new thresholds of knowledge and reach deeper into the unknown."
Sixteen years later, the U.S. partnered with Russia, Canada, Japan and several European countries to launch the space station. Since it arrived in orbit, over 200 humans have visited the station.
None of the space agencies involved with the space station has confirmed exactly when it will deorbit, though some agencies hint that it may end some time after 2020. When the space station is decommissioned, it will likely drop from space into its new home -- the Pacific Ocean.
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