Hooray for glovebox milestone – and faster computers

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The MSG will enable astronauts on board the ISS to perform a wide variety of materials, combustion, fluids and biotechnology experiments as well as investigations in the microgravity environment. It can also accommodate minor repairs and servicing of hardware requiring a controlled working environment. The facility offers users a wide range of innovative, utilization alternatives from manual control by astronauts via laptop computers to fully automated and remote control from Earth (telescience). A permanent data exchange link with ground stations is also ensured.
The MSG will be integrated and used in the US Destiny Laboratory for a projected operational period of ten years.

Credits: ESA/D. Ducros

31 October 2011
It is the Microgravity Science Glovebox and it comes from Europe. And it has now logged 10 000 hours of research in space. But there is no time for a celebration: it is now busy pointing the way to a new generation of speed-of-light computers.


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The multipurpose Microgravity Science Glovebox is one of the hard-working science facilities on the International Space Station. Housed in the US Destiny laboratory module, it handle a wide range of ESA and NASA experiments, including fluid physics, materials science, biotechnology and combustion.

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Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa installing SODI-Colloid experiment into Microgravity Science Glovebox.

Credits: ESA / NASA

At the moment, it is running the SODI-Colloid 2 experiment, which could provide the building blocks for a new generation of speed-of-light computers.

Colloid 2 is using SODI Selectable Optical Diagnostic Instrument to study colloids – liquids with suspended microscopic particles. Milk, paint and aerosols are colloids, for example.

We can build new materials with colloids as the fine particles naturally attract each other: they form bunches and can act in unison, like a single structure.


Sandra Veen, scientist from the University of Amsterdam, preparing the samples for SODI-Colloid in December 2010.

Credits: ESA / NASA


On Earth, this building process is dominated by gravity. In space, the delicate differences in attraction between the particles are dominant, sometimes leading to strikingly different structures.

SODI-Colloid is focusing on photonic crystals and their special light properties. These nano-structures are highly promising candidates for the future.

A potential product is an optical computer, where electrons are replaced with light. This would make computing literally as fast as light.

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An image from the first run SODI COLLOID showing image of teflon particles of 200 nm radius suspended in a water-picoline mixture. The fluctuation speckle field is not due to noise as it may appear, but to small aggregates, size of a few micrometers. Images of this quality are impossible to get on ground due to dominating macroscopic buoyancy-driven flows. From the sequences of this kind of photos the science team was able to determine the size and structure of the aggregates and to determine the strength of the elusive critical forces.

Credits: ESA

SODI-Colloid ran for the first time in September and October of last year. The results were surprising: the science team did not think they would be able to tune the clustering and crystal-building process so well.

This could allow us to grow a colloidal crystal – an interesting dense material with no holes. To study this further, ESA is now running this second set of experiments.

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SODI COLLOID team posing for camera at EUSOC in Madrid on 19 October 2011: (Back row, left to right) Marco Potenza (scientist, University of Milan), Peter Schall (scientist, University of Amsterdam), Matteo Alaimo (scientist, University of Milan), Erik Leussink (payload developer, QinetiQ Space), Marc Dielissen (payload developer, QinetiQ Space), José Miguel Ezquerro (operator, EUSOC); (Front row, left to right) Jacobo Rodriguez (operator, EUSOC), Sandra Veen (Scientist, University of Amsterdam), Ana Laverón (EUSOC director), José Javier Fernández (operator, EUSOC), Manuel Zaforas (operator, EUSOC).

Credits: ESA – S. Mazzoni

After Colloid 2, the glovebox’s next ESA experiment will centre on complex liquid mixtures. Improving our understanding of the basic characteristics of liquids could lead, for instance, to more efficient oil production.

Quietly celebrating a science machine

The glovebox was the first science rack from ESA aboard the Space Station, delivered by Shuttle in June 2002, and it has seen heavy use in the US module and in ESA’s Columbus laboratory. It was located in Columbus for 18 months after Europe’s module was delivered in 2008.


SODI-Colloid inside the Microgravity Science Glovebox

Credits: ESA / NASA

The 10 000-hour mark was achieved on 14 September at 12:45 GMT – a record for all research on the Station.

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ISS020-E-026859 (1 Aug. 2009) — ESA astronaut Frank De Winne, Expedition 20 flight engineer, works with the Investigating the Structure of Paramagnetic Aggregates from Colloidal Emulsions (InSPACE) experiment in the Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG) in the Columbus laboratory of the International Space Station.

Credits: NASA

Astronauts typically set up an experiment in the glovebox and then leave it for weeks or even months to run automatically or be controlled from Earth. If necessary, they can intervene to make adjustments.

This automation frees the crew from routine science work and allows them to work on several experiments at the same time.

And, as Colloid 2 highlights, this fundamental research being pursued on the Space Station ultimately feeds through to our daily lives here on Earth.

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