Getting away from it all on the ISS

They may be 900km above the surface of the Earth on a good day, but for the six astronauts aboard the International Space Station, it is always all go with computers, technical equipment, motors and five other souls working away around them. Sometimes, looking out at the serenity of space, it really does feel like no-one can hear you scream. Fortunately, help is at hand.

Every so often, an extra bit is popped onto the station. Called a Multi Purpose Logistics Module, it is effectively a big storage space they pack onto a shuttle that slots in place, allowing for easy cargo transfer. Now Leonardo, as the MPLM is called, is to be reinforced and brought up as a Permanent Multipurpose Module, or PMM.

It will be given heavier shielding than it has as a light delivery vehicle, but it won’t be as well shielded as the rest of the station, making sleeping in it a bit too much of a risk. It is planned that Leonardo should be used as a storage space and maybe an area to get a bit of quiet time away from the heavier machinery in other parts of the station.

Not that it won’t have its own barriers to calm contemplation.

When Leonardo carries out its last MPLM mission (scheduled for launch on April 5th) before being outfitted, it will be dropping off something a little spooky. NASA’s Robonaut 2 is a human head and torso shaped object that will be tested in zero gravity. It can be controlled through a virtual reality interface and is planned as a way of eventually doing work outside the vehicle.

Now imagine sleeping with one of those in storage, watching you…

The Robonaut isn’t the only thing crossing over from space into industry at the moment. The mirrors used in the XMM-Newton X-ray space telescope are unlike ordinary mirrors. Because X-rays simply pass through plates of glass or whatever other material is used, grazing incidence mirrors are used instead. These are pretty much just concentric rings of gold against which x-rays brush, but they work well.

Now the microchip industry is interested in using them for mass producing the next generation of smaller chips. The problem for them is to get smaller chips, they use higher energy photons, and once you’re through the normal ultraviolet into the extreme ultraviolet, they’re about as helpful as x-rays when it comes to bouncing off mirrors. So the people who brought us XMM-Newton mirrors will be creating mirrors for microchips. The results in a new computer near you soon enough.

Just another ESA Technology Transfer Partnership.


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