SCIENCE TRIBUNE Thursday, November 16, 2000, Chandigarh, India

A permanent home in space at last
by Amar Chandel
HREE decades ago, man set foot on the moon, in the process severing the umbilical cord that had kept him tied to Mother Earth ever since he came into existence. And now mankind has undertaken another equally momentous leap. Earlier this month, one American and two Russian astronauts inhabited the International Space Station some 370 km above the earth for a four-month stay, an endeavour which may eventually lead to a permanent human presence in the heavens. 

Science Quiz
by J.P. Garg

New products & discoveries



A permanent home in space at last
by Amar Chandel

THREE decades ago, man set foot on the moon, in the process severing the umbilical cord that had kept him tied to Mother Earth ever since he came into existence. And now mankind has undertaken another equally momentous leap. Earlier this month, one American and two Russian astronauts inhabited the International Space Station (ISS) some 370 km above the earth for a four-month stay, an endeavour which may eventually lead to a permanent human presence in the heavens. The ISS will be the ideal springboard for future mission to the moon and Mars. Small wonder that the event is being described as “independence day” for space flight.

This was the culmination of many such experiments during the past three decades. The Soviet Union has maintained manned space stations for long and the USA had Skylab in the early 1970s. What makes the International Space Station different is that it is truly permanent in nature, is much larger in size and scope and is an international project with one-time rivals America and Russia and 14 other nations taking part. These include Canada and Japan and 11 participating member nations of the European Space Agency - Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Brazil and Italy have signed on as payload participants. Rotating crews will remain aboard the station for at least 15 years. During this period, cutting edge research will be carried out that could lead to the colonisation of space within 20 years. Hopefully, these chosen men will continue to work up there in total harmony, no matter what happens on the earth.

American commander William Shepherd (51) and Russian Yuri Gidzenko and Sergein Krikalev trained for nearly five years for this pioneering project. Their Expedition One mission was delayed by more than two years because of Russia’s economic problems.

The 13-storey structure is a marvel of 21st-century technology. It was assembled bit by bit over the past several years. Construction in orbit began in November, 1998, with the launch of Zarya, the functional cargo block from Russia, on a Russian Proton rocket. About 45 launches - 36 by US space shuttles and nine by unmanned Russian rockets — will be required to complete the facility by 2006. By then it will have a wingspan (end-to-end width) of 108.5 metres (356 ft), length of 88.4 metres (290 ft) and a height of 43.6 metres (143 ft). It will be powered by almost an acre of solar panels and may weigh as much as 4,53,600 kg. There will be living space for up to seven astronauts and scientists. The largest man-made structure in space circling the earth every 90 minutes will be one of the brightest objects in the night-time sky.

Basically it is a complex of six state-of-the-art laboratories in the weightless environment of earth orbit. To give it the feel of a home, Shepherd, Gidzenko and Krikalev named it “Alpha” within a few hours of moving in, despite the fact that the NASA administrator had only recently announced that the station did not need a name, at least not yet. (In a naughty move, they sought permission to call it Alpha only on reaching there, with hundreds of space officials listening in.)

Life in the outpost may appear glamorous but it is anything but that. The total area is equivalent to a pair of football fields placed side by side. The pressurised volume of the station is no more than 1303 cubic metres (46,000 cubic ft), roughly equivalent to the space inside two Boeing 747 jumbo jets. Day-to-day life there can be a cramped, claustrophobic affair. The dwelling space in the $ 60 billion station is smaller than a one-room apartment. There is only one tiny bathroom, which does not offer the inhabitants the luxury of shower but they do have soap - which lathers up pretty good and you have to simply wipe it off.

NASA says the bathroom also contains a urinal, an odour and bacteria filter and a vacuum vent. The commode has a “single multilayer hydrophobic porous bag liner” for collecting and storing solid waste. The urinal assembly is a flexible hose with attachable funnels for males and females.

Since there is no washing machine abroad, used trousers - changed weekly — socks, shirts and underwear — changed every two days — are sealed in airtight plastic bags. So are garbage and trash. Non-recyclable items will be put on either a Russian return vehicle, which will totally disintegrate on re-entering the earth’s atmosphere, or one of US shuttles, which will bring it all back to earth for disposal.

There is no home cooking in the space dwelling. Astronauts add water to the dehydrated food and heat it with a food warmer and not a food cooker. Half the food available is Russian; served in a can. Half is from the USA and is served in a bag. The meals are rotated. Many US astronauts had never tasted borscht before going on the mission. If it is any consolation, the Russian astronauts had never eaten pudding before. The US programme does not offer wine with dinner. An unofficial rumour is that at least the Russian do have some vodka with them.

During the first few weeks, the crew has a tremendous amount of unpacking to do, like a typical family which has moved house. Tons of supplies and hardware clog the narrow corridors of the station. The three astronauts had to eat their first meal by hand because they could not locate forks, spoons or knives.

Station crews can watch movies and listen to music. Soon enough they will be able to phone home.

But living in weightless conditions poses a litany of problems, which go way beyond mundane affairs like your food and personal hygiene. Weightlessness makes human body lose muscle and bone mass rapidly. Thighs and calves get thinner because fluid redistributes itself. Faces get puffy. Then there is space adaptation syndrome, a form of motion sickness found only in space flight. At least two hours of strenuous exercise is absolutely essential to ward off the ill effects. The reward for all the hard work? Fantastic view of the earth from the window and experiencing 16 sunrises a day.

Even more daunting are psychological challenges. Living in close proximity with strangers for four or more months can bring about tremendous stress. Isolation, loneliness, bickering and habits of colleagues get on your nerves. Teams can become divisive, even hostile. Anger, jealousy, anxiety and depression evolve, which in extreme cases can even compromise mission goals. It will be closely watched how the astronauts unwind themselves and cope with mood variations. Incident-ally, Gidzenko is a replacement for a veteran Russian cosmonaut who refused to work under Shepherd who has no space experience. Krikalev is one of the world’s most experienced spacemen.

Nature poses big challenges. Last week, a severe solar radiation storm prompted NASA to order the astronauts to take shelter in a heavily shielded Russian-built section of the station. Such storms do not pose a health risk to people on the ground but can do so beyond earth’s magnetic field and its atmosphere. Many such hazards await future space travellers.

Most of the experimentation aboard the space station is aimed at gaining insight into intricacies of deeper space exploration in the future. But in the initial stages the focus will be on gathering hands-on information on maintaining the mission itself. Scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs will get a chance to perform complex, long-duration and replicable experiments in a unique environment. Above all, it will be a sociological experiment, a “city in space”, which will learn to live and work “öff planet”.

At the same time research will be undertaken in many fields like geophysics, fluid physics and biotechnology which can yield many practical applications. Better drugs could be developed. Ways may be found to achieve cleaner combustion, less soot and healthier air.

On February 2 next year, the crew will be replaced by a team of two Americans and a Russian commander. Crew command will continue to pass between the two nations throughout the construction phase of the station’s life.


Science Quiz
by J.P. Garg

1. Name the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry. For which discovery have they been honoured with this coveted prize?

2. OWL, the world’s largest telescope being designed by the astronomers of the United Kingdom in collaboration with those from some other countries, will unravel the origins of galaxies, stars and planets by collecting light emitted 11 billion years ago from the formation of stars. Can you state the full name of OWL, which is expected to determine conclusively the structure and origin of the universe?

3. What is the condition called in which the bone that conducts sounds inside the human ear becomes fixed, can no longer vibrate to give perception of sound to the brain, and hence causes deafness?

4. A black box is the main source of information when an aeroplane accident takes place. What is the main source of information when a train accident takes place?

5. Some organisms like plants, fungi and bacteria live on or inside the surface of dead organic matter and secrete enzymes that decompose this matter to release nutrients. These nutrients are then consumed by the plant/fungi/bacteria. What general name is given to these organisms?

6. This cone of faint light can be seen on the east horizon before morning twilight and on the west horizon after evening twilight. What is this light called, which is believed to be caused by the presence of dust particles in the central plane of the solar system?

7. YBCO belong to a class of materials used in making high temperature superconductors. What does the abbreviation YBCO stand for?

8. Name the asteroid which is the only object in our solar system other than the planets to have a moon. Name also this moon.

9. This tough antelope has a black and white face and two long, slightly curving horns. It has a remarkable stamina and can migrate to vast tracts of desert in search of food. Which is this Arabian animal that was hunted to extinction in the wild in 1972 but appeared again due to the efforts of some far-sighted conservationists who had preserved it in captivity during early 1960s?

10. A very significant space event took place on October 31, 2000. What was that?

Note: In last week’s quiz, question number 8 should have read as: A voltameter is an instrument used for measuring potential difference between two points in an electric circuit. What does a voltameter basically measured? Suggest another name for a voltameter.


1. Japanese Hideki Shirakawa, New Zealand-born US-based Alan G. MacDiarmid and US Professor of Physics Alan J. Heeger; for discovering that plastic can, under certain circumstances, be made to behave very much like a metal 2. Overwhelmingly Large Telescope 3. Otosclerosis 4. Speedometer graph 5. Saprophytes 6. Zodiacal light 7. Yttrium-Barium-Copper-Oxides 8. 243 Ida; Dactyl 9. Arabian Oryx 10. Russian cosmonauts Sergei Krikalyov and Yuri Gidzenko and US astronaut Bill Shepherd blasted off for International Space Station on an expedition that heralded a new era in space exploration. 


New products & discoveries

Finishing school for pilots
A wag once said that the way airplanes were being computerised a time would soon come when pilots would be put in a glass case with the label “Break Only in Case of Emergency”.

On a more serious note, the sobering truth is that even as airplanes get more and more: sophisticated, the need for professionally trained pilots is becoming acute.

Seeing this burgeoning demand, a finishing school for pilots has come up in Bremen in Germany which takes qualified pilots and trains them for emergencies. The pilots are given training on a high-tech simulator which is a spitting image of a cockpit along with sounds and effects of air pockets and air bumps.

Here emergency conditions are created and pilots are supposed to steer the plane to safety. The school has thought of over a 100 potentially catastrophic situations that could arise in an airborne plane and the pilots are told how to overcome them successfully.

Needless to say, some of the top airlines in the world are sending their pilots to this finishing school whose business is touching the skies.

Tyres tread a new path
SCRAP vehicle tyres are being turned into valuable oils and green chemicals by scientists, using a process called pyrolysis in which complex molecules break down into simpler ones using heat.

The process is claimed to offer a real alternative, for the first time, to dumping or burying old tyres.

The tyre disposal method of landfilling is clearly a waste as tyres can yield upto 60 per cent of their weight as fuel oil.

Dr Paul Williams in the department of fuel and energy at the University of Leeds in England has improved on a basic and largely ignored technique — pyrolysis — to turn tyres into a mixture of valuable chemicals, oils, gases, carbon and steel cord. Tyres break down in this way when heated without oxygen.

With pyrolysis the yield of oil can be up to 58 per cent of the tyre weight and the oil has fuel properties broadly similar to commercial grade light fuel oil or diesel fuel.

Oils derived from pyrolysis of oils may be burnt directly or added to petroleum-derived fuels.

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