One of NASA’s original justifications for building a space station was to perform microgravity research, which would look into ways to manufacture new materials in the weightlessness of space. Efforts to drum up commercial interest failed, apparently because corporate America does not believe the work will pay off enough to warrant the investment. Similar efforts in Japan, however, produced a much different result.
Construction begins this year on a 68-foot, 28.5-ton section of the space station devoted almost exclusively to microgravity research. The Japanese Experiment Module will include a pressurized work space for astronauts; a platform exposed to the vacuum of space, where many of the experiments will take place; and a robotic arm for retrieving the experiments into an air lock when they need tending. Total cost: $3 billion.
The payoff is the potential to create new materials. Oil and water don’t mix on Earth because oil, being less dense, rises to the top; in zero gravity it is possible to mix the two evenly. The same holds for liquid tungsten and copper: an even mixture of the two might yield a superior form of packaging for computer chips that conducts away heat like copper and yet, like tungsten, doesn’t crack or warp in high temperatures. It may also be possible to grow ultrapure silicon crystals for fast, low- power semiconductors. Although the space shuttle has hosted dozens of microgravity experiments, having a permanent lab in space would greatly expand the scope of experiments researchers would be able to conduct. Researchers have been really good about sending up protein crystals that they believe will crystallize within the 16-day shuttle missions, says David Matthiesen, a materials scientist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. But there is a whole class of materials that take longer than that.
All well and good, but will new materials ever recoup these billions? The potential for materials processing is certainly substantial, says Joan Johnson-Freese, a space policy analyst at the Air Force’s Air University in Alabama. But that will depend on whether [Japan] can bring down the cost of launch, and they are working on launch technology to try to do that. Japan’s ambitious space program, which includes, among other things, plans to visit the moon and Mars, has also caught the imagination of the Japanese people, which may speak more to Japan’s true motives. Collaborating with more experienced partners on the space station is a good way to give Japan’s budding space program a fillip. If microgravity turns out to be worthwhile in the long run, so much the better.