“Final exam passed! Now this is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning” The words, or more specifically tweet, of West Country Astronaut Tim Peake - who is soon to become the UK’s first official European Space Agency astronaut - as he completed his training.

Lift off took place on 15 December 2015, and his mission will see him spend 170 days in orbit in the company of Russian commander Yuri Malenchenko and Nasa astronaut Tim Kopra.

Despite the trend for astronauts to be highly experienced pilots – Peake himself is an airman of some distinction – one of the main focuses of the mission is to conduct a series of scientific experiments in the unique environment that space provides. The mission is called Principia, a big nod to the work of Sir Isaac Newton, and the logo contains a rising rocket and falling apple – symbolising space flight in conjunction with the scientific work of Newton.

This British presence on the mission affords the nation the chance to be involved in cutting-edge research and development that is simply out of this world – but the discoveries that are made are likely to have some very real application back here on earth. We will take a look at some of the research and development that is scheduled to go on up there and the impact it could have on our everyday lives.

Medical innovation in space

Driving this medical experiment is the issue that astronauts, on occasion, suffer from unexplained problems with their eyesight. The theory is that the lack of gravity in space leads to a movement of fluids in the body towards the brain which causes an increase in brain pressure. This, in-turn pushes the brain onto the back of the eye impairing vision. Until now, the problem has been: How to test this?

It is a British company that has come up with the solution after 20 years of research. Hampshire based Marchbanks Measurement Systems have devised a non-invasive piece of equipment that is inserted into the ear to measure the pressure levels in the inner ear – which is proven to be a reliable indicator of brain pressure. The Cochlear Fluid Pressure Analyser (CFPA) massively simplifies the way brain pressure is monitored, realising the opportunity for these experiments to be conducted in space.

It is hoped it will be an important step to properly understanding and tackling the problem of impaired vision in space. Back on earth, the findings have the potential to be applied by the emergency services needing faster diagnosis which in turn could improve the prognosis of patients.

Escaping heavy metal with alloys in space

Going into the vacuum of space may seem like an extreme measure to take to avoid the sound of heavy metal. But what we are actually talking about here is research into alloys, to better understand their properties, in particular breaking new boundaries in strength and light weight.

“Why do this in space?” You may ask. It’s down to our old friend gravity – or lack of it. Experimenting with alloys in a low gravity environment provides the opportunity to better understand their fundamental nature. The crew are taking up some pretty advanced equipment: an Electromagnetic Levitator, high-speed camera equipment and various other sensors.

The Electromagnetic Levitator is actually a space-age furnace which can heat metals up to a toasty 2,100 degrees Celsius before rapidly cooling them. The materials are suspended in a vacuum or gas – no gravity, no container – which enables the study of the structural formation of an alloy to be undertaken with far more accuracy. The underlying physics of the processes involved in forming alloys is very complex so opening up this level of observation will enhance our understanding considerably.

It is anticipated that the information gleaned from these studies will help produce more advanced materials with improved properties: strength and (light) weight for example. Britain is again at the forefront of some of the research that uses the Electromagnetic Levitator.

Computer modelling of alloy behaviour

Thermolab, which has British input on its international team, is a project that helps computer-model the behaviour of alloys. Breakthroughs in this field will contribute to better processes in the production of aerospace, automotive and consumer electronics industries. End benefits of this could include greater energy and resource efficiency, quicker production and lower costs. Research using the Electromagnetic Levitator will produce data to feed into Thermolab’s modelling and improve the accuracy of its results.

Crystal structures in alloys

Non-Equilibrium Solidification of Industrial Alloys (or NEQUISOL for short!), is a comparison experiment working in conjunction with a world-renowned team at the University of Leeds. The Leeds team will be running the earth-based tests.  It is examining crystal structures that form when alloys are cooled rapidly. They will be looking in particular at Aluminium-Silicon and Silicon-Germanium alloys. Together with Nickel-Aluminium alloys these have a range of potential and actual applications on earth from use in gas turbines to hydrogenation reactions and in Hydrogen fuel cells. Silicon-Germanium is of interest as a ‘smart material’ – it is thermoelectric so could be valuable as a material that converts heat into power.

How could life survive on Mars

Is there alien life? – it’s just about the biggest question that springs to mind when we think of space. The experiments being conducted on Principia will not answer that unfortunately. But they are intended to help us better understand how life could survive in outer space, and on the surface of Mars. EXPOSE is a laboratory attached to the side of the International Space Station which can house chemical or biological samples directly in space. Building on two previous experiments in the EXPOSE facility, this time round, they will be studying how bacteria, algae and fungi react to exposure to space. Variables such as pure space, layers of Martian soil and a Martian atmosphere will be explored to help us understand how life might currently, or could in the future, survive on Mars.

A second experiment will look at biofilm and non-biofilm organisms to see how they react to ultra-violet radiation. Gaining such insight will help inform the conditions in which microbes live back on earth, leading to a better understanding in areas such as microbial resistance. Useful stuff!

A scientific legacy from Tim Peake and Principia

As well as the excitement of the mission, and fulfilling a lifelong ambition, it is clear that Tim Peake and his colleagues will be furthering research and development in a number of fields. And hoping to leverage the gains to British science that are being made, the government is investing £1.5 million to promote the STEM subjects to schoolchildren, with Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson describing it as the UK’s “moonshot moment” to achieve this.

Tim Peake and the rest of the Soyuz TMA-19M astronauts and crew

The UK aerospace industry is huge – it turned over £25 billion in 2013 and represented 17% of the global market share making it the largest aerospace industry in Europe and only being surpassed globally by the USA. It is also a tremendously innovative industry with companies up and down the supply chain investing in R&D to produce the latest hardware and software. But are they all claiming R&D tax credits for their qualifying expenditure? Looking at the latest statistics we would suspect not. If you are experimenting in the world aerospace and want to explore R&D tax credits for your company call ForrestBrown today on 0117 926 9022.

Images courtesy of The European Space Agency

Related posts