Not all the ISS research happens inside the station. In fact, a ton of it requires materials and devices to be exposed to the vacuum of space. These experiments help NASA build materials for its own future spacecraft--and allow commercial operations to field-test their own creations.
In the case of MISSE-7 (Materials International Space Station Experiment-7), scientists are studying how different coatings and materials are affected by the environment (or lack thereof) in space. A series of 700 different materials, including solar cells, optics, sensors, electronics, coatings, structural materials, and protection for next-gen space ships have been mounted outside the space station where they are bombarded by naturally occurring atomic oxygen, ultraviolet rays, direct sunlight, radiation, and extreme hot and cold. The station’s power and data communication system is directly linked into the samples so they can be monitored without the need for interaction with the crew.
NASA is hoping to discover which materials will be best for space travel beyond earth’s solar system (especially as they begin to create new crafts to send humans to Mars). They also expect the new types of materials that hold up the best to the harsh space environment could have applications here on earth for the development of commercial satellites and solar cells.
Launched last year, MISSE-8 will conduct similar tests until March 2014. Eight of the experiments it is running stem from the U.S. Naval Research Lab. Of those, the Boeing Phantom Works Experiment is testing a high-density memory chip, thin film, and solar cells. NRL also sent the Zenith Electronics and Polymer Exposure Experiment, which is testing a prototype satellite-on-a-chip designed at Cornell. The one-inch-square satellite weighs just a few milligrams and contains solar cells, power storage, radios, antennas, and an on-board computer.