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Make space great again: Why the International Space Station still matters
As one of the biggest manmade structures in the sky and at a cost of over $100b, it's the place where the space age dream is still alive.
Soaring through the deep sky, a marvel of human engineering orbits around the planet 16 times a day. For the last two decades, the International Space Station (ISS) has housed hundreds of astronauts some 250 miles high. This multinational construction project has given us a permanent presence in space. It has been continuously occupied since November 2nd, 2000. The main modules of construction were completed between 1998 and 2011. The station has since evolved as a roving temporary home for nomadic astronauts experimenting and living in zero gravity.
As of January 2018, 230 astronauts have visited the International Space Station. The ISS has a heavy American and Russian presence. Over 15 nations have contributed to funding throughout the years. Alongside NASA, Roscosmos from Russia and the European Space Agency (ESA) are also major partners funding most of the space station.
With current plans in place, it’s expected that the space station will remain in operation until 2024 with a possible extension to 2028. There have also been a few calls for the station to be privatized as well. Time will tell what becomes of the space station. ISS stands at the forefront of what’s possible on the periphery of space.
Largest manmade structure to grace the skies
Spanning the area the size of a football field, the space station weighs 391,000 kilograms – not including visiting space shuttles. The entire complex has more living space than a suburban five bedroom home. It has two bathrooms, workout facilities and a circular bay window for stunning views of the earth. Many astronauts have compared the living conditions to the inside of a Boeing jumbo jet.
The ISS can be seen with the naked eye as it zooms around the world at 17,500 miles per hour. It looks like an unblinking white light, but with a good telescope, you can see it in greater detail. Its flight path is available online, so you can track it to see when it makes a trek above your backyard.
The International Space Station is an orbiting powerhouse of scientific experimentation with over $100 billion worth of pressurized modules, solar arrays, and cutting-edge tools housed in the structure. It was built piece-by-piece as different segments were put into orbit and then assembled carefully by spacewalking astronauts and controlled robotics. Most of the heavier pieces were brought up during the time of the United States’ space shuttle program. Other individual modules were launched using single-use rockets. The many different modules that make up the ISS include: living quarters, laboratories, structural trusses & solar panels for power.
The first two modules launched was the Russian Zarya and the NASA Unity/Node 1 modules. Spacewalking astronauts helped connect these two stations together. Throughout the years the following modules were added to create the superstructure that orbits the Earth today.
Truss, airlocks and solar panels. Launched in stages throughout ISS lifetime.
Zvezda (Russia; launched in 2000)
Destiny Laboratory Module (NASA; launched 2001)
Canadarm2 robotic arm (CSA; launched 2001).
Harmony/Node 2 (NASA; launched 2007)
Columbus orbital facility (ESA; launched 2008)
Dextre robotic hand (CSA; launched 2008)
Japanese Experiment Module or Kibo (launched between 2008-09)
Cupola window and Tranquility/Node 3 (launched 2010)
Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module (ESA launched permanently in 2011)
Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (private module launched in 2016)
The place where the space age dream is still alive
Shuttling astronauts to and fro, hasn’t garnered much fanfare from the populace. Aside from a few novel experiments like Scott Kelly’s recent year-long session in space, ISS expeditions have gotten minimal coverage. The ISS has produced an incredible amount of scientific output and many discoveries that will pave the way for the future of space exploration and human colonization.
NASA’s research page lists thousands of different experiments conducted over the past twenty years. Big Think in a conversation with biochemist and astronaut, Peggy Whitson, whose visited and stayed at the ISS three times had the following to say about some of her experiments in orbit.
“Everything, from super-conductor crystals, I grew soybeans, did colloidal suspension of iron, different kinds of gas/liquid flow through columns, combustion experiments. So, all kinds of things.”
All of these experiments were distinguished by the fact that they lacked Earth’s gravity, which is a huge variable to get rid of. As we have dreams of expanding and living in space, knowing the effects or lack thereof of gravity is going to be one of the defining aspects of our space future. Some of Whitson’s work in space has led her to help develop a drug that fights cancer cells, by studying them in zero gravity.
Other upcoming experiments like bringing the Cold Atom Lab designed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), are going to help us ask questions about the strange physics of absolute zero.
By the time ISS makes its return back to earth in the late 2020s or is repurposed, it will have set the foundation for the future of space stations and other space-faring adventures.
A stepping stone to the greater cosmic neighborhood
Space is unbelievingly big and filled with strange phenomena. That being said, there’s a lot of places closer to home we can start to inhabit and expand into. There are a lot of ideas being thrown around about what’s next after the ISS. For example, the Russian space agency has plans to add a five-star luxury suite to the ISS in an early bid to start up some space commercialization. The module is planned to launch in 2021.
The Deep Space Gateway is the next step for NASA and the international space community as they come up with a full-fledged replacement for the ISS. It will be much smaller but may be heading out further than even the Apollo missions as it orbits around the moon. The hope is that it will serve as a central hub for future Mars missions.
The International Space Station is a testament to the globalized world’s ability to cooperate and connect in the future of space. This amazing structure is just the beginning of a possible new golden age of space.
Scientists find routes using arches of chaos that can lead to much faster space travel.
- Researchers discovered a route through the Solar System that can allow for much faster spacecraft travel.
- The path takes advantage of "arches of chaos" within space manifolds.
- The scientists think this "celestial superhighway" can help humans get to the far reaches of the galaxy.
Humanity could be making its way through the Solar System much faster thanks to the discovery of a new superhighway network among space manifolds. Don't get your engines roaring along this "celestial autobahn" just yet, but the researchers believe the new pathways can eventually be used by spacecraft to get to the outer reaches of our Solar System with relative haste.
The celestial highway could get comets and asteroids from Jupiter to Neptune in less than a decade. Compare that to hundreds of thousands or even millions of years it might ordinarily take for space objects to traverse the Solar System. In a century of travel along the new routes, a 100 astronomical units could be covered, project the scientists. For reference, an astronomical unit is the average distance from the Earth to the Sun or about 93 million miles.
The international research team included Nataša Todorović, Di Wu, and Aaron Rosengren from the Belgrade Astronomical Observatory in Serbia, the University of Arizona, and UC San Diego. Their new paper proposes a dynamic route, going along connected series of arches within so-called space manifolds. These structures, coming into existence from gravitational effects between the Sun and the planets, stretch from the asteroid belt to past Uranus.
The most pronounced of these structures are linked to Jupiter by its strong gravitational pull, explained UC San Diego's press release. They influence the comets around the gas giant as well as smaller space objects called "centaurs," with are like asteroids in size but exhibit the composition of comets.
This animation shows space manifolds over a hundred years. Each frame of the animation shows how the arches and substructures appear over three-year increments.
Credit: Nataša Todorović, Di Wu and Aaron Rosengren/Science Advances
"Space manifolds act as the boundaries of dynamical channels enabling fast transportation into the inner- and outermost reaches of the Solar System," write the researchers. "Besides being an important element in spacecraft navigation and mission design, these manifolds can also explain the apparent erratic nature of comets and their eventual demise."
A closer image of the manifolds showing colliding and escaping objects.
Credit: Science Advances
The researchers discovered the structures by analyzing collected numerical data on the millions of orbits in the Solar System. The scientists figured out how these orbits were contained within known space manifolds. To detect the presences and structure of the space manifolds, the team employed the fast Lyapunov indicator (FLI), used to detect chaos. The scientists ran simulations to compute how the trajectories of particles approaching different planets like Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune would be affected by possible collisions and the manifolds.
While the results are encouraging, the next step is to figure out how these arches can be used by spacecraft for much speedier travel. It's also not clear how similar manifolds work near Earth. Also unclear is how they impact our planet's run-ins with asteroids and meteorites or any of the man-made objects floating up in space near us.
Check out the new paper "The arches of chaos in the Solar System" in Science Advances.
A new episode of "Your Brain on Money" illuminates the strange world of consumer behavior and explores how brands can wreak havoc on our ability to make rational decisions.
- Effective branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- Our new series "Your Brain on Money," created in partnership with Million Stories, recently explored the surprising ways brands can affect our behavior.
- Brands aren't going away. But you can make smarter decisions by slowing down and asking yourself why you're making a particular purchase.
How Apple and Nike have branded your brain | Your Brain on Money | Big Think youtu.be
Brands can manipulate our brains in surprisingly profound ways. They can change how we conceptualize ourselves and how we broadcast our identities out to the social world. They can make us feel emotions that have nothing to do with the functions of their products. And they can even sort us into tribes.
To grasp the power of brands, look to Apple. In the 1990s, the company was struggling to compete with Microsoft over the personal computer market. Despite flirting with bankruptcy in the mid-1990s, Apple turned itself around to eventually become the most valuable company in the world.
That early-stage success wasn't due to superior products.
"People talk about technology, but Apple was a marketing company," John Sculley, a former Apple marketing executive, told The Guardian in 1997. "It was the marketing company of the decade."
So, how exactly does branding make people willing to wait hours in line to buy a $1,000 smartphone, or pay exorbitant prices for a pair of sneakers?
Branding and the brain
For more than a century, brands have capitalized on the fact that effective marketing is much more than simply touting the merits of a product. Some ads have nothing to do with the product at all. In 1871, for example, Pearl Tobacco started advertising their cigarettes through branded posters and trading cards that featured exposed women, a trend that continues to this day.
It's crude, sure. But research shows that it's also remarkably effective, even on monkeys. Why? The answer seems to center on how our brains pay special attention to information from the social world.
"In theory, ads that associate sex or status with specific brands or products activate the brain mechanisms that prioritize social information, and turning on this switch may bias us toward the product," wrote neuroscience professor Michael Platt for Scientific American.
Brands can burrow themselves deep into our subconscious. Through ad campaigns, brands can form a web of associations and memories in our brains. When these connections are robust and positive, it can change our behavior, nudging us to make "no-brainer" purchases when we encounter the brand at the store.
It's a marketing principle that's related to the work of Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and economist who won the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. In his book "Thinking Fast and Slow", Kahneman separates thinking into two broad categories, or systems:
- System 1 is fast and automatic, requiring little effort or voluntary control.
- System 2 is slow and requires subjective deliberation and logic.
Brands that tap into "system 1" are likely to dominate the competition. After all, it's far easier for us as consumers to automatically reach for a familiar brand than it is to analyze all of the available information and make an informed choice. Still, the most successful brands can have an even deeper impact on our psychology, one that causes us to conceptualize them as something like a family member.
A peculiar relationship with brands
Apple has one of the most loyal customer bases in the world, with its brand loyalty hitting an all-time high earlier this year, according to a SellCell survey of more than 5,000 U.S.-based smartphone users.
Qualitatively, how does that loyalty compare to Samsung users? To find out, Platt and his team conducted a study in which functional magnetic resonance imaging scanned the brains of Samsung and Apple users as they viewed positive, negative, and neutral news about each company. The results revealed stark differences between the two groups, as Platt wrote in "The Leader's Brain":
"Apple users showed empathy for their own brand: The reward-related areas of the brain were activated by good news about Apple, and the pain and negative feeling parts of the brain were activated by bad news. They were neutral about any kind of Samsung news. This is exactly what we see when people empathize with other people—particularly their family and friends—but don't feel the joy and pain of people they don't know."
Meanwhile, Samsung users didn't show any significant pain- or pleasure-related brain activity when they saw good or bad news about the company.
"Interestingly, though, the pain areas were activated by good news about Apple, and the reward areas were activated by bad news about the rival company—some serious schadenfreude, or "reverse empathy," Platt wrote.
The results suggest a fundamental difference between the brands: Apple has formed strong emotional and social connections with consumers, Samsung has not.
Brands and the self
Does having a strong connection with a brand justify paying higher prices for their products? Maybe. You could have a strong connection with Apple or Nike and simultaneously think the quality of their products justifies the price.
But beyond product quality lies identity. People have long used objects and clothing to express themselves and signal their affiliation with groups. From prehistoric seashell jewelry to Air Jordans, the things people wear and associate with signal a lot of information about how they conceptualize themselves.
Since the 1950s, researchers have examined the relationship between self-image and brand preferences. This body of research has generally found that consumers tend to prefer brands whose products fit well with their self-image, a concept known as self-image congruity.
By choosing brands that don't disrupt their self-image, consumers are able not only to express themselves personally, but also broadcast a specific version of themselves into the social world. That might sound self-involved. But on the other hand, humans are social creatures who use information from the social world to make decisions, so it's virtually impossible for us not to make inferences about people based on how they present themselves.
Americus Reed II, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told Big Think:
"When I make choices about different brands, I'm choosing to create an identity. When I put that shirt on, when I put that shirt on — those jeans, that hat — someone is going to form an impression about what I'm about. So, if I'm choosing Nike over Under Armour, I'm choosing a kind of different way to express affiliation with sport. The Nike thing is about performance. The Under Armour thing is about the underdog. I have to choose which of these different conceptual pathways is most consistent with where I am in my life."
Making smarter decisions
Brands may have some power over us when we're facing a purchasing decision. So, considering brands aren't going away, what can we do to make better choices? The best strategy might be to slow down and try to avoid making "automatic" purchasing decisions that are characteristic of Kahneman's fast "system 1" mode of thinking.
"I think it's important to always pause and think a little bit about, "Okay, why am I buying this product?" Platt said.
As for getting out of the brand game altogether? Good luck.
"I've heard lots of people push back and say, "I'm not into brands,"" Reed II said. "I take a very different view. In some senses, they're not doing anything different than what someone who affiliates with a brand is doing. They have a brand. It's just an anti-brand brand."
Powerful branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- Powerful branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- "We love to think of ourselves as rational. That's not how it works," says UPenn professor Americus Reed II about our habits (both conscious and subconscious) of paying more for items based primarily on the brand name. Effective marketing causes the consumer to link brands like Apple and Nike with their own identity, and that strong attachment goes deeper than receipts.
- Using MRI, professor and neuroscientist Michael Platt and his team were able to see this at play. When reacting to good or bad news about the brand, Samsung users didn't have positive or negative brain responses, yet they did have "reverse empathy" for bad news about Apple. Meanwhile, Apple users showed a "brain empathy response for Apple that was exactly what you'd see in the way you would respond to somebody in your family."