ISS set for science surge

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With the wheels barely cool after the final touchdown of the Space Shuttle programme, member space agencies of the International Space Station's Multilateral Coordination Board met to discuss the future of the orbiting laboratory - which could soon take on a new role as a testbed for ambitious manned or unmanned missions into deeper space.

Missions to Mars or an asteroid or to establish lunar bases, are expected to depend on technologies and in-space working techniques that would be developed on the ISS.

The Board, which meets periodically to co-ordinate ISS activities with senior representatives from the Canadian Space Agency, the European Space Agency, Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, NASA and Russia's Roscosmos, discussed the requirements of various possible missions.

The meeting also discussed standardising space systems, including the revised International Docking Systems Standard, as well as its effort to gather information on how successfully the ISS has been used. A report will be published in September.

Last year's agreement by participating nations to extend the life of the ISS to 2020, and perhaps beyond, is seen as a huge boost to orbital science.

As ESA director general Jean-Jacques Dordain has said, 10 years is longer than a PhD programme, and certainly long enough to offer exciting opportunities for science.

ESA has stressed the need to make breakthroughs in human life-support systems technology if there is to be any prospect of manned missions far into the Solar system, as current life-support systems cannot operate independently of supplies from Earth.

NASA has designated the US segment of the ISS as a national laboratory to encourage its use by national agencies, private companies and universities.

The Canadian Space Agency and NASA will test robotic refuelling systems delivered to the ISS by the last Shuttle.

Plants get much attention, too. Roscosmos is investigating wheat and vegetable cultivation and human adaptation to long flights, while an ESA experiment recently retrieved from outside the ISS hosted nine biological samples, including plant seeds and bacterial spores, to study the effects of two years of direct space exposure.

Another space exposure experiment involved fungi known for damaging spacecraft materials. Russia's Mir station was particularly afflicted by fungal growth.

The ISS is a platform for observing Earth, while Japan's X-ray camera is looking in the other direction for cosmic objects such as black holes and neutron stars.

The biggest experimental payload delivered to the ISS, the ESA-built alpha-magnetic spectrometer, is a 6.9t particle detector physicists hope will help unravel the secrets of so-called "dark matter".

Since its launch in May 2011, the AMS has collected more than two billion observations of galactic cosmic rays.