Particle physics research

Microgravity Science Glovebox Marks 20 Years of Zero G Research

Thinking outside the box powers many NASA innovations for missions exploring space and improving life on Earth. But thinking – or working – inside the box makes scientific discoveries possible aboard the International Space Station.

The box is the Microgravity Science Glovebox, or MSG, which celebrated its 20th anniversary aboard the space station on July 8. Operated by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, this unique laboratory is designed to closely simulate working conditions on the ground.

Since MSG’s installation, space station crews and scientists around the world have conducted 63 experiments, many of which have run multiple times. The glove box has accumulated 70,000 hours of operation.

“MSG is like a workhorse, a tank,” said Chris Butler, payload integration manager for the glove box at Marshall, who has worked with the hardware since before it was launched to the space station in 2002. “We are 10 years past its predicted life expectancy, and it has been certified through 2030.”

MSG is a sealed facility that provides an enclosed space for investigations conducted in the low gravity or microgravity environment created on the space station. The glove box provides a safe environment for the crew to conduct research with liquids, flames, and particles used in daily research on Earth. The glove box features two levels of containment to protect crew members when conducting surveys 250 miles above Earth. It contains all leaks and an air filtration system captures aerosols and other potentially harmful particles.

The European Space Agency, or ESA, developed MSG in a joint venture with NASA. The glove box is approximately 3 feet wide and 2 feet high, with a 9 cubic foot workspace where crew members use built-in glove ports to safely handle search items.

Its integrated power, data acquisition and communication systems allow researchers to pursue small to medium scale research in the fields of fluid physics, combustion science, biotechnology, materials, etc. Crews are trained to operate MSG at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. The Marshall team oversees all payloads from its Payload Operations Integration Center.

The protection of MSG allows scientists to explore the effects of microgravity in the fields of physical and biological sciences, making it a central material for practical research. Crews can view their work from a large acrylic window, and a camera inside the glove compartment allows scientists on Earth to watch the experiments as they are performed.

Space station partners have also commissioned a second dedicated facility, the Life Sciences Glovebox, to mitigate demand. Marshall also manages the Life Sciences Glovebox, which was built specifically for biological research and installed on the space station in 2018.

The MSG project office in Marshall was responsible for the technical oversight of ESA’s development effort. NASA handed over management of the MSG to the Marshall team after it was delivered to the space station. A glove box at Marshall allows materials to be tested and security threats to be assessed before crews conduct experiments in microgravity.

Phillip Bryant, Principal Test Systems Engineer for the Marshall team, worked with MSG from the development stages, having spent several months in Europe during design and testing. It serves as a 24-hour resource to answer questions about issues that may arise with the glove box. Bryant says the 20th anniversary is more than just a number for him. “I worked with the gloveboxes throughout development and checkouts, and support all safety reviews and in-orbit issues,” Bryant said. “These are my babies.”

Future experiments with MSG include studies of fiber optics, combustion, fluid flow, and semiconductor growth. Scientific investigations of the space station are also crucial as NASA prepares to return human explorers to the Moon and travel to Mars.

The Office of Human Exploration Development and Operations at Marshall hosted a celebration on July 8, commemorating MSG’s 20th anniversary. The anniversary comes less than a month after NASA recognized another extraordinary milestone for a project managed by Marshall. The EXPRESS racks – properly known as the “EXpedite the PROcessing of Experiments to the Space Station” general-purpose payload shelf units – reached 1 million hours of cumulative service on the space station on June 14. The racks were developed, built and tested at Marshall.

Ginger Flores, director of Marshall’s Office of Human Exploration Development and Operations at Marshall, said the center’s involvement with MSG enables research by scientists that might not have been possible otherwise.

“Marshall’s project team has been responsible for integrating all experiences into MSG since 2002,” said Flores, who is also a former MSG project manager. “This is important science for future space exploration and for improving life on Earth. Its success is a direct result of decades of dedication by this team.”

Related links

Scientific glove box in microgravity

The physics of time and space

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