15 Out-of-This-World Facts About the International Space Station

NASA
NASA

Today marks the 16th anniversary of the first space shuttle flight to assemble the International Space Station. Let’s celebrate 16 years of the ISS with 15 things you may not have known about the world’s shared space station. 

1. Sixteen nations were involved in the construction of the ISS: The United States, Russia, Canada, Japan, Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.  

2. Sixty-five miles per hour may be a pretty standard speed limit on highways here on Earth, but up in orbit, the ISS travels a whopping 5 miles-per-second. That means the station circles the entire planet once every 90 minutes.  

3. You may think your house or apartment is spacious, but it’s got nothing on the ISS. At about 357.6 feet (or 109 meters) long, the International Space Station gives astronauts plenty of room to stretch out.  

4. Made up of hundreds of major and minor components, the ISS is the largest manned object ever put into space. The ISS has a pressurized volume of 32,333 cubic feet, the same as a Boeing 747. It's four times larger than the Russian space station MIR and five times larger than the U.S. station Skylab. 

5. The ISS is the single most expensive object ever built. The cost of the ISS has been estimated at over $120 billion.

6.  There are only two bathrooms on the entire station. The urine of both the crewmembers and laboratory animals is filtered back into the station’s drinking water supply, so at least the astronauts will never get thirsty. 

7. Just because you’re in space doesn’t mean you can’t get a virus on your computer. The 52 computers onboard the ISS have been infected by viruses more than once. The first was a worm known as the W32.Gammima.AG, which started spreading by stealing passwords to online video games on Earth. It wasn’t a big deal, though—NASA responded by calling the virus a “nuisance.” 

8. The ISS is a veritable hub of space traffic. In June of 2014, four separate international spacecraft were docked there, including the Progress M-21M cargo spacecraft, which departed the station on June 9 after a six-month mission to drop off food, fuel, and supplies. In September, a resupply mission from SpaceX visited the station, and an entire new crew arrived that month as well. The station’s full flight schedule has docking events planned through the summer of 2016.

9. The ISS is probably one of the only places you can actually smell space. A former ISS astronaut has described how a “metallic-ionization-type smell” occurs in the area where the pressure between the station and other docking crafts is equalized.   

10. Currently, the ISS is the third brightest object in the night sky after the moon and Venus. Eagle-eyed stargazers can even spot it if they look closely enough—it looks like a fast-moving airplane. If you can’t find it, NASA has a service called Spot the Station that texts you when and where it will pass over your location. If you want the opposite view (though we’re pretty sure you won’t be able to spot yourself), there is a live video feed pointing towards Earth that runs when the crew is off-duty.

11. Though the plan is to de-orbit the ISS in 2024, the oldest module of the station—the Russian-built and American-financed component called “Zarya,” first launched in 1998—can function until 2028 (as will The Unity, the first entirely American ISS component, which was also launched that year). Once the ISS kicks the bucket, the Russians plan to add their leftover modules to their new station, OPSEK (or Orbital Piloted Assembly and Experiment Complex). 

12. Because the human body tends to lose muscle and bone mass in zero gravity environments, all astronauts aboard the ISS must work out at least two hours a day to maintain normal Earth-based bodily health.  

13. The electrical systems on the ISS include 8 miles of wire. That’s longer than the entire perimeter of New York City's Central Park.

14. Astronauts eat three square meals a day on the ISS, but when they sit down for a meal, they don’t sit down at all. There are no chairs around the main eating area. Instead, the astronauts simply stabilize themselves and float. Diners have to be very slow and careful when bringing food to their mouths so it doesn't accidentally float across the station. Also, they can’t just stroll over to the refrigerator and grab a snack—all the food is canned, dehydrated, or packaged so it doesn’t require refrigeration.  

15.  Oxygen in the ISS comes from a process called “electrolysis,” which involves using an electrical current generated from the station’s solar panels to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen gas. 

Some Fish Eggs Can Hatch After Being Pooped Out by Swans

iStock/olaser
iStock/olaser

A question that’s often baffled scientists is how certain species of fish can sometimes appear—and even proliferate—in isolated bodies of water not previously known to harbor them. A new study has demonstrated that the most unlikely explanation might actually be correct: It’s possible they fell from the sky.

Specifically, from the rear end of a swan.

A study in the journal Ecology by researchers at the Unisinos University in Brazil found that killifish eggs can, in rare cases, survive being swallowed by swans, enduring a journey through their digestive tracts before being excreted out. This kind of fecal public transportation system explains how killifish can pop up in ponds, flood waters, and other water bodies that would seem an unlikely place for species to suddenly appear.

After discovering that some plants could survive being ingested and then flourish in swan poop, researchers took notice of a killifish egg present in a frozen fecal sample. They set about mixing two species of killifish eggs into the food supply of coscoroba swans living in a zoo. After waiting a day, they collected the poop and dug in looking for the eggs.

Of the 650 eggs they estimated to have been ingested by the swans, about five were left intact. Of those, three continued to develop. Two died of a fungal infection, but one survived, enduring 30 hours in the gut and hatching 49 days after being excreted.

Because killifish eggs have a thick outer membrane, or chorion, they stand a chance of coming through the digestive tract of an animal intact. Not all of what a swan ingests will be absorbed; their stomachs are built to extract nutrients quickly and get rid of the whatever's left so the birds can eat again. In rare cases, that can mean an egg that can go on to prosper.

Not all fish eggs are so durable, and not all fish are quite like the killifish. Dubbed the "most extreme" fish on Earth by the BBC, killifish have adapted to popping up in strange environments where water may eventually dry up. They typically live for a year and deposit eggs that can survive in soil, delaying their development until conditions—say, not being inside a swan—are optimal. One species, the mangrove killifish, can even breathe through its skin. When water recedes, they can survive on land for over two months, waddling on their bellies or using their tails to "jump" and eat insects. A fish that can survive on dry land probably doesn't sweat having to live in poop.

The researchers plan to study carp eggs next to see if they, too, can go through a lot of crap to get to where they’re going.

[h/t The New York Times]

8 Facts About the Animals of Chernobyl

iStock/Tijuana2014
iStock/Tijuana2014

Three decades after the Chernobyl disaster—the world’s worst nuclear accident—signs of life are returning to the exclusion zone. Wild animals in Chernobyl are flourishing within the contaminated region; puppies roaming the area are capturing the hearts of thousands. Tourists who have watched the critically acclaimed HBO series Chernobyl are taking selfies with the ruins. Once thought to be forever uninhabitable, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone has become a haven for flora and fauna that prove that life, as they say in Jurassic Park, finds a way.

1. The animals of Chernobyl survived against all odds.

The effects of the radioactive explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 26, 1986 devastated the environment. Around the plant and in the nearby city of Pripyat in Ukraine, the Chernobyl disaster’s radiation caused the leaves of thousands of trees to turn a rust color, giving a new name to the surrounding woods—the Red Forest. Workers eventually bulldozed and buried the radioactive trees. Squads of Soviet conscripts also were ordered to shoot any stray animals within the 1000-square-mile Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Though experts today believe parts of the zone will remain unsafe for humans for another 20,000 years, numerous animal and plant species not only survived, but thrived.

2. Bears and wolves outnumber humans around the Chernobyl disaster site.

While humans are strictly prohibited from living in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, many other species have settled there. Brown bears, wolves, lynx, bison, deer, moose, beavers, foxes, badgers, wild boar, raccoon dogs, and more than 200 species of birds have formed their own ecosystem within the Chernobyl disaster area. Along with the larger animals, a variety of amphibians, fish, worms, and bacteria makes the unpopulated environment their home.

3. Most Chernobyl animals don’t look any different from their non-Chernobyl counterparts.

Stray puppies play in an abandoned, partially-completed cooling tower inside the exclusion zone at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant
Sean Gallup, Getty Images

Tour guides tell visitors not to pet Chernobyl animals due to potential radioactive particles in their fur, but some biologists have been surprised that the incidence of physical mutations appears lower than the blast of radiation would have suggested. There have been some oddities recorded within the area—such as partial albinism among barn swallows—but researchers think that the serious mutations mostly happened directly after the explosion. Today’s wild animals are sporting their normal number of limbs and aren’t glowing.

4. Radiation may have killed off Chernobyl’s insects.

In contrast to the large carnivores and other big fauna, bugs and spiders have seen a big drop in their numbers. A 2009 study in Biology Letters indicated that the more radiation there was in certain locations around the Chernobyl disaster area, the lower the population of invertebrates. A similar phenomenon occurred after the 2011 nuclear accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Bird, cicada, and butterfly populations decreased, while other animal populations were not affected.

5. Despite looking normal, Chernobyl's animals and plants are mutants.

There may be no three-headed cows roaming around, but scientists have noted significant genetic changes in organisms affected by the disaster. According to a 2001 study in Biological Conservation, Chernobyl-caused genetic mutations in plants and animals increased by a factor of 20. Among breeding birds in the region, rare species suffered disproportional effects from the explosion’s radiation compared to common species. Further research is needed to understand how the increased mutations affect species’ reproductive rates, population size, genetic diversity, and other survival factors.

6. The absence of humans is returning Chernobyl to wilderness.

As WIRED points out, the Chernobyl disaster presents an unintended experiment in what Earth would be like without humans. Hunting is strictly illegal and living within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is not recommended. The fewer humans there are, the more nature can re-establish itself unencumbered by human activity. According to The Guardian, an official nature reserve recently created on the Belorussian side of the zone claims to be “Europe’s largest experiment in rewilding,” where animals are losing their fear of humans. In fact, a few species are actually living better within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone than outside of it. Wolves were found to be seven times as abundant on the premises than in other, non-radioactive areas. Moose, roe deer, red deer, and wild boar were found to have similar numbers within the CEZ as compared to those in three uncontaminated nature reserves in Belarus.

7. An endangered wild horse is making a comeback thanks to Chernobyl.

A Przewalski's horse lays in a meadow
PATRICK PLEUL, AFP/Getty Images

British ecologists Mike Wood and Nick Beresford, who specialize in studying the effects of radiation on Chernobyl’s wildlife, observed that the Przewalski’s horse—an endangered wild species that originated in Mongolia—is thriving within the CEZ. In the late 1990s, about 30 Przewalski’s horses were released in the Ukrainian side of the CEZ. Based on camera trap images, Wood estimated that some of the original horses (identified by their brand markings) are still alive. Photos of juvenile horses and foals also indicated that the population is expanding.

8. You can adopt a Chernobyl puppy.

Hundreds of pooches—the descendants of dogs abandoned by their owners during the site’s evacuation on April 27, 1986—have made the desolate area their home. Until 2018, it was illegal to bring any animal out of the zone due to the risk of radiation contamination. But now, puppies cleared of radiation are getting a chance to find their forever homes. Spearheaded by the Clean Futures Fund and SPCA International, the management and adoption program ensures that the stray dogs are spayed, neutered, and vaccinated so they will be healthy and ready for adoption.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER