Making the Invisible Visible: The Remarkable Journey of a Powerful Space Microscope

At the International Space Station’s Destiny lab, NASA astronaut Dan Burbank, commander of Expedition 30, gives a session with the Preliminary Advanced Colloids Experiment (PACE) in the Light Microscopy Module (LMM) in the Fluids Integrated Rack/Fluids Combustion Facility (FIR/FCF) ). PACE is designed to explore the possibility of performing high magnification colloid experiments with the LMM to determine the minimum particle size that can be resolved with it. Credit: Science@NASA

Colloids are mixtures of microscopic particles suspended in liquids – substances that are partly solid and partly liquid. Colloids are found in products such as toothpaste, ketchup, paint and liquid hand soap, and are part of an area of ​​study known as soft matter.

Another well-known experience with colloids: “settling”, which is when these mixtures break down into layers over time, pulled apart by gravity. Therefore, researchers wanted to study how these substances behave at a fundamental level in space – to extend the ‘shelf life’ of materials, both in space and on Earth.

To collect this data, researchers needed a special tool that would allow them to look deep into the world of these tiny particles. Enter NASA’s LMM – the light microscopy module.

Since 2009, scientists and researchers from six countries, including 27 universities and research organizations, have spent thousands of hours using the remarkable power of this state-of-the-art confocal light imaging microscope to study a variety of physical and biological phenomena. Formerly housed in the International Space Station’s Destiny module, the LMM has been instrumental in: scientific discovery

The LMM has been used by private companies to find new ways to improve their consumer products. For example, Procter & Gamble got approval on three patent applications for new products as a direct result of the company’s research with the LMM.

Credit: Science@NASA

The device also helped other engineers design the next generation of highly efficient quantum dot-sensitized solar panelssignificantly improve biomedical device technology and deliver potential innovations in building materials for use on Earth, Moon and Mars.

Diane Malarik is currently the deputy director of NASA’s Division of Biological and Physical Sciences, but in the 1990s she was the project manager responsible for LMM’s initial design. As she recalls: “We designed loads for the spaceship, but they had a much simpler design and operation back then. The equipment is designed to be used only once by a single researcher. When the idea of ​​building an LMM to install in the space station came to light, we knew it would have to be used by at least four researchers and had to design it with much more flexibility.”

Since its installation, the LMM has been used in 40 experiments, capturing images that help scientists and engineers understand the forces that control the organization and dynamics of matter on a microscopic scale. In fact, the LMM has helped make the invisible world of colloids more visible.

What made the LMM unique among microscopes was that it allowed scientists to use the microgravity environment to observe the separation of physical and biological mechanisms over much longer timescales than is possible on Earth. And the microscope’s high-quality, three-dimensional images have deepened our scientific understanding of multiple micro- and macroscopic fields, including: heat transfer, colloid interaction and phase separation. In doing so, it has enabled scientists to improve the efficiency of commercial products on Earth, and also contributed to the wider scientific community’s understanding of colloids.

After more than ten years of research, the last experiment of the LMM took place in October 2021. During this time, the LMM was used for research in soft matter/complex fluids (colloids and gels), fluid physics (heat pipes), biophysics (protein crystallization, drug delivery) and plant biology (gravity detection in roots). More than 30 conference presentations have been given and about 50 journal publications published or in development that use data directly from the results of the LMM space station.

Museum professionals hope that LMM can one day be preserved so that others on Earth can communicate as well. Lauren Katz, NASA Artifacts and Exhibits program manager, said she would be excited to oversee the potential use of LMM in future NASA exhibits and on loan to museums. “We believe the LMM recording could serve as a fascinating introduction to how science can be conducted in space from Earth,” Katz says. “In addition, because the microscope is remotely controlled, we think this interactive feature can serve as the ‘cool’ factor as visitors control the microscope (or representative device) themselves.”

Many factors will affect whether LMM can be returned to Earth, namely space constraints aboard both the space station and return vehicles. Regardless of LMM’s final destination, his legacy as a workhorse for science will endure.

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