Canada Takes the Shakes out of Space Experiments

MVIS: the Microgravity Vibration Isolation Subsystem

Photo of MVIS

The Microgravity Vibration Isolation Subsystem (MVIS) (Credit: CSA)

Images of astronauts floating inside the International Space Station (ISS) may lead us to believe that it is a quiet, peaceful place, but there's actually a lot of noise and vibration on board. Ventilation systems, docking spaceships, and even astronaut activities cause the orbiting laboratory to rattle at times. While it doesn't really bother the astronauts, these vibrations could interfere with science experiments that study the effects of microgravity.

Canada provides the soft touch

Canada has developed key technology that will help isolate experiments from the harmful effects of these vibrations. Experiments on the Station, such as those involving fluid flow, crystal growth, and metal alloy development, won't be jostled about once mission STS-122 delivers The Microgravity Vibration Isolation Subsystem (MVIS). MVIS will help protect the European Space Agency's (ESA) Fluid Science Laboratory from the daily shakes and trembles on board the Space Station. The refrigerator-sized Fluid Science Laboratory is a built-in component of the ESA's Columbus module. And it's where delicate science experiments will be carried out.

MVIS was developed by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) in collaboration with the Magellan Aerospace Corporation (Bristol Aerospace Limited) of Winnipeg; MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. (MDA) of Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Quebec (formerly EMS Technologies); the École de Technologie Supérieure in Montreal; SENER (Spain); and the ESA.

Photo of MVIS getting ready for spaceflight

MVIS gets ready for spaceflight at the CSA's David Florida Laboratory. (Credit: CSA)

Magnetic suspension

The compact Canadian-built MVIS is a control system that is integrated into the Fluid Science Lab. It uses a magnetic field to suspend a container (roughly the size of a breadbox) for experiments. Sensors and an onboard computer monitor and control the position of the container, ensuring it remains free-floating within a certain range that is acceptable for the science experiments inside. Thus, vibrations are not transmitted to the container.

An evolved technology

Many years of flying the shuttle and the MIR and ISS has taught researchers that inherent vibrations of spacecrafts may hinder the results of vital fluid physics and materials science experimental. Rotating solar panels and antennae, pushing and pulling shelves in an out, the churning of motors, and even astronauts running on exercise treadmills all cause the Station to shudder. To fully understand the exact effect gravity has on a particular experiment, it is vital to minimize the effects of these vibrations.

In 1996, the CSA began developing a version of this technology that was used on the MIR space station for two years. A second generation was operated by Canadian astronaut Bjarni Tryggvason on mission STS-85 in 1997.

Now in its third generation, MVIS could begin unlocking some of the most fundamental laws of nature in early 2008. One series of experiments will try to isolate the role of gravity in water evaporation, which could help develop more energy-efficient distilling processes back on Earth. Physicists and chemists around the world will benefit from the environment provided by MVIS on Fluid Science Laboratory on the ISS over the next 10 or more years.