How to get an experiment into space

Image credit: Pioneer Venus Orbiter from NASA and NSSDC.

One thing I have been wondering for a while, ever since reading about a study in which Japanese Whiskey was sent to the International Space Station (ISS) for aging experiments: How can you get one of your own experiments into space? How does it work if you are not a Superman-like NASA astronaut, but only a small, mortal scientist?

The answer seems to be: Not too difficult. At least not, if you have a really good idea.

There are basically two different routes you can take to get your own research into orbit. Which one you choose will depend on if your experiment needs a human conducting it or if it can be run autonomously in a confined space. In the first case your experiment would be sent to the ISS where an astronaut would conduct it for you. The second scenario would be much cheaper as you could launch your experiment in a satellite and monitor it from earth.

If you want to have your research conducted on the ISS, you can do it by applying directly to NASA. Here you can find more detailed information about this. The biggest hurdle will mostly likely be to find enough funding. ESA also sometimes calls for proposals for experiments to be taken to the ISS. This process is similar to applying for beam time at, e.g. neutron source or synchrotron facilities.

You can more frequently submit proposals to ESA for experiments to be taken into orbit by satellites. Depending on the needs of your specific experiment, there are different options available. Another possibility would be the Do-it-yourself-approach, i.e. using your own home-made statellite. Today there are even relatively cheap satellites in the size of milk-cartons or smaller (called SmallSats or CubeSats) available for purchase from different companies. This technology is currently limited by too few launching possibilities (i.e. room on and number of launches), but it could significantly reduce the cost and bureaucratic hurdles for space-faring science experiments in the furture.

Now all you have to do is to come up with an experiment to send into space. Good luck!

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