North Hawaii News Articles from CFHT

Milestone achieved for the International Space Station

Last November saw a milestone for the International Space Station (ISS). Two Russians and one American were flown to the ISS for a 4 month long stay, 350 km above Earth, circling it every hour and a half. Even though there were a few other space stations before ISS (Russian Salyut modules and space station Mir, and the American SkyLab), ISS will benefit from new technologies and more resources than its predecessors, thus providing space for more scientific experiments, and larger crews.

Construction of the ISS started in November 1998, when the first module, Zarya, was launched. The Unity module was joined to Zarya a few weeks later, and Zvezda was added in July 2000. As those names may tell you, the ISS is an international effort to build an space station. Apart from the USA and Russia, Canada, Brazil, Japan and 11 European countries are participating in this huge 20-year 100 billion dollar (US) project.

Currently, with its 3 modules, the ISS is 37 meters (121 feet) long and weighs 60 tons. When completed (in 2006 if everything goes well) with about 30 modules, it will be 109 meters (360 feet) wide, 90 meters (290 feet) long, 45 meters (143 feet) tall and weigh 450 metric tons (1 million pounds). Up to 7 astronauts will have a living and working space roughly equivalent to the passenger cabin volume of two 747 jumbo jets.

What will those astronauts do up there? The International Space Station is expected to be used during its 15 year lifespan for research and also commercial production. In this gravity-reduced environment, the scientist-astronauts will conduct experiments in biology, ecology, medicine, material sciences, and Earth monitoring, to name a few.

For example, protein crystals may be grown for long periods of time in the space station. Without the effects of Earth's strong gravity, the structure of these crystals will be more regular, resulting in purer substances that will be studied for possible use in medical treatments.

Gravity, or the lack of it, also affects the flames of combustible materials, and allows the study of combustion phenomena that are not observed on Earth. The lack of gravity also produces metals in which the different elements are mixed more thoroughly and homogeneously, allowing the manufacture of better metal alloys (stronger and lighter), and more perfect materials that can then be used in computer chips, for example.

Circling above the Earth, the ISS has a unique view on our planet's surface. Major changes in the environment, such as massive forest devastation, crop destruction by insects, or pollution, can be witnessed, studied and monitored from above. Weather forecasting will benefit from observations of our planet's atmosphere.

The humans living on board the space station will also be affected by the reduced gravity, and numerous tests will be performed to better understand the effects of weightlessness on the human physiology. We already know that astronauts begin losing the calcium in their bones after a few days in space, a phenomenon from which elderly people also suffer! Studies conducted in space may help better understand why this happens, and what can be done about it. In addition to helping people on Earth, this knowledge will surely be useful when we are ready for a Moon base or Mars expedition.

Experiments will also be conducted outside of the space station, where vacuum, extreme temperatures variations, and impacts from micrometeorites can be recorded. Since numerous communication satellites, as well as military and scientific ones, are also affected by these hazards, it is important to measure the effects and test new materials in order to built better and more robust satellites.

The ISS orbits at an average altitude of 350 kilometers (220 miles) above the Earth, at an inclination of 52 degrees to the equator. This means that the station flies over most of the populated areas of our planet, including Hawaii!

In fact, the ISS is very bright in the sky and can sometimes be seen, just after sunset or before sunrise, for up to 10 minutes, passing through a few constellations. A few resources on the Web can tell you the next time ISS will be visible overhead.

In particular, the Heavens-Above site ( gives 10-day predictions on the visibility of the ISS (and other artificial satellites too!) for over 2 millions cities in the world, including many small towns on the Big Island (Waimea, Hawi, Honokaa and Kawaihae, for example). Included in the predictions are a star chart, brightness of the ISS, where to look and when to look.

Another Web site,, will give more detailed information about the passes, although only for Honolulu.

For more information, visit the ISS Web site: or

Nadine Manset
Resident Astronomer
Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope Corporation
Dec. 7, 2000