Space flames and microgravity liquids: Astronauts mark 20 years with space station equipment

photo of astronaut and MSG
NASA astronaut Victor Glover works with a payload inside the Microgravity Science Glovebox aboard the International Space Station in 2021. (Image credit: NASA)

In space, no one wants to deal with the cleanup from liquids, flames or other messy science experiments.

That's why NASA shipped a special facility to the International Space Station to do a deep dive on these complex topics, 20 years ago. The Microgravity Science Glovebox, or MSG, celebrated its anniversary on July 8.

Described as a shelf-sized "tank" by NASA, MSG is a sealed facility in the U.S. Destiny laboratory module that allows tricky investigations to be done in a small space. It has two levels of containment to allow astronauts to do science on potentially harmful substances like flames, aerosols or other harmful items, according to the agency.

Related: International Space Station, a photo tour

The equipment was only supposed to last 10 years, recalled Chris Butler, payload integration manager for the glovebox at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. Now, he added in the agency statement, "it's been certified through 2030."

The results from MSG are plentiful and wide-ranging: A search of Google Scholar that performed shows approximately 1,500 scientific papers that mention MSG since its launch date of 2002. Fields that have made use of MSG's capabilities include material science and biotech, NASA noted. 

In addition, the facility is a key resource for studying combustion. Understanding fire and liquids in space is a key safety measure in order to plan long-range solar system exploration.

For astronauts, the MSG work is literally hands-on: crews use gloves to manipulate what they need to, watching their progress through an acrylic window. The results and a livestream camera are autonomously transmitted to Earth for data analysis.

There are other "gloveboxes" in space, too. NASA astronaut Jessica Meir works with bone samples inside the Life Science Glovebox located in JAXA's Kibo laboratory at the International Space Staion, on March 3, 2020. (Image credit: NASA)

Experiments conducted within the MSG include, according to NASA, decontamination experiments to support more life sciences work, including with rodents, and studies of protein clusters that might be associated with Alzheimer's. MSG has even used lifeforms like roundworms to serve as model organisms of in-flight infection risk to astronauts.

The current Expedition 67 crew is working with MSG to see how well they can manipulate liquids with acoustics, among other investigations. Future experiments are expected to target combustion, semiconductors and fiber optics, according to the NASA statement.

MSG is not the only self-contained glovebox on the ISS, however. Another example is the Japanese Life Sciences Glovebox in the Kibo module, which is optimized for bioisolation and waste control, according to NASA materials

Previous gloveboxes, albeit smaller and less sophisticated than MSG, flew on the NASA space shuttle and the Soviet-Russian Mir space station.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: