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International Space Station is dangerously dusty, new research says

Forget what the sleek ships of Star Trek would have you believe, it turns out humanity’s most famous spacecraft is even dustier than the average home.

The International Space Station (ISS) may not be a hunk of junk, but – 25 years after its initial launch – it’s become chock-full of potentially harmful chemicals.

In a first of its kind study, UK and US researchers teamed up to analyse dust samples from air filters on board and compared them to organic contaminants found in our Earthly homes.

Among the recognisable materials were those used in building and window sealant, stain removers, furniture fabrics, and electronic equipment.

Some are even classed as persistent organic pollutants under the Stockholm Convention, a global treaty aiming to eliminate their production and use due to their impact on human health and the environment.

Researchers believe they may have found their way aboard via astronauts’ cameras, music players, tablets, and clothing brought up from our home planet.

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High levels of radiation can speed up the ageing of materials, including the breakdown of goods into micro and nano plastics that can become airborne in the microgravity setting of the ISS.

These particles settle across the station, and must be vacuumed to ensure the onboard air filters perform efficiently.

While air inside the ISS is constantly recirculated, with eight to 10 changes per hour, it’s unknown the extent to which this removes all of these harmful chemicals.

Some vacuum bags were returned to Earth for the study, with one shipped to the University of Birmingham.

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2020: Cargo craft docks at International Space Station

Dust findings ‘should guide future station designs’

Professor Stuart Harrad said concentrations of organic contaminants in the ISS’s dust “often exceeded” the average amount found in homes and other indoor settings across the US and Western Europe.

Generally, they were within the range found on Earth.

Prof Harrad said the findings could guide the design of future space stations, with several hoping to launch by 2030.

These include private ventures; a joint project by the US, European, Canadian, and Japanese space agencies; and Russia‘s own hub for when it leaves the ISS programme in 2024.

“Our findings have implications for future space stations and habitats, where it may be possible to exclude many contaminant sources by careful material choices in the early stages of design and construction,” Prof Harrad said.

The research is published in the Environmental Science and Technology Letters journal.

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