Morfill says plasma technology is also being used in dental hygiene and food sterilization and could one day be used to protect seeds from infection and even stimulate plants to grow more quickly.
“We didn't expect this at the time, but this is research,” Morfill says.
The 19-nation ESA has about 150 ISS research projects ongoing or in preparation as part of the European Program for Life and Physical Sciences (Elips), though officials say there is room for more.
Since 2002, Elips has served as the agency's clearinghouse for conducting life- and physical-science experiments aboard the ISS, though Elips utilizes a variety of platforms, including drop towers, parabolic flights and sounding rockets as well.
Christer Fuglesang, head of ESA's Science and Application Div., says the current batch of Elips projects are due for completion in 2017, with new announcements of opportunity likely in 2013-14.
Although ESA does not directly fund science experiments on the ISS, the agency does provide hardware, launch and operations services for science and technology initiatives paid for by participating member states.
ESA's own goals for ISS utilization are concentrated on preparation for manned space exploration, technology demos, climate-change studies and education.
In the area of Earth monitoring, ESA is hosting an investigation on its Columbus module that since June 2010 has been testing the viability of tracking global maritime traffic from the station's orbit hundreds of kilometers above the planet.
The ship-detection demo is based on the Automatic Identification System (AIS), the maritime equivalent of air-traffic control. All international vessels, cargo ships above certain weights and passenger carriers of certain sizes must carry “Class A” AIS transponders, continually broadcasting updated identity, position, course, speed and other data to and from other vessels and shore.