A Goodyear service technician checks tire pressure. For passenger cars, ten to 14 percent of fuel consumption is used to roll tires on the road. Goodyear is investigating how silica combined with rubber improves tire efficiency. Credit: Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.

SAN FRANCISCO — Delta Faucet Co. and Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. announced partnerships July 24 with the Center for the Advancement of Science is Space (CASIS) to send microgravity experiments to the International Space Station later this year.

Delta Faucet plans to send an oscillating device called a fluidic chip to the space station to further its research into ways to design showerheads to provide good customer experiences in spite of lower water flow.

Garry Marty, Delta Faucet principal product engineer, says some showerheads are like tin cans with holes. When the water flow drops, “the resulting shower is pretty pathetic in a lot of cases,” Marty said at the International Space Station Research & Development conference here.

In contrast, Delta Faucet’s showerheads use the firm’s H2Okinetic technology to break the water into big droplets and propel them more quickly. “We want to give customers the best shower we can with the fluid available,” Marty said. “Can we improve our designs to make our customers happier and use water more effectively?”

This fall, Delta Faucet plans to send an experiment to the space station to help researchers discern what role, if any, gravity plays in the formation of droplets, water flow and pressure, Marty said. The experiment will take approximately one day with resulting data streamed back to researchers.

Goodyear, meanwhile, plans to study silica particles in microgravity in an experiment also scheduled to launch this fall. Goodyear’s test materials will be flash frozen and returned to researchers on the ground for analysis, said Derek Shuttleworth, Goodyear’s external science and technology manager.

“Silica is an important ingredient in tires,” Shuttleworth said. “By lowering the energy lost by the tire through manipulation of the structure of silica, we can deliver greater fuel economy.”

Both Marty and Shuttleworth said the partnership with CASIS, which operates the U.S. national laboratory on the space station, presents an important opportunity to further internal research. They doubted, however, that their companies could afford to fly experiments in microgravity without the support of CASIS and companies with expertise in building spaceflight experiments.

“It’s difficult to imagine how an individual company or even a collection of companies could mount an experiment that is so costly,” Shuttleworth said. “There have to be more players, more entities involved than just a commercial opportunity.”

Marty added, “I don’t know if it would be economically feasible from an engineering perspective.”

Delta Faucet’s test station, which stands about three-feet tall, five-feet wide and 1.5 feet deep, is fairly simply. But the engineering involved in ensuring the test would work in microgravity and pose no risk to astronauts is “unbelievable,” Marty said. “No company that I can think of would have the wherewithal to know what it takes to build that. Or if there’s another company that would do that for people it’s going to be pretty pricey.”

Blair Bigelow, co-founder and corporate strategy vice president for Bigelow Space Operations, said payload developers with expertise to support various segments of the market will play an important role in future commercial space stations.

“For so long, space has been a cost-prohibitive business,” Bigelow said. “The commercial era will operate at a different dynamic cost metric.”

For commercial space stations to succeed in supporting microgravity research, they will need help from current microgravity payload developers and new companies entering the field. “That is one important area that needs to continue to grow,” Bigelow said.

“No single company will be able to accomplish it all: turning the research into an actual payload, integrating the payload on a space station, and owning and operating the space station,” Bigelow said.

Bigelow Aerospace is developing the B330 expandable module to serve as an autonomous space station. Earlier this year, Bigelow Aerospace established Bigelow Space Operations (BSO) to operate and sell services for its space stations. “BSO’s first order of business is to fly commercial payloads to the International Space Station,” Bigelow said.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She is...