The International Space Station is expensive. A lot of the science that takes place there seems pretty mundane, and some of it is. But like the Large Hadron Collider or KM3Net, the ISS is a one-of-a-kind laboratory that can do science that can't be done anywhere else. And the best thing about the ISS? It's already built. Upkeep is expensive, but the scientific impact of shutting it down would likely be far more detrimental than the economic impact of keeping it aloft for a few more years. How so? The amount of scientific experimentation ongoing aboard the ISS at any given time is fairly huge. Some of that is pure space science, but plenty of it packs Earth-bound benefits. The FLEX and FLAME combustion experiments are studying the way fire behaves in microgravity, offering a better understanding of how man's most important primitive tool and informing the development of flame suppressants and new ways of utilizing liquid fuels here on the home planet. Similarly, the ACME (Advanced Combustion via Microgravity Experiment) is studying the way things actually combust in microgravity, exploring future Earth potentials like using electric fields to manipulate combustion to get maximum efficiency from our fuels and scrub pollutants from the byproducts. Then there's the MISSE (Materials on the International Space Station Experiment) projects, which have for years been testing materials in the harsh conditions on the outside of the station, leading to better materials science back here on the surface--particularly the kinds of materials that go back up to space aboard the satellites that enable the communications and geolocation services we so enjoy down here. And then there are the various experiments in plant biology, biotechnology, robotics, medicine, human physiology, and so on. The ISS's value to science and technology back on Earth has been--and still is--significant. NASA

[UPDATE: At the press conference, NASA awarded three private spaceflight companies commercial resupply contracts to the International Space Station]

NASA has announced that there will be a ‘major announcement’ about cargo transport to the International Space Station today. What will they be announcing? We can’t say for sure, but we thought of a few possibilities.

There’s a strong chance that it will be about awarding contracts for new companies to resupply the space station. In 2014, NASA put out a call for new commercial contract proposals, and we could be seeing the results today. Currently there are two companies running supplies to the station: SpaceX and Orbital ATK, but others, including Sierra Nevada, are still hoping for a chance to fly cargo to the ISS.

The announcement might also be related to SpaceX’s return to running supplies to the station next month, on February 7. The company hasn’t been back to the ISS since their resupply flight exploded last June.

Transporting cargo is essential to the continued operation of the space station. Without resupply missions, astronauts would not be able to stay on the ISS for long periods of time. Cargo resupply missions include basics like food, but also tools, equipment, and science experiments.

The webcast will start at 4PM eastern and can be watched on NASA TV. For the livestream, click here.

International Space Station