5 Significant ISS Life Science Projects of 2017

Wow. 2017 was a busy year on the ISS! 4 Dragons, 2 Cygnus (Cygni?) and 3 Progress spacecraft delivered ~140 new experiments to 12 bustling crew members living on the orbiting outpost during the year. In other words, of all the payloads ever delivered to the ISS, ~11% were delivered in just this year.

These are in no special order, just off the top of my head. My selection criteria was: projects I think improved ISS micro-g research capabilities, created new opportunities to the micro-g community or had high chance for meaningful results.

Which ISS payloads do you think were significant in 2017?


First Chinese Payload on The ISS

Experiment Name:
NanoRacks-BIT-1 (NanoRacks-Beijing Institute of Technology-1: DNA Mismatch during a PCR Reaction Exposed to the Space Environment)

Principal Investigator:
Yulin Deng, Beijing Institute of Technology (BIT), Beijing, China

NanoRacks, LLC, Webster, TX, United States
Beijing Institute of Technology, Beijing, China

The science behind this project was like most experiments going to the ISS: basic, but has potential for important results. So why was it the first one I thought of?

Because  one of the barriers to micro-g research is access. This project introduced a new route for researchers that wasn’t there before.

Yes, Chinese researchers have access through its own space program, but their launches are infrequent and research opportunities even more so. We have ~10 launches per year traveling to a multi-billion dollar micro-g research platform orbiting the planet with the word “international” explicitly in its name. Why can’t China participate?

The BIT module on the ISS before installation onto the USB hub NanoRacks Frame-1. This module was 4U (40 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm).

Worried that China would take advantage of technology transfer (Google “intelsat 708 china ITAR”), Virginia Representative Frank Wolf inserted a clause into the 2011 U.S. budget stating,

“(Sec. 539) Prohibits the use of any NASA or OSTP (Office of Science and Technology Policy) funds to participate in any way in any program with China or any Chinese-owned company, unless specifically authorized by law.”

Since NanoRacks is a separate commercial entity, this project was therefore legal. After getting acceptance from all ISS partners, U.S. Congress, and ensuring no data transfer was possible, the project was then allowed to fly to the ISS.

I’m positive you will see more collaborations of commercial companies and non-traditional ISS researchers on the ISS. Let the democratization of space begin!


East Your Space Veggies!

Experiment Name:

Principal Investigator(s):
Gioia D. Massa, Kennedy Space Center, Kennedy Space Center, FL, United States
Howard G. Levine, Ph.D., NASA Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, FL, United States

NASA Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, FL, United States

A continuation of the successful Vegetable Production System (a.k.a. Veggie) installed in 2014, this year the crew grew more variety than ever: Waldmann’s green lettuce, mizuna mustard  and Outredgeous Red Romaine lettuce. The crew was also allowed to eat the lettuce they grew.

NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson tends to the space farm on the ISS. Photo: NASA

I really have nothing else to say about it. As a home vegetable gardener this project always thrills me and with every new vegetable they grow, we get closer to a sustainable food source in space. I’m eager to see them grow tomatoes!


The ISS National Lab Becomes More Lab-like

Experiment Name:
Genes in Space-3 (Genes in Space-3)

Principal Investigator:
Sarah Wallace, Ph.D., NASA JSC, Houston, TX, United States

Boeing, Huntsville, AL, United States
NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX, United States

Like peanut butter and chocolate, the marriage of these two research devices on the ISS was a perfect match.

In what was by far the most exciting experiment to me in 2017, astronaut Peggy Whitson picked microbial colonies from an agar plate, extracted DNA from them, amplified the DNA in the samples using the miniPCR and then ran those PCR products through the MinION DNA sequencer.

NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson working in the Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG) picking colonies, then placing them into PCR tubes for sample prep. The initial work was done in the MSG due to NASA safety regulations. Unknown, isolated colonies are typically labeled as BSL 2 by default. Animated GIF: NASA

It’s important to note that colonies on the plate were grown from swab samples collected around the ISS, so the Johnson Space Center researchers that designed the experiment didn’t know what DNA sequences they were going to see. This was not a tech demo like last year, but an actual “we don’t know what we are going to find” experiment!

NASA Astronaut Peggy Whitson at the Maintenance Work Area (MWA) on the ISS. The miniPCR is seen just in front of her connected to the tablet. Note Skittles on the wall. Photo: NASA

Both PCR thermocyclers and DNA sequencers are common Earth life science lab equipment and performing the assay Peggy completed is an almost trivial process on the ground, but had never been done collectively like this on the ISS.

I really hope to continue seeing the cross utilization of fundamental life science hardware like this on the ISS. And, since there have now been several demonstrations that pipetting small volumes of liquids in micro-g is not the nightmare once thought, I guarantee you there will be more experiments like this in the future. The ISS National Lab will finally start behaving like an actual lab.




Bacterial Resistance is Futile!

Experiment Name:
EcAMSat (E. coli AntiMicrobial Satellite)

Principal Investigator:
A.C. Matin, Ph.D., Stanford University, Stanford, CA, United States

NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA, United States

This project got little fan-fair, but I thought it was important. The first to use the new “doublewide” cubesat format launched from the ISS, EcAMSat set out to test bacterial antibiotic resistance in microgravity.

As several lines of evidence now show, the trend of bacterial populations requiring higher concentrations of antibiotics than on earth poses a dangerous future for space travel.

Deployment of EcAMSat from the ISS by the NanoRacks Cubesat Deployer (NRCSD). Animated GIF from NASA

The shoe box (if you wear 12 EEE) sized  autonomous satellite housed fluid reservoirs, a 48 well sample holder, pumps, LED temperature control, detectors and solar panels.

Following a growth period for the E. coli, the antibiotic gentamicin was introduced to the samples, then a blue dye was injected into the wells to measure the viability of the E. coli. Living E. coli metabolizes the dye and turns it pink.

Guts of EcAMSat. Bags contain media, wash, antibiotic and dye solutions.

The PI also flew E. coli with a rpoS gene mutation. The rpoS gene produces a protein that helps defend against the bacteria against gentamicin. A detector measures the amount of bacteria that are alive (pink) and dead (blue) over time, therefore measuring the efficacy of the antibiotic.

Details of the EcAMSat bacterial detection system. Each of the 48 wells was about 1 uL.

Why a cubesat instead of staying on the ISS? Other than setting up the deployers for launch, there is no crew handling required. The ISS can be a relatively noisy micro-g environment, with fans, crew exercising, ship docking bumps, etc. that causes unwanted vibrations or jostling of your experiment. A cubesat is very quiescent, allowing for a more definitive micro-g experiment.

Also, this project builds upon a previous NASA Ames cubesat called PharmaSat that launched in 2009. I believe Ames and other PI’s are looking to launch cubesats on longer duration and deep space biological space experiments (i.e. BioSentinel ) and will use the experience of this project as mission assurance for future designs.

Experiments like these provide important steps in understanding how and what we need to adapt to life in space for long duration. It would suck to overcome all the significant technological hurdles of long duration spaceflight just to be taken out by lowly microbes.


“Payload hardware and experimental protocol development to enable future testing of the effect of space microgravity on the resistance to gentamicin of uropathogenic Escherichia coli and its σs-deficient mutant”  Life Sciences in Space Research, Volume 15, 2017, Pages 1-10, ISSN 2214-5524


Oh, to Be a Fly on the ISS Wall

Experiment Name:
Fruit Fly Lab -02 (FFL-02) (The effects of microgravity on cardiac function, structure and gene expression using the Drosophila model)

Principal Investigator:
Rolf Bodmer, Ph.D., Sanford Burnham Medical Research Instititue, La Jolla, CA, United States

Karen Ocorr, Sanford Burnham Research Institute, La Jolla, CA, United States
Sharmila Bhattacharya, Ph.D., NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA, United States

NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA, United States


Experiment Name:
Fruit Fly Lab-03 (FFL-03) (Does Spaceflight Alter the Virulence of a Natural Parasite of Drosophila)

Principal Investigator:
Subha Govind, The Graduate Center of CUNY and Biology Department The City College of New York, New York, NY, United States

Sharmila Bhattacharya, Ph.D., NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA, United States

NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA, United States

I know these are two experiments, but they both use the same hardware and I found the combination of a great model organism with low tech flight hardware a noteworthy achievement in micro-g science.

First flown during the Heart Effect Analysis Research Team conducting FLy Investigations and Experiments in Spaceflight (HEART FLIES) project in 2014, this is the third flight of their modular fly hotel system. It is a small 1.5U (15 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm), passive module and only requires specific launch and return orientations. FFL-02 used temperature control, but it’s modular design that fits nicely into BioServe’s SABL incubator.

Sharmila Bhattacharya (standing) and Curran Reddy hold an early version of the Fruit Fly module and tubes. Photo: NASA.

Why is this important? The well-studied, model organism Drosophila melanogaster is a great animal to investigate the effects of microgravity on living things. They have a short life cycle and genetically they are ~60% similar to humans with about 75% of human disease genes having a match to a fly gene.

Each  Fruit Fly Inn contains small, 1.25” x 4“ tubes that have a food blob on one end and a cotton plug in the other. A few flies are placed into the tubes before launch, then once in space, they enjoy their deluxe accommodation in the sky by eating and mating. Within a few weeks you have a new generation of flies that developed and lived  their whole life exclusively in space.

Fruit Fly container tubes flown to the ISS. The blue and tan-colored substances are food. The white plugs on top are cotton filters that allow the passage of air. Flies and pupae are visible on the tube walls. Photo: NASA.

Keep in mind that there each module has 15 tubes, so you can send hundreds of flies to the ISS and return thousands using a small volume of space. Add the fact that the modules can be passive and you have a low tech, cost effective, high science impact experiment.

Overall, Sharmila, Karen and their collaborators have studied the effects of microgravity on fruit fly heart formation, the effect of a pathogen on the immune system of Drosophila, and neurobehavioral changes in the flies during spaceflight, all with these simple modules.

My favorite quote from Sharmila is “The access to quality microgravity has changed. I have flown more experiments in the past three years than I did 12 years prior.”

It sure has and I eagerly anticipate to see what 2018 brings.

What’s Up With OA-7?

The third launch of Cygnus using an Atlas V-401 booster commenced successfully on Tuesday April 18th from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and berthed nominally to the ISS almost four days later.

OA-7 launching from SLC-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Source: ULA

OA-7 sees the return of refrigeration/freezing (i.e. Polar) stowage, an asset missing since Orb-3, which helps offset the increased late load for those science experiments that can be frozen. Because of the fairing surrounding Cygnus, it has a 10+ day late load capability and hasn’t been used much for perishable science that requires a short duration between handover and berthing/de-stow.

For reference, late load science for this mission was handed over and stowed on Cygnus during the first week of March (when the launch date was March 24th). Late load for biologicals on Dragon can be as late as 28 hours before launch.

Inside the Cygnus OA-7 pressurized cargo section. Note the four Polar freezers in the forefront. Picture: NASA.

Cargo By the Numbers
The science cargo mass (table below) is a little higher than previous missions, likely due to the refrigeration support hardware and the Saffire-III experiment, both which are large and heavy. Crazy to see that the Atlas V 401-Enhanced Cygnus config allows for 64% more total pressurized mass to LEO than the Antares 230-Enhanced Cygnus, yet about the same amount of science mass on both. With an average of 1,513 lb, the science mass carried on Cygnus for OA-7 is comparable to the average amount carried by SpaceX’s Dragon at 1,375 lb.

The Science!

Magnetic 3D Cell Culture for Biological Research in Microgravity (Magnetic 3D Cell Culturing)

Principal Investigator
Glauco Souza, Ph.D., Nano3D Biosciences, Inc., Houston, TX, United States

Payload Developer
BioServe Space Technologies, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, United States

Culturing cells in 3D has gained significant attention in Earth labs over the past decade. The technique removes cells from the standard two dimensional monolayer methods used since the 1800’s and attempts to create a more natural three dimensional growing environment that facilitates the cell-cell communication and structures that tissues would normally physiologically experience. Drug efficacy can be different between cells grown in 2D and 3D and it has therefore captured notable interest, especially in the biopharma world.

Growing 3D cell cultures typically requires special plates, a bioreactor or gel scaffold, but in 2008 researchers at Rice University and at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, both in Houston, Texas, developed a way to levitate cells using magnets, so that they can grow three dimensionally. This magnetic levitation method (MLM) has since been commercialized by those researchers with a company named Nano3D Biosciences (n3D).

Source: n3D Biosciences

This CASIS funded experiment is a technology demonstration/validation of n3D’s technology as a tool for growing and handling cells in microgravity. Lung carcinoma cells are launched frozen, thawed and the crew will inject them into media before incubation. At some point the crew will manipulate them with the n3D magnetic technology and observed with on-board microscopes. The samples will be then be fixed, frozen and returned at a later time.

It’s unclear what the manipulations will be, since MLM is beneficial for 3D cell growth in 1g, yet that’s not necessary in a microgravity environment. It will be interesting to see what they come up with.


Efficacy and Metabolism of Azonafide Antibody-Drug Conjugates (ADCs) in Microgravity (ADCs in Microgravity)

Principal Investigator
Sourav Sinha, Oncolinx LLC, Boston, MA, United States

Payload Developer
BioServe Space Technologies, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, United States

Oncolinx was founded in 2014 as a spin off company from the technology accelerator Center for Advancing Innovation in Bethesda, Maryland. Partnered with the National Cancer Institute,
Oncolinx has developed and patented antibody-drug conjugate (ADC) azonafides, a class of DNA intercalating anticancer compounds.

Oncolinx has won several grant funding competitions such as 43North Startup Competition, Breast Cancer Startup Challenge, and the MassChallenge, to name a few. They currently have partnership agreements with eighteen universities and pharma companies and are scheduled to start human trials in 2017.

ADC’s are a relatively new type of anticancer drug delivery method, where like a Trojan horse, a drug is attached to an antibody that is designed to target a cancer cell type. The cancer cell readily recognizes and absorbs the ADC where the drug is then released and kills the cell. This strategy removes the nonspecific “kill em all, let the body sort em out” drugs employed in standard chemotherapy. While incredibly promising, there are currently only two ADC’s approved by the FDA.

Illustration of ADC-azonafide activity. Source: Oncolinx

The experiment hopes to shed light on the mechanism of ADC azonafides in cells grown in microgravity. Expectations of how this will be different than Earth 3D cultures isn’t mentioned. This and the previous CASIS funded experiment are related in that they are both using Nano3D Biosciences technology and lung cancer cells.

Like most microgravity cell biology experiments, the protocol is rather simple. Frozen cells and drug are launched to the ISS, where they will be thawed and introduced into media with BioServe’s multi-well BioCell hardware. They’ll be incubated and manipulated with n3D technology, observed microscopically during growth and then fixed, frozen and returned to Earth for further study.


Center for Advancing Innovation

“Assembly of a functional 3D primary cardiac construct using magnetic levitation”


“The Center for Advancing Innovation Spin-Out, Oncolinx, Is the Winner of the Largest Investment Prize for Global Startups”

“A spheroid toxicity assay using magnetic 3D bioprinting and real-time mobile device-based imaging”

Wiki: 3D cell culturing by magnetic levitation

n3D Biosciences

Patent: Azonafide derived tumor and cancer targeting compounds

Wiki: 3D cell culture

Wiki: Antibody-drug conjugate

“Three-dimensional Tissue Culture Based on Magnetic Cell Levitation”


Crystal Growth of Cs2LiYCl6:Ce Scintillators in Microgravity (CLYC-Crystal Growth)

Principal Investigator
Alexei Churilov, Ph.D., Radiation Monitoring Devices, Inc, Watertown, MA, United States

Payload Developer
Radiation Monitoring Devices, Inc., Watertown, MA, United States; NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL, United States; Tec-Masters Inc., AL, United States

Detached Melt and Vapor Growth of InI in SUBSA Hardware (Detached Melt and Vapor Growth of InI)

Principal Investigator
Aleksander Ostrogorsky, Sc.D., Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, IL, United States

Payload Developer(s)
Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, IL, United States; NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL, United States; Tec-Masters Inc., AL, United States

In another double project, these experiments are funded by CASIS Materials Science Investigations released in 2014. The Solidification Using a Baffle in Sealed Ampoules (SUBSA) furnace has been brought out of 15 year storage and updated for another flight.

SUBSA’s first flight to the ISS was in 2002 (and by coincidence, when astronaut Peggy Whitson was on board) and while the researchers “grew eight single crystals of indium antimonide (InSb), doped with tellurium (Te) or zinc (Zn)” there were several technical issues reported with SUBSA and the newly arrived Microgravity Science Glovebox that may have reduced the experiment’s main goals.

SUBSA Furnace. Source: Tec-Masters

Churilov and Ostrogorsky are also the same researchers that flew is 2002, but this time they will be testing the crystal growth of two different materials: Cs2LiYCl6:Ce (CLYC) and indium iodide (InI), respectively, both of which are important materials used in radiation detection. They wish to grow quality, less flawed crystals in microgravity as well as gather data for a better understanding of the microgravity crystallization process.

These data will be used to increase the detector material’s performance by optimizing certain processes during their manufacture on Earth. These materials have use in “homeland security and nuclear non-proliferation applications, oil and gas exploration, particle and space physics, non-destructive testing, and scientific instruments.”

Defects found in CLYC crystals grown in 1g

Tec-Masters SUBSA Flyer

CASIS Materials Science Investigations RFP

AIAA Abstract for SUBSA

Space Ref:Technical Issues SUBSA/MSG First Run


Thermal Protection Material Flight Test and Reentry Data Collection (RED-Data2)

Principal Investigator
John Dec, Ph.D., Terminal Velocity Aerospace, LLC, Atlanta, GA, United States

Payload Developer(s)
NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX, United States
NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA, United States
Terminal Velocity Aerospace, LLC, Atlanta, GA, United States

Great balls of fire! Bet the researchers never heard that one before. Terminal Velocity Aerospace, LLC hopes this experiment will allow us to better understand how objects behave during orbital re-entry. Awarded two Small business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants since 2014, TVA also hopes to increase options for payload return from the ISS by developing 10small payload return capsules.

Even as relatively common as re-entry is, there is still little actual data about what a spacecraft experiences during its fiery demise. Knowing this could help build better models and design objects be destroyed or saved during re-entry.

Areoshells similar to those that will be used in the RED-Data 2 experiment. Source: TVA

Three soccer ball sized experiments will ride with Cygnus as it breaks up upon re-entry and send location, temperature, pressure and acceleration telemetry to the Iridium network as it happens. The REDs are also covered in thermocouples and several types of thermal protection materials that will test their performance after they leave the charred, smoldering remains of Cygnus.


Terminal Velocity Aerospace, LLC



Advanced Plant Habitat (Plant Habitat)

Facility Manager
Bryan G. Onate, Kennedy Space Center, FL, United States

Payload Developers
NASA Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, FL, United States
Orbital Technologies Corporation, Madison, WI, United States

Plant growth chambers have come a long way since the little Oasis plant systems used on Salyut 7. In the eventual goal of providing sustainable farming for spaceflight missions, the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) is a companion to the successful VEGGIE project and it brings some lessons learned as well as new plant growth features to the ISS.

VEGGIE was open to cabin air and this environment can be quite variable and cause unwanted effects to plant growth experiments. Examples of this was increased concentrations of the plant hormone ethylene altering wheat and Arabidopsis growth during the Shuttle-Mir Greenhouse and STS-84 projects, respectively.

Advance Plant Habitat. Source: NASA

The APH has a contained growth chamber with air scrubbers, gas mixture, temperature and humidity controls as well as an active watering system. There are variable wavelength LEDs for different light requirements of an assortment of plant types and light sensors that can measure light from the canopy to the roots.

APH will provide real time telemetry to researchers through a package called Plant Habitat Avionics Real-Time Manager in EXPRESS Rack (PHARMER..ha!) They certainly didn’t spare any expense and I think this will likely be one of the most productive microgravity plant habitats yet.

“Review and analysis of over 40 years of space plant growth systems


Genes in Space-2

Principal Investigator
David Scott Copeland, The Boeing Company, Pasadena, TX, United States

Payload Developer
Boeing, Houston, TX, United States; miniPCR, Cambridge, MA, United States

Genes in Space is a yearly science contest where students submit their microgravity experiment ideas of how they would use the miniPCR thermocycler on the ISS. 2016’s winner, Julian Rubinfien, a student at Stuyvesant High School in New York City, proposed a PCR method of measuring telomere length on the ISS. Be sure to catch the announcement of 2017’s winner in July at the ISS R&D conference in Washington, D.C.

Genes in Space 2016 winner Julian Rubinfien accepting his trophy from NASA astronaut Josh Cassada at the 2016 ISS Research and Development Conference. Source: Genes in Space

As evidence builds that stress is a factor influencing telomere length, it’s not surprising that the stress and radiation of spaceflight may be affecting them as well. Susan Bailey, a researcher on the NASA Twins study, even raised a lot of eyebrows earlier this year when she released preliminary data stating that astronaut Scott Kelly’s telomeres may have even grown longer during the recent one year mission, when compared to his brother.

Since the ISS currently lacks ways to implement some of the more involved methods to measure telomere length, Julian proposed using a simpler Earth lab standard technique called Universal Single Telomere Length Analysis (STELA). While STELA typically requires a bit of optimization work on the front end, it requires minimal hardware to run and a great option to try on the ISS.

This proof of concept experiment is quick and easy: his samples will arrive on the ISS frozen, thawed and run on the miniPCR thermocycler. They’ll then be returned to earth for further analysis. Hopefully the results will lead to a standard test that astronauts can use during long duration spaceflight.

From the Genes in Space website, Julien says,

Preach it, Julien.


Genes In Space


2017 ISS R&D Conference in Washington, D.C.

“Telomere Length: A Review of Methods for Measurement”

“Environmental Stresses Disrupt Telomere Length Homeostasis”

“Reduced telomerase activity in human T lymphocytes exposed to cortisol”

“Astronaut twin study hints at stress of space travel”

“Metabolomic and Genomic Markers of Atherosclerosis as Related to Oxidative Stress, Inflammation, and Vascular Function in Twin Astronauts”

“Telomere Length Measurement – caveats and a critical assessment of the available technologies and tools” 


Genes in Space-3
Biomolecule Sequencer

Principal Investigator
Sarah Wallace, Ph.D., NASA JSC, Houston, TX, United States

Payload Developers
Boeing, Huntsville, AL, United States
NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX, United States

In a natural match of molecular biology hardware, this experiment uses the miniPCR and the MinION DNA sequencer (flown to the ISS last year) as a technique demo for possibly testing microbial samples found in the ISS.

Surface sample from the ISS after incubation. Yum!


Current methods require crew to collect air and surface samples, plate them, place them in a warm spot for five days and then send pics to the JSC lab for analysis. If crew can get samples, prep them with the miniPCR and then run them on the MinION, they could possibly detect what is living there genetically.



Whether this is less work for the crew remains to be seen, but it’s a nice demonstration that researchers can use these two devices together for other types of experiments on the ISS. It could also be used during long duration spaceflight for monitoring crew health or samples while on a Mars mission.


Spacecraft Fire Safety III (Saffire-III)

Principal Investigator
David L. Urban, Ph.D., Glenn Research Center, Cleveland, OH, United States

Payload Developer
NASA Glenn Research Center, Cleveland, OH, United States

Until previously, microgravity combustion experiments on the ISS, such as the Burning and Suppression of Solids (BASS) series, have focused on somewhat small scale test objects of about 10 cm. The Saffire series hopes to provide insight on how fire burns in microgravity on a large scale.

Saffire-III builds upon the two mostly identical experiments flown last year on Cygnus, where meter long pieces of common spacecraft materials such as Nomex and plexiglass are set ablaze. The hardware rides inside Cygnus and isn’t started until long after un-berthing from the ISS.

Engineers/technicians working on Saffire-II. Source: NASA

The fire is recorded visually and with a suite of thermocouples, CO2 and pressure sensors to name a few. The data is then downlinked to the researchers on Earth before Cygnus reenters the atmosphere. It’s really great that Cygnus will be delivering valuable science data all the way up until the end.

Saffire-I  burning material. The green LED light flashes are used to show contrast to observe smoke patterns as the material is burning. Gif Source: NASA

Saffire Mission Site

Burning and Suppression of Solids (BASS)


QB50 CubeSats

The QB50 Project is a constellation of science cubesats to measure phenomena in an often overlooked region of Earth’s lower atmosphere. Run by the Von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics and funded by the European Commission, 36 cubesats from 21 countries will be eventually be launched into Earth and Sun Synchronous orbits.

Source: QB50 Site

28 cubesats will be deployed from the ISS using NanoRacks’ Cubesat Deployer where they will collect data in Earth orbit for 4-8 months. The remaining 8 cubesats will be placed in a sun synchronous orbit to be launched from an Indian PSLV rocket in late May.

Source: QB50 Site

These data will collected by three main types of sensors found on the cubesats: ion/neutral mass spectrometer, a flux probe and a multineedle Langmuir probe. I won’t even pretend to know how all of this works, but there is a significant amount of information in the links below.


QB50 Project

Von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics



Additional OA-7 Resources
Initial Press Release for OA-7

Cygnus Packed with Experiments to Support Future Exploration

5 Significant ISS Life Science Projects of 2016

This year was challenging to get through in many ways, but the space world was kicking ass. From Blue Origin and SpaceX making vertical booster landings look easy to the introduction of several new launch vehicles and launch sites, it was a busy space year. Overall, there were 85 launches and 3 failures in 2016 including 4 crew and 7 cargo flights to the ISS. 

There were several notable firsts for ISS research as well, especially for those interested in microgravity molecular biology. Because of the multi-step, hands-on nature of life science benchwork, significant progress in this field has lumbered along from a lack of development of even the most basic assay resources for the ISS. 

The majority of life science projects flown are one or two step experiments performed in self-contained modules with minimal to no crew interaction. The samples or modules is then returned and analyzed post-flight. If it didn’t fail, you may have the money to fly again. Maybe not. These constraints have seriously limited the pace of what can be accomplished in this field.

The developments seen on the ISS this year are important steps forward to remedy these challenges and create a more relevant and productive orbiting national laboratory. In no specific order, I’ve summarized what I think are 5 of the most significant projects that happened on the ISS in 2016. What was your favorite?


Click here for NASA’s list of ISS research.


First DNA Sequencing in Microgravity

PI: Aaron Burton, Ph.D., NASA JSC, Houston, TX, United States
Hardware: Oxford Nanopore Technologies MinION, modified for flight in cooperation with NASA. Samples provided by NASA.
Sponsor/Funding: NASA Technology Demonstration Office


The Oxford Nanopore MinION has been available to researchers for several years now and commercially available since 2015. Its small footprint, lack of moving parts and relatively easy to use software made it an easy choice for a first try at DNA sequencing in microgravity. While the MinION itself is currently limited in its capability, this project is certainly a grand start to having an in situ DNA sequencing resource on the ISS.

Previously, one way to check for microbial contamination was for the crew to swab areas of the ISS and then freeze the samples until they were returned to scientists on Earth. With currently only two vehicles having sample return capabilities (Soyuz and Dragon), this is a slow process. If there really was something aggressive and infectious growing up there, it could be months until it was discovered and dealt with. The gravity (haha) of this problem increases if we ever embark on longer, more distant spaceflight missions. It’s the stuff of sci-fi horror movies, actually.

To change this slow process, this project had two goals: to test if DNA sequencing with the MinION can be performed in micro-g and how can the procedures be optimized for future samples? The experiment consisted of analyzing three standard DNA sample libraries of lambda bacteriophage (~48.5 kb, genomic DNA), Escherichia coli (~4.7 Mb, genomic DNA) and Mus musculus (BALB/c) (~16.3 kb mitochondrial DNA) that were prepared on Earth before launch.

One of the biggest worries in sample handling for this investigation was the inclusion of bubbles into the system. Bubbles are a nuisance in a pipette tip in 1g let alone micro-g and the usual flushing techniques used to move them out of tips and tubing only results in frustration in microgravity.

US Astronaut Kate Rubins after performing several DNA sequencing runs with the MinION (bottom right). Note that MinKNOW™ software is running on a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 . Photo: NASA

Luckily, astronaut Kate Rubins breezed through the procedures without such problems and most importantly, initial results showed the the MinION performed comparably to one on Earth. The last numbers I saw was that the microgravity MinION had completed 80,000 total reads with an average read length of ~6,000 bp. Not bad at all.


First qPCR Tools Available on the ISS

PI: Macarena Parra, NASA Ames Space Biosciences Division and Julie Schonfeld, NASA, Engineering Directorate, NASA’s Ames Research Center
Hardware: Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA
Sponsor/Funding: NASA National Lab


After losing the first version of WetLab-2 on the SpaceX-7 vehicle failure last year, it was great to see this excellent contribution to the ISS molecular biology assay collection safely arrive. Another common molecular biology Earth lab assay, WetLab-2 is a qPCR system that combines sample prep ability (cell lysis, RNA purification, etc.), a sample transfer tool and a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) 16 sample thermocycler/qPCR device from Cephid called the SmartCycler.

US Astronaut Jeff Williams with WetLab-2 samples on the ISS just prior to placing them in the SmartCycler (upper right). Photo: NASA

Over several sessions in April, astronaut Jeff Williams used lyophilized DNA, E. coli cells and mouse liver tissue samples that arrived with the device to validate the components and procedures of the system. With only a small hiccup due to bubbles, the sessions went very well with the data being comparable to the Earth system. It’s remarkable that the data from this (and the DNA sequencing) were simply e-mailed from the ISS to the investigators, saving money and time on their projects.


First PCR in Microgravity

PI: David Scott Copeland, The Boeing Company, Pasadena, TX, United States
Hardware: miniPCR in collaboration with Boeing
Sponsor/Funding: NASA National Lab, CASIS, Boeing, New England BioLabs, Math for America


I wasn’t kidding when I said the ISS made notable strides in upping its research game this year. Want to just perform PCR not qPCR on the ISS? Well now you can do that, too. This project was the winning “Genes in Space” entry from a 16 year old high school student named Anna-Sophia Boguraev.

Anna-Sophia Boguraev holding a miniPCR thermocycler and describing her experiment to the media shortly before the launch of CRS-8. (Right) The MiniPCR on the ISS running Anna-Sophia’s experiment. Photo: NASA

Genes in Space” is a yearly contest for students from 7-12th grade that propose a DNA experiment using microgravity and the miniPCR system. In its second year, the contest is a collaboration with miniPCR, the maker of the small thermocycler that was flown to the ISS, Boeing, New England BioLabs, Math for America and CASIS.

Previous data supports that spaceflight can alter the methylation status of genes in rice as well as human lymphocytes in simulated micro-g. Anna-Sophia proposed using PCR to measure the methylation status of in vitro genes involved in the immune response and see if this could be a possible mechanism that leads to a deficient immune response in astronauts.

Using a standard of measuring DNA methylation status called bisulfite conversion, zebrafish DNA samples prepared before launch were placed in the miniPCR and allowed to perform a thermocycler program loaded beforehand. When completed, the samples were removed from the hardware and placed in cold stowage for the return flight and ground analysis. Ground samples were also ran in an Earth laboratory and analysis will compare the two. The runs on the ISS went without any problems and it will be great to hear how the data from the micro-g samples turned out. 

The miniPCR thermocycler itself is pretty sweet. I’ve often wondered why thermocyclers (and quite a lot of other lab equipment) are still so expensive and large nowadays since electronics are smaller and relatively cheap. Well, Zeke Alvarez-Saavedra, Ph.D. and Sebastian Kraves, Ph.D. wondered the same thing and decided to see if they could do something about it.

After a successful Kickstarter campaign, an 8 sample thermocycler about ⅕ the size of a normal one (2 x 5 x 4 in., ~1 lb.) was born. It runs with an app on your phone or tablet and has several standard PCR system components available (electrophoresis, transilluminator, etc). Perfect for the ISS. I hope to eventually see the capability to analyze the samples on the ISS as well.


Be Still My Microgravity Beating Heart Cells!

PI: Joseph C. Wu, M.D., Ph.D., Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA, United States
Hardware: BioServe Space Technologies, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, United States
Sponsor/Funding: NASA National Lab, CASIS


Microgravity affects astronaut’s cardiovascular system in several ways, including transient tachycardia and arrhythmia, changes in the heart’s shape such as having a more spherical form, decreases in left ventricular mass, and orthostatic intolerance to name a few. Like the majority of physiological changes observed in microgravity, there is little known about the molecular basis of why these changes are occurring. This experiment hopes to shed a little light on the molecular basis of these changes.

This collaboration with Stanford University, The Ohio State University, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, NASA and CASIS used cardiomyocytes from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) to study cellular morphology and genetic changes that occur during exposure to microgravity. It’s important to note that they used iPSC’s  from skin samples, since cardiomyocytes are hard to come by (unless you know of anyone willing to give their still beating heart to science) and therefore research in these areas have been hard to perform.

Cultured cardiomyocytes beating on the ISS. Animated gif: Arun Sharma

Samples of the cells were cultured for ~30 days using BioServe’s BioCell cartridges, observed with BioServe’s microscope for confluency and overall cell health and then fixed with RNAlAter and placed in cold stowage for return to Earth. Initial results showed the cells were beating arrhythmically while in micro-g, but settled back to a synchronous pulse when returned to Earth.

Astronaut Kate Rubins let out a “that’s so cool” when the cells reached confluency and began beating in unison. I agree. Cool indeed. Keep an eye out for the paper later this year. Should be some interesting results.


First (Official) Vegetable Harvest Eaten by U.S. ISS Crew

PI’s: Gioia D. Massa, Kennedy Space Center, Kennedy Space Center, FL, United States
Robert C. Morrow, Ph.D., Orbital Technologies Corporation, Madison, WI, United States
Raymond M. Wheeler, Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, FL, United States
Hardware: Orbital Technologies Corp. (ORBITEC), Madison, Wisconsin, KSC
Sponsor/Funding: NASA Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD), SBIR


So why is eating lettuce on the ISS a big deal? Because it’s the stuff of science fiction and no large scale plant growth has ever been performed before Veggie (mold and fungus on ISS/Mir doesn’t count). And also because it’s a project that’s been ~30 years in the making.

The Veggie system idea started in the late 80’s at the the University of Wisconsin and with some help from NASA, patents were awarded that evolved into the now ubiquitous red and blue LED lighting system seen on many commercially available plant growth systems. The idea was further developed at Kennedy Space Center through the creation of other plant growth projects for the ISS: Advanced ASTROCULTURE™, Advanced Biological Research System, the Vegetable Production System, and the Plant Habitat.

This wasn’t the first time edible plants had been grown in space though, with super dwarf wheat being grown in Greenhouse-II on Mir in the 1990’s and 17 “Rasteniya” experiments grown in the (much smaller than Veggie) Lada Greenhouse on the Russian side of the ISS from 2002-2011. The U.S. actually collaborated with the Russians on use of Lada from 2008-2010 to help define and hone procedures for growing and eating plants that would be later incorporated in Veggie.

After a few ground test facilities were made, Veg-01 flight hardware design was finalized and launched to the ISS in 2014. An initial demonstration of Outredgeous romaine lettuce and zinnias were grown, but the crew was not officially allowed to consume the lettuce until samples were returned to Earth for contamination analysis. Finally in 2016, the crew was given the all clear from NASA to eat what they had harvested. But only after the cleaned the leaves with a citric acid based sanitizer first. Yum.

After eating, U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly quipped poetically, “That’s one small bite for a man, one giant leaf for mankind.” I think that pun was planted.




Made In Space’s 3D Printer v2.0 Arrives on the ISS and is Open for Public Use

PI: Michael P. Snyder, M.S. Aeronautical & Astronautical Engineering, Made in Space, Moffett Field, CA, United States
Hardware: Made In Space
Sponsor/Funding: NASA National Lab/Private


Like the iPhone, sometimes you don’t know what you want until you have it. It’s not just the idea of having a 3D printer on the ISS for making things you need, but the security of being able to make things you don’t know you’ll need.

Made In Space’s new version of their 3D printer arrived on the ISS this year and is now taking orders to print your ideas in microgravity. This version is twice as large as the previous one (also still on the ISS, but not for public use),  can print with a variety of materials and has modular, replaceable parts designed to help it last the lifetime of the ISS. And while they’ve been kinda quiet about it, there have been almost 70 items printed on the ISS.

MiS’ new zero-g 3D printer

I’ve heard researchers opine that they didn’t get the data they wanted because “only if this-and-this” were on station. So here’s your chance to fix that: I challenge you to come up with a way to utilize a microgravity 3D printed item in your next experiment.