Dragon. Cygnus. What’s the Difference?

Uber, Lyft. Both are rideshare services. Why do some people use one or the other? It’s typically differences like service availability, pricing variations,  or car/driver personalities.

Dragon, Cygnus. Both are rides to the International Space Station (ISS), so why do some payloads fly on one and not the other? Are they really that different? Does one have a furry pink mustache on the grill and the other doesn’t?

For a researcher flying a microgravity payload to the ISS, it’s good to know the similarities and differences when working with a payload developer. Here are some background, stats, and capabilities that can help clarify which may be the best one for your rideshare to space!

 

Orbital ATK Cygnus
Cygnus is an expendable cargo spacecraft currently launching to the ISS and was developed by Orbital Sciences ATK headquartered in Dulles, Virginia. Orbital ATK is a commercial company contracted by NASA through its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) and Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) agreements to design, build and fly Cygnus. Orbital ATK was recently awarded a portion of the second phase of CRS, called CRS-2, to fly cargo to the ISS at least until 2014.

Nine Cygnus spacecraft have been launched since September 2013, with eight arriving at the ISS and seven delivering science cargo. The initial flight was a demo flight and in October 2014 one vehicle was destroyed when the the booster rocket failed shortly after launch.

Having the capacity to launch 3,500 kg in it’s ~25 m3 cylindrical (some say it looks like a beer keg) pressurized section, Cygnus can haul a lot of mail. While it has mostly been using only its pressurized payload volume for cargo, Cygnus has recently been flying cubesat deployers on the outside.

 

Grappling the Swan. The ISS robotic arm grabs or “grapples” the spacecraft shortly before attaching it to the ISS. The pressurized portion of Cygnus is the large silver cylinder. Connected below that are the service module and solar arrays. The white box is a NanoRacks cubesat deployer. Photo: NASA.

 

Cygnus can provide a standard suite of temperature control hardware, typically called “cold stowage,” for your samples or payload on the ride up. Temperatures ranging from -95C to +40C can be accommodated. They can even provide specialty temperatures, if needed.

 

Winter is Coming to the ISS. When flying your project, you have many options for temperature control. This service is contracted by NASA and available to any payload developer and are suited to fly on Cygnus or Dragon. Click to enlarge. Picture is from NASA Cold Stowage Brochure.

 

When it comes time to hand over your payload to NASA or your payload developer, two time slots are available: nominal load or late load time. These deadlines are written as “L (for launch) – (minus) (days/hours/weeks/months.)”

For example, the nominal load time for Cygnus is L-8 weeks, meaning you turn over your nominal payload 8 weeks before the scheduled launch date.

A nominal load time typically means your payload doesn’t have any special time critical storage requirements before or during the ride to the ISS. This loading time is commonly used for instruments, tools, crew clothing, or spare ISS parts for example.

 

Down the Hatch! In this pic, (looking down the long cylinder axis of Cygnus) the loading crew is using a crane to transport heavier payloads through the hatch and into the vehicle. Photo: Orbital ATK.

 

Late load time is the latest a payload can be delivered before launch for stowage on the spacecraft. Payloads needing this option have specific requirements, typically due to perishable items that have an expiration date or require a temperature controlled environment.

Examples of this may be life science experiments or food items. These are special cases and, because of that, are space limited. For many life science applications, late load is almost a given, but you still must articulate a need for it before receiving this service.

For Cygnus, the late load time is currently at ~L-5 days. The cargo loading process for Cygnus is done while the spacecraft is horizontal and loading is done front to back, either by hand or sometimes with a small crane to carry larger or heavier payloads inside. The cargo crew then attaches your project or clean underwear for the astronauts or whatever to the interior wall of the vehicle.

 

Interior View of Cygnus During Loading. This view is from Cygnus’ main (and only) hatch. After a long day of loading, these two cargo loading experts are kneeling and praying for a good launch. Photo credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky.

 

Next, Cygnus is enclosed in a fairing that surrounds and protects it from aerodynamic, acoustic and thermal forces during launch. This 4 m x 10 m structure is normally jettisoned ~4 minutes after launch.

 

This Fairing Mating GIF Needs Narration by Sir David Attenborough. The fairing on the right is slowly rolled into position by hand (see the guy underneath!) around Cygnus (center). Cygnus is already mated to its service module (silver thingy), it’s second stage (black tube) and just beyond that, the first stage rocket. Animated GIF from this video.

Lastly, there is what’s called the loiter phase. After launch, there is a time between reaching orbit and catching up with the ISS. So the spacecraft “loiters” during this time. Average loiter time for Cygnus is 3.4 (± 1.2) days over seven missions.

The challenge for researchers is that the late load and loiter times for Cygnus are currently the longest for both vehicles. This can add up quickly. If you have a life science project with a specific shelf life and you handover at L-5 days, plus the 3-4 days loiter time, then another day before the astronauts unload and begin your experiment, it can be 9-10 days before it is started on the ISS.

Breaking Up is Not Hard To Do. Cygnus and its cargo of dirty astronaut underwear and other garbage becomes a beautiful streaking meteor upon re-entry. Photo: NASA

While Cygnus may burn up on re-entry, it is far from being wasteful and can carry a lot of ISS garbage along with it. Orbital ATK has also been working with companies and researchers that want to utilize the vehicle after it leaves the ISS.

The Houston based aerospace company NanoRacks has been deploying cubesats from Cygnus after it leaves the ISS since November of 2016 and NASA researchers have used it for a series of microgravity fire projects called Spacecraft Fire Experiment (SAFFIRE).

 

Cubsats! Pew! Pew! An external view of Cygnus with its solar array on the left and the NanoRacks deployer on the bottom right as it kicks out a cubesat. Full video here.

 

Overall, in it’s current configuration, Cygnus can haul a lot of pressurized cargo up to the ISS. It’s lengthy pre-processing flow doesn’t allow for many perishable science items to fly on it, but it has gotten better.

It also seems this spacecraft has plenty of potential uses for researchers and tech demos in the future and I look forward to seeing how it adapts to fit customer’s needs over the coming years.

 

Space-X Dragon
The Dragon spacecraft is constructed and flown by Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, California under the same NASA COTS and CRS/CRS-2 contracts. Like Cygnus, SpaceX is obligated to fly additional cargo flights to the ISS at least until 2024.

Dragon first arrived at the ISS with cargo in May of 2012 and there have been 10 more since, with one failure and loss of vehicle during its ascent in June of 2015.

Dragon has a gumdrop shaped pressurized capsule for internal payloads and a cylindrical external un-pressurized cargo section called a trunk. It can carry a whopping total of 6,000 kg of cargo in combination of internal and external payloads. The usable internal and external volumes are 11 m3 and 14 m3, respectively, for a combined usable payload volume of 25 m3.

 

Dragon Berthed to the ISS. The gumdrop shaped white part is the pressurized portion, while the trunk is just below with solar arrays extended. Photo: NASA

 

Science Junk in the Trunk. Underneath and inside the Dragon truck are several external projects ( Defense Department’s STP-H5,  and SAGE 3 instrument, its hexapod attach mechanism flown on CRS-10) mounted to the trunk. Once berthed to the ISS, these payloads will be extracted by the ISS’s robotic arm and then attached to the ISS. Photo: NASA

 

Dragon is loaded with nominal payloads while it is vertical, then late load is installed while horizontal. Its nominal load time is L-6 weeks.

 

I Like to Move It, Move It! This view is from the side hatch. Heavier payloads are brought in using a crane, through the main hatch seen above. Another shove and nudge will do it guys. Animated gif from this NASA video

 

Dragon doesn’t have a fairing like Cygnus, allowing for payloads to be packed relatively soon before it’s rolled out to the pad. Sometimes, when the weather allows, Dragon/Falcon are horizontal at the pad while loading late cargo.

Also in contrast to Cygnus, Dragon has relatively reasonable late load times of L-72h, L-48h and L-28h. The only vehicle that ever came close to that was the Space Shuttle at L-24h and with some extreme cases even closer to launch time.

 

Dragon and Falcon Basking in the Sun. A scissor lift truck parked next to to the Dragon clean room delivers late load payloads for loading onto Dragon CRS-8 flight in April 2016. This process is typically completed 12-15 hrs before launch. Photo: SpaceX.

 

Loiter time for Dragon is also, on average, better than Cygnus, at 2.3 (± 0.7) days over 11 flights. Temperature control for your samples/payload is available for all phases of flight.

The other important service Dragon performs is that it’s currently the only cargo vehicle capable of returning a significant about of items back to Earth. Returning up to 3,000 kg of payloads, samples and hardware, Dragon performs a vital service to the ISS microgravity research community.

There is a gotcha with this, though: after splashdown off the southern coast of California, the spacecraft is loaded onto a boat and rides to port. Lately, it has been arriving in port at about 24-30h after splashdown, but it can be up to three days, depending on weather and sea state. For many projects, especially live rodents, this can possibly alter your micro-g results.

 

Dragon Splashdown. This occurs around 3-4 hours after unberthing from the ISS. Photo: SpaceX.

 

I’m on a Dragon Boat! After retrieval, the ship motors to a port near Los Angeles to disperse its time critical Dragon treasure. The rest of the payloads will travel to a SpaceX facility in McGregor, TX for unloading there. Photo SpaceX

 

The good news is, once Dragon arrives in port you have the option of picking up your payload right there or have your payload developer overnight ship it to you. If you don’t need it that quickly, your project can be returned in 4-6 weeks, sometimes sooner. I have handed researchers their payload at the port and had them texting me pictures and data within a couple hours of pick up. I love seeing that.

Dragon has some overlapping capacities as Cygnus, but has some distinct differences as well. The late load time and return services make it attractive to many researchers. The external trunk portion of Dragon is great for hauling projects that need to be mounted on the outside of the ISS. So far, Bigelow Aerospace has made the most use of the trunk with it’s Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), taking up the entire trunk volume and weighing in at 1, 413 kg.

 

Scrub-a-Dub-Dub
One of the most difficult parts of planning for a microgravity research project is when a launch scrubs. This all too common occurrence adds precious time to an already long work flow and is unfortunately one of the many deal breakers for life science payloads.

Some life science projects like seeds or samples that can be frozen indefinitely are well suited for this, but others like cell samples, microbiology, or protein crystal growth just don’t like sitting around for a long duration.

The main distinction between Dragon and Cygnus for scrub scenarios is, as mentioned previously, the Dragon capsule is accessible through the side hatch when the rocket is horizontal. After a launch attempt or two, the rocket is made safe, brought horizontal and sensitive samples are swapped out. 12-15 hours after the scrub the investigator or payload developer gets 15-30 min to swap hardware or samples and they are reloaded onto Dragon.

The fairing around Cygnus lacks an access port, so there is no way to enter the vehicle with it installed. The rocket has to be rolled back to the processing facility and the whole fairing has to be removed.

How long does this take? I don’t know. While there have been delays and scrubs for Cygnus, in eight launch attempts a full rollback and re-load has only ever been done once during Orb-1. And that roll back and de-stow was ollowed by a 23 day delay until it launched.

 

Which Spacecraft Is Right for Your Research Payload?
When you work with a payload developer, they will help you with this decision process. There is a whole suite of paperwork and matrices that NASA and its contractors use to determine what vehicle is best for you and when there is room on the manifest for it.

So, all of the above was just to say: it really comes down to how delicate your samples are.

Are they stable or can be stabilized for at least 10 days or more? Then Cygnus or Dragon will work for you.

If you absolutely require the latest load time available or need your samples back, then Dragon is the only ship for you.

Here is a nice side by side comparison of the vehicles:

 

Side-by-Side Graphical Representation of Dragon and Cygnus to Scale. Currently, only the extended versions are used. Red = pressurized volume. Yellow = un-pressurized. Graphic by Craigboy, modified from original creative commons  Wiki pic.

Comparison Table for Cygnus and Dragon.

 

But Wait, There’s More! New ISS Cargo Transport Option on the Horizon!
One of my biggest gripes with the current capabilities of these cargo ships is that there is currently only one that has reasonable late load times and can return a substantial amount of pressurized cargo back to Earth.

Well, I’m hoping those challenges of the research community will be eased in a new cargo vehicle: Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser Cargo System. Allow me to swoon a bit.

Awarded as part of the second phase of the CRS funding selections in January 2016, Sierra Nevada is obligated to provide six flights to the ISS.

Dream Chaser is a lifting body type spacecraft that looks like a baby shuttle. It will be even be reusable like a shuttle in that it can return from space with a gentle 1.5g flight path and land on a 3, 000 m runway.

With wings that fold up, it will be able to fit into the fairing of several types of rockets. To get around the shortcoming that Cygnus has, the fairing will have an access port so that late load payloads can be added far into the launch preparations, even possibly while on the pad.

 

Dream Chaser Cargo. Cargo carrying mini-space plane in the front, with a service module and solar arrays in the back. Photo: Sierra Nevada Corporation

Sierra Nevada is advertising Dream Chaser will have the capacity to lift up to 5,500 kg of pressurized and 500 kg un-pressurized cargo to the ISS. It will also be able to return 1,750 kg of payloads from the ISS and since the spacecraft will also use non-toxic chemicals for its systems, so safing the vehicle after landing will allow for very quick recovery of time critical payloads.

 

Dream Chaser After Landing During an Un-powered Glide Test. It’s so cute! Good pic to give you a sense of its size. Photo: Sierra Nevada Corporation

 

Dream Chaser Cargo just had its first successful glide test and is on target for its first flight to the ISS in 2020. The value of having a cargo vehicle that can do all of that will be a great asset to the microgravity research community and I simply cannot wait.

 

More on NASA COTS

More on NASA CRS

Orbital ATK Website

SpaceX Website

Data for cargo mass averages from NASA CRS Media Releases

ASGSR 2017 in Review

While there are certainly many space conferences nowadays, there is only one dedicated to only space research: the annual American Society for Gravitational and Space Research (ASGSR) meeting.

Last week wrapped up an eventful 33rd annual meeting of ASGSR in beautiful Seattle, Washington. Formed in 1984, the goal of ASGSR is to support and foster the multidisciplinary scientists and engineers involved in the field of space research. ASGSR also has a large student focus to promote education and mentor professional development.

There were over 600 attendees this year, with at least ⅓ attending for the first time.  Certainly not the thousands you would see at megaconferences such as the AIAA SciTech, ENDO or BIO, but a respectable amount for a niche research field.

This year had the usual focus on physical and life sciences as well as the technology involved in research of those fields. It kicked off with two workshops: one by the Center for Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) for Rodent Research opportunities; the other was by NanoRacks and Blue Origin, highlighting their suborbital payload services collaboration as well as their stand alone service options.

There were also many intriguing symposia: “Farming in Space,”an update on the Chinese “Manned” Space Program, and “Gravity Across the Continuum” with talks from research using the various types of gravitational platforms, to name a few.

Many of these symposia were webcast live and are usually archived for future viewing. That’s good, since there are always some that I miss.The 2017 webcasts (as well as previous years) are available on the ASGSR website.

Throughout the week, there were also over 200 talks during 30 concurrent sessions, each with a specific focus such as “Microgravity Combustion” or “Musculoskeletal Systems.” I sat in on several of these, maybe I’ll find time to eke out a blog post or two about them. There were several poster sessions, as well.

An exhibitor hall allowed participants to interact and “shop” around with ~20 various vendor booths. I’ve watched this hall grow in the past 5-6 years from about a dozen well established usuals, to now several new companies such as Space Tango, STEM Cultures and Applied Dexterity, to name a few. This is excellent for researchers as their options for whom and what they use for their microgravity project continues to grow, allowing for better pricing competition and driving fresh hardware designs. You know, like a real commercial marketplace. ;0)

There were also tours available of Blue Origin facility in Kent, WA as well as the Boeing 737 factory right next door to the hotel. Attendees unfortunately had to choose one or the other, which kinda stunk. I chose Blue, of course.

Tour participants in the lobby of Blue Origin’s Kent facility. Smiles all around!

While it has grown in the past years, I did leave the conference with the feeling that this field and its body of work would be larger and more confluent if there was even a minor increase in funding for it. I’m seeing a lot of young researchers that get involved at an undergraduate or graduate level, but don’t continue with the field because the options for running a microgravity research only lab or even as a sub-focus in a lab are very limited. Maybe next year there could be a panel or series of talks on establishing funding or creating a continuous funding mechanism in the style of an NIH RO1.

Despite the funding woes, ASGSR’s yearly meeting always has a re-invigorating effect on me. While I may learn about the exciting microgravity and space research going on throughout the year through various media outlets, it’s easy to be trapped in your work bubble. This meeting is always a chance to hear about these diverse investigations from the actual researcher’s themselves. It certainly keeps me looking up!

ASGSR Website
ASGSR 2017 Meeting Agenda
ASGSR Twitter

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!

Experiment
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.

 

Experiment
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.

 

References
Center for Advancing Innovation

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

Oncolinx

“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”

 

Experiment
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

Experiment
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
 

References
Tec-Masters SUBSA Flyer

CASIS Materials Science Investigations RFP

AIAA Abstract for SUBSA

Space Ref:Technical Issues SUBSA/MSG First Run

 

Experiment
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.

 

References
Terminal Velocity Aerospace, LLC

SBIR

 

Facility
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.

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

 

Experiment
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.

 

References
Genes In Space

miniPCR

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” 

 

Experiment
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.

 

Experiment
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

References
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.

 

References
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

What’s Up With CRS-10?

SpaceX successfully launched CRS-10 into orbit on Sunday from the historic Launch Complex 39-A at Kennedy Space Center, the first launch from that pad since STS-135 in 2011. This launch is the second for SpaceX in 2017 and their first for NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services contract to the ISS since July of 2016.

 

Launch of CRS-10 from KSC LC-39A on February 19, 2017. Photo Credit: SpaceX

 

They also stuck the landing at LZ-1 at KSC making their first daytime landing there. After an abort on the initial approach to the ISS on the 22nd, Dragon was successfully captured and berthed to the ISS on February 23rd.

Dragon is carrying slightly above the average amount of science cargo on CRS-10. Total capsule mass is listed as 5,490 lbs of which 1,614 lbs of that were science investigations and its support hardware.

 

Mass of Internal Pressurized Dragon Science Investigations Since CRS-1 (includes science support hardware, i.e. an empty Double Cold Bag is ~18 lbs., phase change material/ice brick is ~1.7 lbs.) Source: NASA

 

CRS-10 Experiments

Principal Investigator: Paul Reichert, M.S., Merck Research Laboratories, Kenilworth, NJ, United States

Hardware/Payload Developer: Handheld HDPCG, The University of Alabama at Birmingham

 

On board are several protein crystal growth experiments flying with CASIS funding, including a continuing project with Paul Reichert and Merck. This is Reichert’s 15th microgravity protein crystal growth experiment (PCG), with his first on the space shuttle mission STS-51 in 1993.

 

From the CASIS press release:

“With this experiment, Merck Research Labs seeks to understand the impact of the microgravity environment on the structure, delivery method and purification of KEYTRUDA (pembrolizumab) Merck’s anti-PD-1 therapy. KEYTRUDA is a humanized monoclonal antibody that works by increasing the ability of the body’s immune system to help detect and fight tumor cells. Data from this experiment will provide insights on the future of drug delivery, product development and manufacturing. KEYTRUDA is being evaluated in over 30 tumor types in more than 400 clinical trials, at least half of which combine KEYTRUDA with other cancer treatments.”

The mention of KEYTRUDA is significant since it’s the first time I’ve seen Merck publicly mention a micro-g PCG drug target by name. They’ve typically stayed generic, like “alpha-interferon” or “monoclonal antibodies. It’s unclear if this drug was developed in micro-g though. Likely it wasn’t.

 

Principal Investigator: Lawrence J. DeLucas, O.D., PhD, University of Alabama, Birmingham, AL, United States

Co-Investigator: Christian Betzel, PhD, University of Hamburg, Germany

Hardware/Payload Developer: Light Microscopy Module; ZIN Technologies Incorporated, Cleveland, OH, United States, NASA Glenn Research Center, Cleveland, OH, United States

 

Principal Investigator: Eddie H. Snell, Ph.D., Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute, Buffalo, NY, United States
Co-Investigator: Joseph R. Luft, M.S, Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute, Buffalo, NY, United States

Hardware/Payload Developer: Light Microscopy Module; ZIN Technologies Incorporated, Cleveland, OH, United States, NASA Glenn Research Center, Cleveland, OH, United States

 

Dr. Larry DeLucas continues with his series of PCG experiments also started in the early days of the space shuttle program and Dr. Eddie Snell returns to micro-g PCG research that began with STS-65 in 1995. While great to see micro-g PCG projects still flying, it’s discouraging to see no new or other returning researchers.

 

Principal InvestigatorAnita Goel, M.D., Ph.D., Nanobiosym, Inc., Cambridge, MA, United States

Hardware/Payload DeveloperOmniTrays, Plate Habitats (PHABs),  Space Automated Bioproduct Lab (SABL); BioServe Space Technologies, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, United States

 

There was a lot of pre-flight hoopla about the Gene-RADAR® experiment since it contains samples of the deadly methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) strain. While the media had fun with catchy click-bait titles, this is not the first time MRSA has flown to the ISS. It does represent the maximum biologic safety limit that NASA will allow (BSL 2), though.

It’s confusing to me why this experiment couldn’t have been tested first on the ground, but it certainly got a lot of PR and maybe it just costs less to fly things the ISS nowadays.

 

Principal Investigator: Abba Zubair, M.D., Ph.D., Mayo Clinic , Jacksonville, FL, United States

Hardware/Payload Developer: Plate Habitats (PHABs)Space Automated Bioproduct Lab (SABL)BioCells; BioServe Space Technologies, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, United States

 

A relatively simple, but important stem cell experiment from the Mayo Clinic, Dr. Zubair is looking at the ability to grow and expand mesenchymal, hematopoietic and leukemia cancer stem cells on the ISS. The researcher hopes to establish a long hoped for method of cultivate large batches of stem cells for regeneration or disease therapy.

Previous stem cell experiments have focused on either genetic up/down regulation of growing in micro-g or DNA aberrations caused by cosmic radiation. Stem cells are a high maintenance cell line and these original experiments provided some evidence that stem cells may proliferate better in micro-g. A good review can be found here.

 

Principal Investigator: Anna-Lisa Paul, Ph.D., University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, United States
Co-Investigator: Robert J. Ferl, Ph.D., University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, United States

Hardware/Payload Developer: Petri plates, KSC Fixation Tubes; NASA Kennedy Space Center, Space Life Sciences Laboratory, Cape Canaveral, FL, United States

This experiment from prolific micro-g researchers Anna-Lisa Paul and Rob Ferl continues a series started on STS-93 in 1999. This investigation looks at (as the title tells you) whole genome epigentics using bisulfite sequencing and RNAseq of Arabidopsis seedlings after growing during spaceflight. The experiment series hopes to shed light on plant adaptations to microgravity for fundamental knowledge as well as the practical application of growing food and O2 production during long duration space missions.

 

Student Spaceflight Experiments Program Mission 9
Investigators: 21 schools from across North America

Continuation of the successful MixStix program started by Dr. Jeff Goldstein.

 

Vegetative Vermehrung Von Pflanzen im Orbit/Vegetative Propagation of Plants in Orbit (V3PO)
Investigators: Edith Stein Agricultural High School, Ravensburg, Germany; BASF, Ludwigshafen, Germany

Cool crowd sourced student plant experiment showing for the first time how cuttings of Ficus pumila will grow in microgravity. The Ficus cuttings are being used as a analog species for fruiting vegetables to better understand how cuttings instead of seeds can be propagated for food during long term spaceflight missions.

 

Microbial Methane Associated Research Strasbourg No. 1 (MMARS1)
Investigators: Airbus DS in collaboration with its scientific partners the International Space University and the University of Strasbourg

Contractile Properties of Smooth Muscle in Microgravity
Investigators: Craft Academy in collaboration with its scientific partner, Morehead St. University.

ISSET Educational Endeavor No. 1
Investigators: Multiple student groups through King’s College, London

Medicinal Plants in Microgravity
Investigator: Chappell Lab, University of Kentucky

Life Cycle of Arabidopsis thaliana in Microgravity
Investigator: Student experiment led by Magnitude.IO

 

Space Tango is flying their first series of TangoLab customers after a shake down flight of their hardware last summer. Kris Kimmel has reported there are 18 payloads on this flight, but only eight are listed in their press release. The listed experiments range from several student experiments to microbial methane production in micro-g.

Tango’s presence on the ISS shows the blooming commercial market of microgravity research and hardware development services started by long established companies such as BioServe (1987), TechShot (1988) and NanoRacks (2009). It’s great to see that researchers now have more choices, and therefore leverage, than ever before to accomplish their science goals.

How Many Research Payloads Have Flown to the ISS?

I get asked this question every once in a while and I finally got some free time over Christmas break to try and track an answer down. I quickly found a NASA brochure online titled “International Space Station Utilization Statistics Expedition 0 – 44 December 1998 – September 2015” . Seemed like a good place to start and right on the first page I found this:

Easy peasy. “Total investigations from ISS Expeditions 0-44 is 2,060.” There. Finally, an answer I can give those who ask. But is an “investigation” the same as a payload? They give the definition of investigation in the paragraph above the table, but it’s kind of loose and doesn’t really say something is specifically a physical research payload or not.

NASA also maintains a website with a list of experiments by expedition (and a few other categories) and I thought of comparing the number of payloads on that site to the number above. After some Excel wrangling I came up with the following:

 

Example of raw data from NASA site. Pink cells indicate duplicate entry. Using these data, the total number of payloads (red circle) is 3, 818 since Expedition 0 in 2000. (Click pic to make larger)

 

Well, the total of 3,818 from the data on that page is a bit larger than the 2,060 reported in the brochure. Even if you include the three additional expeditions since that publication, it only adds up to 2,609. Also, the values I have don’t match the values they have for “Total Investigations” during each expedition increment.

A quick check for duplicate values in the data (pink in the Excel sheet above) showed that many of the experiments are repeated through expeditions. For example, Made In Space’s 3D printer is listed three times in the data (shown as “3D Printing in Zero-G”) because it ran multiple times during several expeditions. I learned from a NASA friend that they call each payload use an “interaction” and as the data above shows, there can be several interactions with a payload over multiple increments. Still don’t know why the totals don’t match up, though. NASA’s data in their brochure doesn’t even match up with the data shown on their website. Alrighty.

Curiouser and curiouser (or more like: nerdier and nerdier), I edited out the duplicates and came up with what I think is a much more reasonable number.

 

Example of data from NASA site with duplicates removed. Total (in red circle) shows 1,062 payloads since Expedition 0 in 2000. (Click pic to make larger)

 

OK, 1,062 payloads ~16 years seems like a more reasonable estimate to me. Plotted as a bar graph,

Data from above Excel sheet plotted as a bar graph. Expedition 0 (September 2000-November 2000) on far left of the horizontal axis to Expedition 49/50 (September 2016-February 2017) on the right.  Note that early expeditions were shorter duration. (Click pic to make larger)

It’s great to see a slight upward trend in new payloads since late 2013-early 2014. Since I was already in the thralls of Excel ecstasy, I was wondering what caused the spikes of new payloads, especially between March 2014-September 2015. I plotted this data along with the number of visiting payload vehicles during the increment.

Plot of number of new payloads during increment (blue bars, values on left vertical axis) with number of visiting vehicles during the increment (orange line, values on right vertical axis). Red arrows show significant events during an increment. (Click pic to make larger)

The peaks correlate nicely to a very busy time on the ISS between March 2014 and September 2015 with 12 vehicles arriving: SpaceX had 4 Dragon visits, Orbital had one Cygnus visit, there was 1 ESA ATV and JAXA HTV visit each, and finally 5 Progress vehicles (see below).  The other peaks seen at October 2007-April 2008, April 2009-October 2009 and March 2011-September 2011 correlate to ATV-1, HTV-1, and STS-134, STS-135 ATV-3, respectively.

This certainly shows the value of Dragon and Cygnus at being able to carry a significant amount of science payloads. Dragon is particularity useful for life sciences, not only because of its ability to return samples, but because researchers can deliver their samples to be loaded in the capsule at ~30 hours before launch.

 

Overall, it looks like a reasonable number for the amount of research payloads flown to the ISS in 16 years is ~1,000. I hesitate to say the number is exactly 1,062 as calculated, because I may be missing something (maybe NASA has an explanation for the numbers they published) and some of the payloads listed on the NASA site are not really research payloads (such as “Crew Earth Observation” or “Story Time From Space”).

We can also see from these data the significant value Dragon and Cygnus bring to the research community. This value will no doubt increase again hopefully in 2019 when Sierra Nevada flies their Dream Chaser cargo vehicle to the ISS, adding more late sample loading and return capabilities. Now if we could just get more crew up there to work on all of this science…

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.

 

 

Bonus!

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.