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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *