Next Week's SpaceX Launch Will Bring So Much Cool Science to the ISS
Growing cabbage plants, studying atrophy in mice, turning fungi into antibiotics, and a lot more.
SpaceX is taking the next couple of weeks to prepare for its April 8 launch, in which a Falcon 9 rocket will take the company’s Dragon capsule from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida all the way up to the International Space Station. Inside the capsule: over 4,400 pounds of much-needed supplies, along with contents related to more than 250 science experiments in progress or being initiated within the next few weeks.
“SpaceX is a workhorse for us,” said Julie Robinson, chief scientist for the ISS at NASA, told reporters today during a teleconference. “We’re really excited about this flight.”
Dragon will return to Earth in early May and bring back many components of those studies for scientists to continue to research.
A little more than 3,000 pounds actually belongs solely to the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) — an expandable habitat that will undergo a test demonstration over a two-year period while docked to the ISS. It’s a concept NASA and others have been interested in some time now, since an expandable habitat could make long-term space travel and building shelters on other worlds much easier and sustainable.
While BEAM is the highlight of what’s going up to the ISS (and we’ll have more about it in a follow-up article), there are several other major studies NASA and its partners are pursuing. Here’s a quick recap of the major investigations this latest launch will help to move forward.
As you might already know, NASA has been testing out the green thumbs of its astronauts aboard the ISS by tasking them with growing vegetables here and there — specifically red romaine lettuce, tomatoes, and zinnias — as part of its Veg-01 experiment. Much of Veg-01 was focused not really on getting the plants to grow, but testing out the small, autonomously run “veggie facility” prototype meant to help pave the way for a new era of space travel involving sustainable food production onboard.
Veg-03 is the follow-up. When the Dragon capsule makes it to the ISS, the crew will take on 18 new crops — including six more romaine lettuces, and 12 brand new Chinese cabbages. The latter were chosen among many other veggies in large part because of how well they were observed to grow under “ISS-lite” conditions, nutrient quality related to a space-based diet, and flavor — NASA is keen on allowing the astronauts up there to chow down and get a taste for a space-plant.
When the Dragon capsule returns in early May, it will also bring back the older samples of lettuce and zinnias for scientists here on the ground to study.
When long-term space travel to places like Mars and beyond finally becomes possible, we will need to make sure the men and women on those spacecraft have everything they might need to stay healthy. That includes medicine — but it’s impossible to stock a small ship with every kind of antibiotic or drug. We’ll need a way to actually make those things in space.
The solution? Fungi. That’s the idea behind Micro-10, led by researchers at the University of Southern California School of Pharmacy. Lead investigator Clay Wang told reporters that fungi possess an “untapped reservoir of therapeutics yet to be discovered.”
The primary focus of Micro-10 is to examine how microgravity affects a particular fungal species, Aspergillus nidulans, a species heavily used in the study of multicellular organisms. When Dragon arrives at the ISS, astronauts will take out samples of A. nidulans and grow them for four to seven days. Samples will be frozen and returned to Earth when Dragon makes its return a few weeks later. The USC team will be eagerly awaiting the retrieval of those samples to analyze through genomic and proteomic assays, and learn to what extent zero-gravity and microgravity environments affect fungal metabolism.
Over at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, Kasthuri Venkateswaran is interested in something most people don’t even really consider exists: the microbiota of the ISS. Venkateswaran, in the third version of this experiment, will seek to monitor the kinds of microbes present on the ISS and return those samples to Earth for more extensive analysis.
The ISS, said Venkateswaran, has a microbiome of its own that is uniquely “shaped by gravity, radiation, and limited human presence.” He wants to know what kinds of microbes are up there, to what degree they’ve been able to survive the harsh environment of orbital space, and — most importantly — the benefits and risks posed by the microbes eking it out up there in such closed environments. This is crucial to our understanding of what we’ll need to prepare for during long-term durations in space. “We’re living in a DNA era,” says Venkateswaran.
Eli Lilly’s study on muscle atrophy and protein crystallization for drug creation
If you want to study what happens to the body in space, you need to study the body in space. Scott Kelly’s #YearInSpace mission is supposed to help us learn about a lot of this, but he’s only one person. What we need to do is study dozens of people.
Of course, we can’t do that. Next best option: send animals up to space — specifically, rodents. Eli Lilly is working with NASA on a new study that will ship 20 mice up to the ISS and work to study muscle atrophy due to space habitation in greater depth. It’s a known fact zero-gravity and microgravity has enormous effects on the musculoskeletal system astronauts who spend months up in orbit. Eli Lilly is hoping to better understand not just how this process works in space, but also how diseases like ALS lead to severe muscle atrophy here on Earth. Space provides a kind of global muscle-wasting environment that cannot be achieved anywhere else.
The second part of their study is to better understand the crystallization of proteins in microgravity. Long story short: understanding how this chemical process works up in space could help Eli Lilly and other pharmaceutical companies better design drugs that can target specific molecules and bind to certain proteins better than current techniques.
Genes in Space-1
The experiments going up to space aren’t just limited to world-renowned institutions. NASA has opened up several avenues for student-run research projects. Case in point: the Boeing-Sponsored Genes in Space-1 experiment, which at its core will test viability of technique that’s critical to genetics and biological research.
Polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, is an essential method for amplifying a small segment of DNA so that we can actually study it. Boeing was already planning to send up a mini-PCR device up to the ISS to see whether it would actually work up there as intended, and the company decided to open up a competition to students around the country and see who could design the best experiment to accompany this test.
The winner chosen last July was Anna-Sophia Bougaev, whose experiment was selected from 330 other applications. Her experiment basically calls for using the mini-PCR to see whether it can track methyl-markers on DNA that she suspects change gene expression up in space and are responsible for causing astronauts and other life forms in space to experience worsened immune systems.
So for its first act, Boeing will test the mini-PCR device and verify it works well enough. For its second act, Boeing will run Sophia’s experiment and see whether the device can be used to detect methylation changes on DNA. The results could help usher in a new wave of discoveries into how space affects the state of our immune systems, and what we can do to safeguard our health in the small confines of a spacecraft hurtling away toward other worlds.