Space Station Science Highlights: Weeks of December 21 and 28, 2020

NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins tends to radish plants growing for the Plant Habitat-02 experiment, which evaluates plant growth as well as nutrition and taste of the plants. NASA astronaut Shannon Walker works on transferring cargo, including a number of new scientific investigations, from a Dragon cargo craft into the space station. This image shows the set-up for Space Studio Kibo, a broadcasting studio from JAXA used to livestream activities, interactive entertainment, and communications from the space station. A view of the Astrobee cube named Bumble and its docking station. The REGGAE investigation places adhesive material onto two of these free-flying satellites aboard the space station to test a potential method for capturing dangerous space debris. The final two weeks of 2020, crew members aboard the International Space Station conducted dozens of scientific investigations, including studies of how plants grow in microgravity, tissue regeneration, time perception, changes in heart tissue gene expression, and a possible method for removing debris from space. Seven crew members currently inhabit the station, including four from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program , which increases crew time available for science on the orbiting lab. The space station has been continuously inhabited by humans for 20 years and has supported many scientific breakthroughs during that time. The station provides a platform for long-duration research in microgravity and for learning to live and work in space, experience that supports Artemis , NASA’s program to go forward to the Moon and on to Mars. Here are details on some of the microgravity investigations currently taking place: Learning to grow fresh food in space On long-duration space exploration missions such as to the Moon and Mars, astronauts need to be able to grow nutritious foods to supplement what they can bring from Earth. Plant Habitat-02 examines how radish plants ( Raphanus sativus ) grow on the space station in different types of light and soils, part of ongoing efforts to produce food in space. This model plant is nutritious, has a short cultivation time, and is genetically similar to Arabidopsis, a plant frequently studied in microgravity. In addition to helping optimize plant growth in space, this research evaluates the nutrition and taste of the plants. Crew members collected leaf samples during these weeks for analysis and tasting. Tissue regeneration and vision changes in microgravity The space station’s Rodent Research Habitats currently are supporting the RR-10 and RR-23 investigations. Tissue degeneration and failure to regenerate normally in microgravity are potential concerns for long duration space missions. RR-10 examines the role of a particular gene in tissues affected by microgravity and could lead to the development of treatments to counter tissue degeneration in space. RR-23 looks at function of arteries, veins, and lymphatic structures in the eye and changes in the retina before and after spaceflight in order to clarify whether these changes impair visual function. On long-duration spaceflights, at least 40 percent of astronauts experience vision impairment known as Spaceflight-Associated Neuro-ocular Syndrome (SANS). During these two weeks, crew members restocked habitats and conducted operations for both investigations. Does anybody really know what time it is? Time Perception , an ESA (European Space Agency) experiment, aims to quantify the subjective changes in time perception that humans experience during and after long-duration spaceflight. Scientists suspect that astronauts underestimate time duration while on orbit due to the absence of gravitational reference. Crew members tend to have slower motions at the beginning of flight and increase speed of their motions as the flight progresses. In addition, it takes about twice as long to execute experimental procedures in orbit as it does on Earth. Time perception also may be affected by lack of sleep, disrupted daily or circadian rhythms, stress, and accounting for the variety of time zones (such as GMT, Houston, and Moscow time) relevant on the space station. Cognitive performance, good eye-hand coordination, spatial orientation, and time perception all are critical for high-level functions on space missions such as the control of vehicles. This investigation could help identify ways that astronauts can adapt to alterations in these functions in space, protecting crew safety and mission success. The crew set up hardware for and participated in a Time Perception session during this time period. Broadcasting to you from space During the week of Dec. 28, crew members set up hardware and conducted sessions for Space Studio KIBO , a broadcasting studio from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The Studio livestreams activities, interactive entertainment, and communication from the space station to the ground and also can receive video and audio from a ground studio. The program connects people from all over the world, even those in remote locations, and allows them to communicate and interact with crew members in space. Broadcasts about space can be used in educational and other settings to inform and inspire people about science and space exploration, many for the first time. Don’t be still my heart Microgravity causes changes in the human heart that look much the same as those seen in age-related diseases on Earth. These changes affect the tissues of the heart that perform work, causing molecular and structural abnormalities that can lead to disease. Cardinal Heart studies changes seen in the human heart after spending time in microgravity, using three-dimensional engineered heart tissues (EHTs) to analyze changes in gene expression in three heart cell types. Results may help establish screening measures to predict cardiovascular risk in humans prior to spaceflight, as well as help identify new treatments for people with heart disease on Earth. Crew members performed periodic exchange of cell culture media for the investigation during these two weeks. Cleaning up Earth’s orbit Space debris – human-made objects still in orbit but no longer serving a useful purpose, including derelict satellites and spent launch vehicle stages – represents a threat to the safe and sustained use of Earth’s orbit. REGGAE , an investigation from the German Aerospace Center (DLR), tests a method of capturing and removing space debris that mimics microscopic structures in the feet of geckos that allow them to adhere to almost any surface. Researchers place these micro-patterned adhesives on one of the Astrobee free-flying satellites aboard the space station and use it to attempt to capture specific targets at different speeds and angles. Results could show that small and cost-efficient CubeSats would be able to capture and remove space debris. During the week of Dec. 28, crew members prepared for REGGAE checkout and operations. Other investigations on which the crew performed work: SoundSee tests a way to monitor the space station’s acoustic environment in order to detect anomalies in the sounds made by equipment such as life support infrastructure and exercise machines. This autonomous monitoring can provide early indication of equipment failure, helping to improve crew health and safety by keeping equipment in good working order and reducing crew workload aboard the space station and other spacecraft. Micro-14A expands on previous studies to define the mechanisms by which cells of the yeast Candida albicans adapt to space. Myotones , an ESA (European Space Agency) investigation, observes the biochemical properties of muscles during long-term exposure to spaceflight. JAXA’s Confocal Space Microscopy facility provides fluorescence images of biological samples on-orbit, which can provide data on the fundamental nature of cellular and tissue structure and function in real-time. Genes in Space-7 , winner of Genes in Space, a nation-wide contest that challenges students to design DNA analysis experiments, examines changes in gene expression in the nervous system of fruit flies. AstroPi , a project of the ESA, uses two augmented Raspberry Pi computers to measure the environment inside the space station, detect how the station moves through space, and pick up the Earth’s magnetic field. Related activities encourage and strengthen the teaching of computing and coding and stimulate student interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Monoclonal Antibodies PCG assesses the differences in crystallization of various therapeutic monoclonal antibodies, which are lab-created immune system proteins designed to interact with specific targets such as cancer cells. HemoCue tests using a commercially available device to provide quick and accurate counts of total and individual WBCs in microgravity. Being able to perform autonomous blood analysis in space is an important step toward meeting the health care needs of crew members on long duration missions. Thermal Amine Scrubber tests a system to remove carbon dioxide from the space station’s cabin air. The system also reduces loss of water vapor and recovers carbon dioxide, which can be used to produce oxygen through a process called electrolysis. SUBSA-BRAINS examines differences in capillary flow, interface reactions, and bubble formation during solidification of brazing alloys in microgravity. Researchers plan to perform the same capillary flow tests on Earth and in microgravity in order to better understand the physics of the flow of molten metals. The Vascular series from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) includes Vascular Aging and Vascular Echo , investigations that examine how time in microgravity affects the carotid arteries, which carry blood to the head. Fiber Optic Production produces fiber optic cable in […]

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