Science in Short: Rodent Research, RNA and Omics Overview

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NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren, M.D., and Twins Study Principal Investigator Susan Bailey, Ph.D., collaborate on telomere research. Both participated in a National DNA Day Reddit AMA on April 25. Credits: Colorado State University/NASA

NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren, M.D., and Twins Study Principal Investigator Susan Bailey, Ph.D., collaborate on telomere research. Both participated in a National DNA Day Reddit AMA on April 25. Credits: Colorado State Universtiy, College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences

Last week had some really exciting research “firsts” on the International Space Station as we continue to provide state-of-the art laboratory equipment and techniques for research in orbit. On May 3, astronauts successfully completed a functional assessment of grip strength in mice on the orbiting laboratory. This was the first time a grip strength meter has been used for rodent research on orbit, and the data gathered will be used to assess the efficacy of the anti-myostatin treatments in preventing muscle loss in space. Crew members also took measurements of bone densitometry on mice for only the second time in space. To date, whether studying the astronaut crew or mice, we have only been able to do bone scans before and after flight. We are now able to look at loss of bone during the course of the mission. The mice were sedated so that they could undergo bone densitometry scanning. Following the scanning, the mice were given another dose of either anti-myostatin or control antibody. The work is being done as part of the Rodent Research-3 experiment conducted by Eli Lilly to understand the relationship between muscle atrophy and bone loss. Eli Lilly joins other pharmaceutical companies, including Merck and Amgen, in using the space station as a source of research innovation.

The orbiting laboratory also made progress in molecular biology capabilities with the operation of a qPCR machine to take sample in orbit, extract RNA, and set up reactions that record gene expressions in real time. Called Wetlab-2, the validation test sessions were completed on May 2 using samples of (benign) E. coli and mouse liver tissue, resulting in science-quality data. The WetLab-2 qPCR facility is now available for scientists who need this capability in life science and biomedical research on the space station.

If you are struggling with terms like “omics” and “gene expression,” NASA has released a set of videos to help explain why this area of research is such an important part of the Twins Study. The series explains in friendly terms about omics, its significance in the Twins Study on the space station, and the advantages of personalized medicine for astronauts and humans on Earth. The video’s release was in honor of National DNA Day and a HREC Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) online event on April 25, 2016. Twins Study principal investigators and astronaut Kjell Lindgren served as subject matter experts for the event and responded to online questions from the public. The event garnered 3,884 karma points and 672 comments. The series explores space through you by using omics to look more closely at individual health. The series is divided into sub-disciplines:

• Video 1 – Omics introduction
• Video 2 – Genomics
• Video 3 – Transcriptomics
• Video 4 – Proteomics
• Video 5 – Epigenomics
• Video 6 – Metabolomics
• Video 7 – Microbiomics
• Video 8 – Omics overview/conclusion

Plans are to release videos 6 and 7 when astronaut Kate Rubins sequences DNA in space for the first time later this summer. The final video will be released in conjunction with National Twins Day in August. Read more about the Twins Study online.

Joe Neigut
ISS Assistant Program Scientist

Studying Cardiovascular Health in Microgravity

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In today’s A Lab Aloft, Richard L. Hughson, PhD, discusses various studies that seek to understand the cardiovascular health of astronauts on orbit, and the effects of spaceflight on the cardiovascular system once astronauts return to Earth. 

Astronaut Sandra Magnus, Expedition 18 flight engineer, poses for a photo in the Columbus laboratory of the International Space Station. Credits: NASA

Astronaut Sandra Magnus, Expedition 18 flight engineer, poses for a photo in the Columbus laboratory of the International Space Station. Credits: NASA

The human cardiovascular system evolved to meet the challenges of upright posture in the Earth’s gravitational environment. Daily exposures to gravitational forces, and frequent periods of physical activity that cause the heart to beat rapidly and strongly, are vital to the health of the cardiovascular system.

Gravity exerts a force on the body that sets up a hydrostatic gradient, effectively lowering blood pressure when blood is pumped up to the head when sitting or standing, but increasing blood pressure with distance below the heart. At the level of the eyes or the middle of the brain, blood pressure is reduced about 30 mmHg from what it was as it left the heart. So, if someone’s blood pressure was 120/80 at the heart, it would be 90/50 at the brain. When we lie in bed at night, or when an astronaut goes into space, gravity’s effect is removed and blood pressures remain closer to 120/80 throughout the arterial system.

Normally, effective reflex responses allow the body to maintain this level of blood pressure even with posture change. There is, though, always some reduction in arterial blood pressure when we move to upright posture. Some people experience greater drops that are referred to as orthostatic hypotension, but reflex increases in heart rate and constriction of blood vessels in the lower regions of the body, in combination with a dilation of blood vessels in the brain, keeps most people from experiencing dizziness.

However, the human body quickly adapts to changes in gravity’s effects. Our very first space physiology experiment almost 30 years ago used four hours of slight head-down bed rest as a simulation of the effects of spaceflight on the cardiovascular system. Head-down tilt shifts blood in a similar way to what we see as puffy faces of astronauts. After four hours of this spaceflight analog, we moved the subjects to an upright posture, but had to stop the tilt test in less than 10 minutes for six of eight healthy, young volunteers, because they had symptoms indicating they were about to faint {Butler, 1991}. These observations got us thinking about the importance of daily posture transitions and how spaceflight might upset normal cardiovascular control of arterial blood pressure.

In support of the Blood Pressure Regulation Experiment (BP Reg), Expedition 35 Commander Chris Hadfield of the Canadian Space Agency is pictured after having set up the Human Research Facility (HRF) PFS (Pulmonary Function System) and the European Physiology Module (EPM) Cardiolab (CDL) Leg/Arm Cuff System (LACS) and conducting the first ever session of this experiment. Credits: NASA

In support of the Blood Pressure Regulation Experiment (BP Reg), Expedition 35 Commander Chris Hadfield of the Canadian Space Agency is pictured after having set up the Human Research Facility (HRF) PFS (Pulmonary Function System) and the European Physiology Module (EPM) Cardiolab (CDL) Leg/Arm Cuff System (LACS) and conducting the first ever session of this experiment. Credits: NASA

The first report of post-spaceflight orthostatic intolerance was in 1962 after a nine-hour spaceflight in the Mercury program. After the nine, 14-day Spacelab Life Sciences missions, 64% of astronauts had orthostatic intolerance. The first report of orthostatic responses after long-duration spaceflights to ISS revealed that five of six astronauts were intolerant during a post-flight stand test. As well, questions were raised about cardiovascular deconditioning occurring in space, with reductions reported in the arterial baroreflex response. Thus, when we proposed the CCISS study in 2001, there was strong reason to believe that orthostatic intolerance was a major problem with long-duration spaceflight and that a critical evaluation of mechanisms was appropriate. We conducted some detailed investigations pre- and post-flight, and inflight we measured resting arterial baroreflex responses. The CCISS experiments were the first to use 24-hour activity and heart rate monitoring to confirm that astronauts indeed have greatly reduced energy expenditure during their daily routines. We were able to state that cardiovascular reflex responses were not reduced during long-duration missions on ISS, but there was a reduction in the baroreflex response measured in a sitting position about 24-hours after return to Earth, and this reduction was quite large in about one-half of the astronauts. Overall, it seemed that the countermeasures employed by the astronauts during flight were sufficient to maintain cardiovascular stability inflight, but blood pressure wasn’t fully protected post-flight, and there was concern about dizziness or fainting in some astronauts.

The arterial baroreflex studied during CCISS is only one aspect of cardiovascular function and health that can be affected by spaceflight. Removal of gravitational challenges and overall physical inactivity in spaceflight can result in wide-ranging consequences, collectively called “cardiovascular deconditioning.” A key descriptor is physical fitness, or maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max), that is determined in large part by the pumping ability of the heart as well as blood flow distribution to the working skeletal muscles. Reduced VO2max and peak power output during and for 10-days after flight has been confirmed in a recent investigation on the International Space Station {Moore, 2014}.

Other key elements of vascular health include arterial stiffness, the ability of blood vessels to dilate in response to the stimulus of increased blood flow, and cardio-metabolic health, which is defined by blood glucose regulation. Together, these effects of spaceflight can be viewed as accelerated “aging-like” changes in the cardiovascular system, raising concern that they might promote development of atherosclerosis. In 2004, we proposed the study “Cardiovascular health consequences of long-duration spaceflight”, known simply as Vascular, and recently we published some exciting findings from this study.

The project Vascular was the first to investigate changes in stiffness of the carotid artery. We hypothesized that this artery would be stiffer after spaceflight because of its chronic exposure to elevated arterial pressure without the daily effect of gravity reducing blood pressure in the head and neck. Also, the overall reduction in daily activity levels without gravity might contribute, as we know that on Earth, sedentary lifestyles are associated with stiffer arteries. On Earth, increased arterial stiffness with aging is very strongly associated with greater risk for major cardiovascular events, kidney disease and dementia.

Italian Space Agency (ASI) Astronaut Luca Parmitano, geared up to perform the Canadian experiment BP Reg during Increment 35/36.

Italian Space Agency (ASI) Astronaut Luca Parmitano, geared up to perform the Canadian experiment BP Reg during Increment 35/36. Credits: NASA

We found that carotid arteries of astronauts after six months on space station were stiffer by about the same amount expected in 10-20 years of normal aging on Earth. In these astronauts, we also took blood samples on station to measure biomarkers to determine if there were changes that reflected similar patterns to what is observed with aging. Cardio-metabolic health can be assessed by measuring fasting blood glucose and insulin, and from this we can calculate an index of insulin resistance. The inflight concentration of insulin was elevated, as was the index of insulin resistance. Although it has been speculated for many years that insulin resistance occurs with spaceflight, this is the first time that it has been confirmed by this index. We found other blood markers that were affected by spaceflight. Hormones involved in blood volume and blood pressure regulation were elevated with spaceflight. A marker of tissue repair mechanisms, matrix metalloproteinase II, was reduced, but future work is required to determine if this was related to vascular repair to responses of other tissues.

Interestingly in the Vascular study, we had a unique opportunity to examine potential differences in responses of male and female astronauts. One of the indicators of carotid artery stiffness, the beta-stiffness index, had a greater change in women than men. Women also had bigger changes in the blood volume and blood pressure regulatory hormones. One of these hormones, aldosterone, has been associated with greater arterial stiffness. Men had a greater change in the index of insulin resistance. It is perhaps not surprising that the cardiovascular systems of men and women respond differently to spaceflight. These results, taken in light of the increased recruitment of women into the astronaut corps, provide incentive to investigate further the impact of spaceflight on cardiovascular health.

Before and after spaceflight the Vascular Echo research team takes measurements of the arteries with ultrasound and pressure sensors to determine arterial stiffness. (Credit: Dr. Richard Hughson) © Canadian Space Agency.

Before and after spaceflight the Vascular Echo research team takes measurements of the arteries with ultrasound and pressure sensors to determine arterial stiffness. (Credit: Dr. Richard Hughson) © Canadian Space Agency.

Preliminary results have been obtained as well from our study “A simple in-flight method to test the risk of fainting on return to Earth after long-duration space flights” known as BP Reg. The major objective of this study was to determine if an inflight test of the blood pressure response could identify those astronauts who might need additional countermeasures prior to return to Earth to prevent problems with orthostatic intolerance. To do this, we developed a method to make blood pressure change as if the astronaut was “standing up in space.” Large leg cuffs were placed around the upper thighs, and were inflated for three minutes before rapid deflation caused a drop in blood pressure. To measure the cardiovascular responses during cuff deflation, we used the continuous blood pressure device (CBPD) so that we could follow the transient changes. The CBPD also provides a method to estimate other cardiovascular variables, including cardiac output, which could provide valuable information on how blood pressure was regulated in space. However, when we designed the study, we had reason to believe that some assumptions required for the calculations might not hold during spaceflight. To check this, the CBPD method to estimate cardiac output was compared with a rebreathing method. Cardiac output by rebreathing increased 47% from pre-flight seated values to inflight, while the CBPD method was unchanged showing that assumptions used in the calculation are not valid. The result is important, though, as we and others have used the CBPD method to estimate cardiac output, and these numbers probably underestimate changes due to spaceflight.

Over the past 10 years, we have gained an appreciation for how individual variations in adaptations to spaceflight influence the cardiovascular health and function of astronauts living on the space station. The current routines of exercise countermeasures contribute to stability of cardiovascular health while on the orbiting laboratory. However, on return to upright posture on Earth, there are astronauts whose blood pressure regulation is severely challenged. We have seen that these individuals are well monitored by their physicians to avoid problems. We can also state, though, that the daily activity levels while on the space station are greatly reduced from pre-flight, and that over two separate studies, we documented that astronauts average about 30-minutes per day of aerobic exercise. This relatively sedentary lifestyle probably contributed to development of insulin resistance and might have contributed along with the change in arterial blood pressure in the head and neck to increased carotid artery stiffness. We will have an opportunity to monitor these key changes in greater detail with in-flight ultrasounds and blood samples, and also follow the recovery post-flight in the study Vascular Echo, which had its first astronaut launch in December 2015. To obtain a more thorough investigation of the development of insulin resistance, a project that was approved during the 2014 call for proposals will soon directly measure the response to an oral glucose tolerance test.

The Space Station provides a unique platform to study “aging-like” changes in cardiovascular function by taking highly fit and healthy individuals, and then subjecting them to the ultimate sedentary lifestyle. Our research in the Schlegel-University of Waterloo Research Institute for Aging benefits greatly from our investigations of astronauts. Understanding that readjusting to gravity is critical for astronauts and older persons. Just as we saw astronauts with post-flight impairment of blood pressure regulation, there are approximately 20% of older adults who have a large drop in arterial blood pressure on going from bed to upright posture, greatly increasing their risk for falls and serious injury. Astronauts are inspirational. When Canadian astronaut Bob Thirsk promoted Get Fit for Space during his time on the space station, the level of participation in regular physical activity greatly increased in the retirement and long-term care of Schlegel Villages. Now from the Vascular study, we have emphasized the important health message that a single exercise session per day is not sufficient when the rest of the day is highly sedentary to prevent development of insulin resistance. Everyone needs to include physical activity throughout the day.

Richard L. Hughson, PhD Schlegel Research Chair in Vascular Aging and Brain Health Schlegel-University of Waterloo Research Institute for Aging

Richard L. Hughson, PhD
Schlegel Research Chair in Vascular Aging and Brain Health
Schlegel-University of Waterloo Research Institute for Aging

Science in Short: Remote Sensing and Genomics Studies

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The Campaign Good Earth Gap Analysis Report , commissioned by CASIS, is a study to evaluate the capabilities and limitations of the ISS as a host for commercial remote sensing payloads, including the products and needs of the data analytics community. Credits: CASIS

The Campaign Good Earth Gap Analysis Report , commissioned by CASIS, is a study to evaluate the capabilities and limitations of the ISS as a host for commercial remote sensing payloads, including the products and needs of the data analytics community. Credits: CASIS

On April 28, CASIS released their Good Earth Technology Gap Study (PDF). Compiled for them by From James Goodman of Hyspeed Computing, this report is part external facility researchers guide, part market study, and recommends particular lines of interest in sensors: hyperspectral, Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR); and for next generation on-board data compression and computing capabilities.

The ISS provides a unique vantage point for Earth observation, and the ISS infrastructure itself provides many advantages as a robust platform for sensor deployment. Real-time and time-series information gathered from remote sensing applications have proven invaluable to resource management, environmental monitoring, geologic and oceanographic studies, and assistance with disaster relief efforts. This report, an analysis of the gaps between ISS capabilities and limitations in the remote sensing market, is meant to initiate a path toward optimal use of the ISS National Lab as a platform for project implementation and technology development. (credit: CASIS)

The WetLab RNA SmartCycler allows station crew members to extract RNA from multiple types of biological specimens in less than 30 minutes. Credits: NASA

The WetLab RNA SmartCycler allows station crew members to extract RNA from multiple types of biological specimens in less than 30 minutes. Credits: NASA

On orbit last week the Wetlab-2 technology demonstration runs have declared success in their ability to show that the device can amplify RNA (ribonucleic acid) using a commercially adapted quantitative polymerase chain reaction machine (qPCR) in space. Scientists studying a wide range of biology questions need quality gene-expression information, which requires specialized equipment that can extract DNA and RNA. Wet Lab RNA SmartCycler (Wetlab-2) validates a new system that can take a sample grown in orbit, extract RNA, and set up reactions that record gene expressions in real time. Data can be downlinked to Earth for analysis, improving scientists’ ability to study biological processes in microgravity. Specifically, last week, they have showed that they were able to achieve Simplex, Duplex and Triplex qPCR amplification which refers to the number separate reagents targeting areas of gene expression being amplified in a single batch. This week, the crew has begun the final of four WetLab-2 sessions by conducting the validation operations and processing a cell sample to extract the RNA.

Kirt Costello
ISS Deputy Chief Scientist and Program Science Office Manager

Science in Short: National DNA Day

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Anna-Sophia Boguraev, age 17, is pictured with her winning Genes in Space experiment, the miniPCR. The experiment was recently checked out and run aboard the International Space Station. Credits: NASA/ Kim Shiflett, NASA

Anna-Sophia Boguraev, age 17, is pictured with her winning Genes in Space experiment, the miniPCR. The experiment was recently checked out and run aboard the International Space Station. Credits: NASA/ Kim Shiflett, NASA

National DNA Day is a holiday celebrated on April 25. It commemorates the day in 1953 when James Watson, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin and colleagues published papers in the journal Nature on the structure of DNA.

In the United States, DNA Day was first celebrated on April 25, 2003 by proclamation of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. However, they only declared a one-time celebration, not an annual holiday. Every year from 2003 onward, annual DNA Day celebrations have been organized by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). April 25 has since been declared “International DNA Day” and “World DNA Day” by several groups.

The goal of National DNA Day is to offer students, teachers and the public an opportunity to learn about and celebrate the latest advances in genomic research and explore how those advances might impact their lives.

Today also marks the student submission deadline for the second year Genes in Space (GiS) student proposals. The first Genes in Space winner’s experiment using the miniPCR is currently operating on ISS. Checkout and two sample runs were completed on station this past week, and the final “Blue” sample is scheduled to be completed on Wednesday morning 4/27. The mini-polymerase chain reaction is a COTS instrument which replicates DNA in order to have enough to analyze. The specific objectives of this experiment are to use PCR technology to study epigenetic changes and how they affect the human immune system.

Marybeth Edeen
ISS, Research Integration Office Manager 

Science in Short: ARTE

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NASA astronaut Tim Kopra installed the Thermal Exchange hardware in the Microgravity Science Glovebox. Credits: NASA

NASA astronaut Tim Kopra installed the Thermal Exchange hardware in the Microgravity Science Glovebox. Credits: NASA

Our small devices have to dump a lot of heat from their electronics, if you have been sitting with your laptop on your lap wondering why it is getting so hot, you might also be interested in future improvements being sought through research on the International Space Station. Heat pipes are used to cool things like laptop computers and rely on an interface between liquid and gas phases in a liquid, plus capillary flow to return the cooled liquid back to the heated end. Previous research on the space station discovered inefficiencies in heat pipes and other research identified the new fundamental equations for capillary flow from research done on the orbiting laboratory. During the first week of April, and experiment called Advanced Research Thermal Passive Exchange (ARTE) , one of a number of new experiments testing this new knowledge to get practical applications, was completed on the space station. The Thermal Exchange hardware performed a series of powered test runs within the microgravity science glovebox to determine the impact of using various working fluids and different groove shapes on capillary action for heat pipes operating in a microgravity environment. The data collected will be used to further understand and validate numerical modelling of heat pipe behavior in microgravity, which can then be used to develop more passive and reliable thermal control systems for future exploration. This particular experiment was sponsored by the Italian Space Agency, and was led by scientists from DIMEAS – Dipartimento di Ingegneria Meccanica e Aerospaziale, I Facoltà di Ingegneria, Politecnico di Torino, Torino, Italy; related investigations testing various aspects of capillary flow and heat transfer are coming in the next few years, including some sponsored by CASIS as part of the ISS National Laboratory, and some sponsored by NASA.

NASA’s International Space Station Chief Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D. (NASA)

NASA’s International Space Station Chief Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D. (NASA)

Science in Short: Surprising Space Research Connections

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Sometimes to understand the dramatic effects of spaceflight on living organisms, a picture can tell more than a lot of words about science.

Recently, Liz Blaber and Eduardo Almeida shared the following picture with me from their 2014 publication in Stem Cell Research. The image is a microscopic view of the bone marrow inside the hip bone (femoral head) of mice that flew to the International Space Station. The picture on the left is the ground “control” and the picture on the right is a mouse that was losing bone from being in the microgravity environment in space.RBC Megakaryocyte

The cells marked in red are red blood cells. The blood cells are increased in numbers, and show increased clustering, but not at a different density. Eduardo and Liz believe that the pores that would normally allow the cells out of the marrow and into the blood have been blocked as part of the bone loss process, and so the red blood cells cannot get out of the marrow. Depending on the fluid shifts and effects on the total plasma volume, the differences could lead to anemia. Investigators looking at the blood of astronauts are also struggling to understand data on blood cell counts and functional immunity using data from the Integrated Immune investigation, and are eagerly awaiting results from the Fluid Shifts Investigation to understand changes in plasma volume. Fluid shifts is a new investigation that began with Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko, and will continue on future crewmembers.

The cells marked in green are megakaryocytes, which are cells that are important in the production of platelets, cells that enable our blood to clot. In this sample, there is only one of these important cells in the image, while in the Earth sample there were three. Liz and Eduardo think that they might have moved out into the circulation due to cardiac deconditioning, but we really don’t know the full mechanism in play.

A few weeks ago, I was asked to speak to a group of scientists and doctors working on new treatments for patients with hemophilia. They were interested in the ways that we integrate different types of data on astronauts to understand the interactions of different systems in their health. Just like hemophilia patients, astronauts are a small group of people that can have very dramatic health effects is the disruption in their bodies affects different physiological systems. There are a wide variety of physiological impacts in hemophilia patients (with problems in the blood clotting proteins in their blood). Of all the things that could go wrong, much of the medical care of hemophilia patients gets focused on presenting small bleeds in their joints which eventually cause permanent damage. The root cause of an illness and the many different effects it can have on our bodies can be surprising. What is amazing to me about the space station is that each time we understand more about the response of a system in the body to microgravity as a stimulus, it also gives us insights that apply to other related needs on Earth. Stem cells and tissue regeneration are disrupted in many ways in space, and that window into physiology gives us the opportunity to make innovative connections in solving health problems on Earth.

NASA’s International Space Station Chief Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D. (NASA)

NASA’s International Space Station Chief Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D. (NASA)

Science in Short: SABL facility

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Space Automated Bioproduct Laboratory (SABL) facility

The Space Automated Bioproduct Laboratory (SABL) facility Credits: Bioserve

Last week the crew performed some setup and preliminary checkout activities of the Space Automated Bioproduct Laboratory (SABL) facility. SABL is a facility that can support a wide range of investigations across life sciences, physical sciences, and materials sciences, with a main focus on research that enables biological systems and processes. Developed by Bioserve, it will replace the existing two Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus (CGBA) that has been serving a major incubator function on ISS since 2001.

SABL with BioCells

SABL with BioCells Credits: Bioserve

The SABL will have interchangeable inserts that will allow it to support a wide range of fundamental and applied research ranging from microorganisms through small organisms, cell and tissue culture, and small plants. An important feature on the SABL is the USB ports that support any modern scientific tool with USB connectivity to work with SABL, allowing for many future analytical tools to be used on the orbiting laboratory as science technology evolves.

SABL has a front door for the crew to easily access their experiments, and a set of cameras that allow the crew and scientists on the ground to watch experiments as they happen. This is a bonus for the crew, as they’ve often told us that they really enjoy the experiments where they can actually see what’s going on inside the box!

Lastly, a feature that’s important to the science logistics on the space station is the capability for the SABL to efficiently recharge NASA’s Cold Bricks, which is critical for carrying samples to/from ISS at 4 degrees Celsius. Many thanks to the CGBA for keeping so many life sciences and educational experiments running for 15 years! Now let’s get ready to settle into the latest technology that will welcome Earth’s scientific community to research in low-Earth orbit.

Tara M. Ruttley, PhD Associate Program Scientist -International Space Station (ISS) ISS Program Science Office

Tara M. Ruttley, PhD
Associate Program Scientist -International Space Station 
ISS Program Science Office

The One Year Mission Learning Continues Past the Crew’s Landing

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With the return of the One Year Mission crew, many people will be asking, “What did you learn?” The answer: we are still learning, and will be for quite some time.

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly’s and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko’s yearlong mission in space has ended, but the landing is just one milestone in a much larger picture of science. Baseline data collection started a year before the pair left the Earth in 2015, continued throughout their time in space, and will be collected for one or more years now that they have returned. From there, analysis, writing papers and seeing those papers through to publication will take even more time. In the case of the One Year Mission, the science is far from complete.

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Collecting data before, during and after the mission in space

We are already aware of risks to astronauts during spaceflight, and adverse effects caused by long-term living in microgravity. Extending that knowledge base to longer missions is one piece of the focus of studies for the One Year Mission, but another piece that is even more important is watching the astronauts’ recovery once they return home, and that will take time.

One example of the time it takes to understand astronaut recovery from life in microgravity is the Subregional Bone study, with Adrian LeBlanc, Ph.D. in a time when crew members were still losing a lot of bone, before the ARED was introduced on the space station. LeBlanc studied what was happening inside crew members’ bones as they rebuilt over time once astronauts returned to Earth. He learned that it took three years before the bones returned to their pre-flight bone mass density, and even when the bones reached that point, they still hadn’t completely recovered the same structure they had as before the astronauts’ flight. The bone was larger and more porous on the inside; it didn’t rebuild back to the original bone structure. Although our new exercise regimes are significantly reducing or eliminating the loss of bone mass density, studying the structural recovery is still a key part of the puzzle for reducing the risks of broken bones while astronauts operate on the surface of Mars someday.

Data collection for the One Year Mission began a year before Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko left Earth, intensified during their 340 days in space, and will continue for a year - or longer - now that they are home. Click to enlarge this infographic to see a breakdown of the data collections for every #YearInSpace investigation. Credits: NASA

Data collection for the One Year Mission began a year before Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko left Earth, intensified during their 340 days in space, and will continue for a year – or longer – now that they are home. Click to enlarge this infographic to see a breakdown of the data collections for every #YearInSpace investigation. Credits: NASA

This is an example of why it’s not just about the study you do in space. You also have to watch the recovery period after the crew members return to Earth. That period might be a year for sensory motor effects, but post-flight data collection could take three years for studies dealing with bone. Investigators will look at Kelly’s return to ground normal after being in space, so those studies – by their nature – will have years between when the spaceflight was completed, and when papers will be published.

Additionally, even now that Kelly’s boots are on the ground, most of the samples collected from him will actually still be orbiting the Earth aboard the space station, waiting to be returned on a cargo flight at a later date. We also have to collect all his post-flight baseline data that will start from the moment he gets back to Earth through as many as three years.

Once all collections are complete, scientists will analyze the data, which can take three to six months or longer. After the data has been analyzed, papers will be written and submitted to journals for publication. Depending on the publication, it could take a few weeks or months to get a response, and when that response does come, it could include a request for additional data analysis, revisions and reviews. When the journal does accept the paper, the scientists will work with the publication to make sure formatting and proofing is completed correctly. At that point, some journals will publish a pre-print version of the article online, while others could take up to a year to release the printed publication. So what that really means is that, while we could expect some published results within a year of his return to Earth, there are a number of studies that would not be expected to publish until three years, or more, later.

A first in genetics data collection

Retired astronaut Mark Kelly (L) and his identical twin brother Scott (R) are participating in a series of genetics studies as part of the One Year Mission.

Retired astronaut Mark Kelly (L) and his identical twin brother Scott (R) are participating in a series of genetics studies as part of the One Year Mission. Credits: TIME

Another special thing about Scott’s mission is that it marks the first time that flying astronauts have ever contributed genetic data to a study. This genetic data is covered under the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA). GINA protects employees from being discriminated against based on their genetic information. When Scott and Mark Kelly first asked NASA to include the fact that they were twins as a research tool, NASA developed an interim policy on the medical ethics of asking a crew member to give genetic information to support the Twins Study. We were able to collect this data, because Scott and his twin brother, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, were the ones who said they were open to participate as studies that compared them as genetically identical twins, rather than NASA going to Scott to ask for genetic information in order for him to be an astronaut.

However, Scott and Mark still have the right to restrict use of their data. If something were to come out of these studies that they felt would be a personal compromise to their medical privacy, or the privacy of their families, they could decide to disallow any use of that data. In that case, it would be unethical for the scientists complete the studies or publish the results. Since Scott and Mark are the only participants in the Twins Study, they have almost no privacy when the data gets published. When a person participates in a study with a thousand other subjects, they don’t give up as many rights to privacy, so the ethical issues are not the same.

If Scott or Mark ask to restrict the data, scientists will not be able to talk about the data or share the data; it has to be as though the studies never happened. It is the job of our institutional review board to make sure all the studies that use astronauts as human subjects are carried out ethically and appropriately.

What these studies mean for a mission to Mars

The reason behind these studies is to enable crew members to go to Mars. We have to understand not only the effects of microgravity on the body during long-duration missions, but we also have to understand how the measures we’re using to prevent some of those effects are working to prevent them. For example, we need to understand bone loss in crew members, and if or how the exercise and nutrition measures we’ve put in place are working.

Journey to Mars

We also have to understand how crew members recover one they are home, because it’s all about risk over time. When an astronaut goes to Mars someday, we’ll be concerned about vision issues. It may be that their vision could be compromised on the way to Mars, but if – when they are spending a year on the surface of the planet – everything corrects itself, and then they fly again, the long-term risk might not be too high. On the other hand, if their vision doesn’t recover while they are on the surface of Mars, then it could be a much higher risk as they are returning, so we have to understand the process of recovery as well as the process of impacts. If crew members can recover, and effects are only short-lived, the risks may not be as concerning. All this data collection and analysis – by nature of the recovery time needed to return to “ground normal” – will take time, which means our learning is far from complete.

NASA’s International Space Station Chief Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D. (NASA)

NASA’s International Space Station Chief Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D. (NASA)

Science in Short: Studying Self-Assembly with ACE-H2

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ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Tim Peake works on the Advanced Colloids Experiment 2 (ACE H2) Hardware Configuration and Mix Part 1 earlier this year. Peake sent out a Twitter message with this image: “Stirring samples using a bar magnet to turn a tiny metal rod – preparing for today’s @ISS_Research. #Principia”.

You might not be familiar with the term “colloids,” but you likely interact with some throughout your daily routines. What are they? Colloids are not pure liquids or pure solids, but rather liquids that have solid particles suspended in them, such as paint, milk and even blood.

On Earth, solid particles could clump together, causing spoilage in the example of food. They could also settle to the bottom of the solution through sedimentation. Removing gravity from the equation, though, makes the environment aboard the International Space Station a perfect place for researchers to study the self-assembly of these particles.

In the Advanced Colloidal Experiment- Heated-2 (ACE-H-2) investigation, researchers are studying a type of colloid that has different sizes of particles suspended within a fluid medium. There are small nanoparticles that are highly charged and large particles that are non-charged. When the suspensions were allowed to settle under gravity, the particles that were stabilized (while in suspension) formed highly ordered, three-dimensional colloidal crystal structures that were composed entirely of the larger, non-charged particles. The nanoparticles remained in suspension but was found to create a charge layer by forming cage or halo around the larger particles. This is a newly discovered process of colloidal stabilization called Nanoparticle Haloing (NPH).

As a result, the ACE-H-2 investigates the nature of the three-dimensional colloidal structures formed by NPH under microgravity conditions, and also assesses the structures when they are heated.

These “self-assembled colloidal structures” are vital to the design of advanced materials, for biomedical applications as an example.

ESA astronaut Tim Peake has participated in the ACE-H-2 investigation aboard the orbiting laboratory, and shared the picture above on social media.

Camille Alleyne, Ed.D., is an assistant program scientist for the International Space Station Program Science Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Camille Alleyne, Ed.D., is an assistant program scientist for the International Space Station Program Science Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Science in Short: BASS-M, Igniting Innovation on the Space Station

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NASA astronaut Tim Kopra performs BASS-M operations in the Microgravity Sciences Glovebox in the Destiny Lab aboard the International Space Station.

NASA astronaut Tim Kopra performs BASS-M operations in the Microgravity Sciences Glovebox in the Destiny Lab aboard the International Space Station. Credits: NASA

Things have been heating up in the Microgravity Sciences Glovebox (MSG) in the Destiny Lab aboard the International Space Station as NASA astronaut, Tim Kopra performs operations for the BASS-M, a National Lab investigation which came about as a result of a partnership between CASIS and Milliken. Milliken is a commercial company who, among other things, produces custom engineering textiles, including flame-retardant ones used by a variety of industrial markets, such as the military and fire fighters.

Milliken is interested in seeing how the absence of gravity affects the burning of the textiles and materials. They are testing the hypothesis that materials in microgravity, with adequate ventilation, burn as well, if not better than, the same material being burned here on Earth under the same conditions.

NASA astronaut Tim Kopra tweeted this picture of a flame from the BASS-M operations.

NASA astronaut Tim Kopra tweeted this picture of a flame from the BASS-M operations. Credits: NASA

The investigation tests 10 different treated flame-retardant cotton fabrics at varying air flow rates, and studies their flammability and their ability to self-extinguish.

Ultimately, Milliken is using innovation in trying to design and engineer the right chemicals so that the textiles don’t burn. This applies specifically to the military and fire-fighters, for whom – if these textiles are designed correctly – could be protected from getting 2nd and 3rd degree burns.

Camille Alleyne, Ed.D., is an assistant program scientist for the International Space Station Program Science Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Camille Alleyne, Ed.D., is an assistant program scientist for the International Space Station Program Science Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

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