Partnerships Powering Student Investigations Launch to Space Station

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In today’s A Lab Aloft we hear from William Wells Jr., aSTEAM Village SSEP Kansas City program director, as he shares the difference made in the lives of students when schools work together to support education opportunities. These students literally reach for the stars with the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program when they send their studies to the International Space Station.

Many U.S. students lack foundational skills and knowledge in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM, or with art added STEAM) as a result of the absence of authentic learning activities in STEM subjects. They have little to no exposure to highly competent role models in STEM fields and limited opportunities to think critically, solve problems, research, publish and hypothesize.

Through the Student Spaceflight Experiment Program (SSEP), which is led by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE), Benjamin Banneker Charter Academy of Technology in Kansas City, Missouri, engaged with other public and private school districts through aSTEAM Village, and I am honored to serve as the SSEP Kansas City program director. I work to fulfill the aSTEAM Village mission of helping to level the playing field for students in the Kansas City area. Our goal is to ensure all students are exposed to 21st-century knowledge through an expanded learning strategy in before/after-school and regular classroom environments using STEAM curriculum.

SSEP Mission 5 launch delegation posing in from of the Antares rocket that successfully carried the selected experiment ‘Oxidation in Space” to the International Space Station in July 2014. (aSTEAM Village)

SSEP Mission 5 launch delegation posing in from of the Antares rocket that successfully carried the selected experiment ‘Oxidation in Space” to the International Space Station in July 2014. (aSTEAM Village)

Through this in-depth program, our community’s students are presented an opportunity to be immersed in a high-profile community science competition. The objective is for students to submit an experiment that they hope will be selected to ferry to the International Space Station. Aboard the orbiting laboratory astronauts will perform the student experiment in microgravity. Meanwhile, the students conduct the ground truth of the study here on Earth. This is a real space program and not a simulation!

Astronaut Luca Parmitano getting ready to activate specific SSEP mini-labs aboard the International Space Station. The SSEP Falcon I Experiment Payload box is open. (NASA)

Astronaut Luca Parmitano getting ready to activate specific SSEP mini-labs aboard the International Space Station. The SSEP Falcon I Experiment Payload box is open. (NASA)

I was speaking recently with Marian Brown, Ed.D., superintendent for Benjamin Banneker Charter Academy of Technology, who shared with me the difference she has noticed in students attending aSTEAM Village partner schools through their participation with SSEP.

“We are so pleased that teachers and mentors have embraced the struggle to immerse and engage students in every facet of real science to ensure all students are provided the chance to explore the scientific method, as well as experience science firsthand. More importantly, we have observed an increase in our students’ capacity for hard work, perseverance and resilience. In addition, this program and partnership will help alter the path of children’s lives by fostering creative thinking, real-world problem-solving and true innovation for urban revitalization.”

I was not surprised that Dr. Brown’s thoughts were echoed in a conversation I recently had with Kristen Marriott, a middle school STEM teacher who has been involved with SSEP in three missions at two different aSTEAM Village partner schools: Della Lamb and Crossroads Academy. Marriott believes that the best thing about the program is watching the students problem solve and work collaboratively.

“They start the project as individuals but end up as a group, working through difficulties and limitations together. I have been amazed with the variety of experiments the students have proposed. We truly have a generation of STEM leaders making their way through school at this time.”

Eamon Shaw and Nicole Ficklin with astronaut Dr. Don Thomas at the NCESSE National Conference (Lisa Shaw)

Eamon Shaw and Nicole Ficklin with astronaut Dr. Don Thomas at the NCESSE National Conference. (Lisa Shaw)

I think it’s safe to say there is plenty of evidence to support Marriott’s assertion. Two teams from another aSTEAM Village community partner, St. Peter’s School, had two flights selected, Mission 5 and Mission 6, which Robert J. Jacobsen, the school’s science teacher and SSEP coordinator said, “provided not only St. Peter’s, but the Kansas City community, a sense of achievement and pride.”

It has been fun watching the students reap the rewards of their diligent work and effort, from brainstorming and proposing ideas to presenting their projects at the NCESSE 2014 National SSEP Conference in Washington. The student researchers, grades 5-8, discovered the need to be flexible yet manage their time and energy. They learned to value review boards, both at the local and national level, and the important input that they had to offer. The student teams also mastered answering questions from the media (and what a wonderful job they have done). We have seen the enthusiasm of the student teams involved with both Missions 5 and 6 act as a motivating force for the Mission 7 teams who have just completed their proposals to be evaluated by the local review board.

Through mostly local funding, SSEP also provided the opportunity for the Mission 5 finalists and first-time SSEP participants from the Kansas City area to get a life-altering VIP tour of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The aSTEAM Village students, from six different public, charter and private schools, had the opportunity to learn, explore and enjoy an experience of a lifetime in the Chincoteague, Va., and Washington, D.C., areas.

SSEP_WallopsB

SSEP Mission 5 Launch Delegation visiting the NASA Wallops Flight Facility. (aSTEAM Village)

For several of the students, it was the first time they had ever left the immediate Kansas City area. The highlight of our trip was the visit to the flight facility center where the flight project manager made it his point to host the tour. He spent several hours with the students, teachers and chaperones. What came forth was the utmost and genuine enthusiasm and passion for science and engineering that the individuals and teams of the flight facilities displayed. This experience was so important and it definitely left an unforgettable impression upon both the students and us adults in the Kansas City delegation.

I have been truly amazed to see the realization of the vision of NCESSE director, Jeff Goldstein, Ph.D., and his message to educators, students and parents that, “the world is a classroom.” It is an honor to serve as SSEP Kansas City program director as this program not only has all of us mentors, students and parents looking to the skies and beyond, but it also without question, has inspired the next generation of scientists, technologists and engineers. More importantly, it is infusing the confidence in the student researchers that indeed they can become whatever they want to become, because at a very early age of their life they can truthfully say that participation in SSEP has made them a part of America’s space program.

SSEP Kansas City students from Banneker, St. Peter's and Academie Lafayette come together in the Banneker Lecture Hall to view the launch of the selected Mission 6 experiment with student researchers Holden O'Keefe, Nicole Ficklin and Eamon Shaw. The original experiment was lost in the catastrophic failure of Orbital Science Corp.’s Antares rocket shortly after liftoff on October 28. Holden, Nicole and Eamon's experiment will re-launch on SpaceX’s upcoming resupply mission to the space station. (Paula Holmquist)

SSEP Kansas City students from Banneker, St. Peter’s and Academie Lafayette come together in the Banneker Lecture Hall to view the launch of the selected Mission 6 experiment with student researchers Holden O’Keefe, Nicole Ficklin and Eamon Shaw. The original experiment was lost in the catastrophic failure of Orbital Science Corp.’s Antares rocket shortly after liftoff on October 28. Holden, Nicole and Eamon’s experiment will re-launch on SpaceX’s upcoming resupply mission to the space station. (Paula Holmquist)

Seeing these kids take to STEM, NASA can rest assured that SSEP will produce their next wave of talented explorers and leaders. They’ll be ready for hire when NASA ushers our nation deep into the galaxy and beyond over the next century. I know from my experience with these bright and enthusiastic student scientists that they’ll take us great places!

SSEP and its passionate team are a wonderful gift to the younger generation. We need people to challenge the young minds. They indeed are the future. Go, SSEP!

William Wells Jr., aSTEAM Village SSEP Kansas City program director. (Alison Barnes-Martin)

William Wells Jr., aSTEAM Village SSEP Kansas City program director. (Alison Barnes-Martin)

William Wells, Jr., is a seasoned tech professional and entrepreneur who leverages his knowledge and expertise to inspire the next generation of STEAM professionals as the aSTEAM Village SSEP Kansas City program director. He has successfully formed collaborations among a diverse coalition of schools to bring unique STEAM-related programming to hundreds of K-8 students through the aSTEAM Village. Wells currently serves as the lead robotics and computer science instructor at Benjamin Banneker Charter Academy of Technology. He has been named the National and Local Black Engineer of the Year and attended the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and Kansas City Kansas Community College.

 

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) is a program of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) in the U.S., and the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education internationally. It is enabled through a strategic partnership with NanoRacks LLC, working with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory. SSEP is the first pre-college STEM education program that is both a U.S. national initiative and implemented as an on-orbit commercial space venture.

Rodent Research Ramps Up Aboard the International Space Station

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In today’s A Lab Aloft International Space Station Assistant Program Scientist Kirt Costello, Ph.D., lays out what’s new in rodent research in orbit. The updated facility and planned studies will advance capabilities for microgravity life science and biology research.

In this blog we often talk about the “why” reasons for the research that we are doing on the International Space Station, but sometimes it’s also important to talk about “where” NASA gets the ideas. Specifically, where do the concepts and research announcements come from? How does NASA know that the science being selected fits the needs of the country in its quest to get the most beneficial use of the space station’s national laboratory?

Today’s discussion is on the new space station Rodent Research Facility and the objectives that NASA is trying to meet by making this system available to both researchers seeking safe exploration of space and those seeking improvements in health here on Earth. Many of these investigations directed specifically at improving life on Earth come through the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) as the manager of the space station’s national laboratory resources.

Image of the Mouse Immunology (MI) Animal Enclosure Modules (AEM). (NASA)

Image of the Mouse Immunology (MI) Animal Enclosure Modules (AEM). (NASA)

NASA has been conducting rodent research in space for many years. The majority of those investigations focus on clinical questions about how we keep our astronauts healthy in space for longer periods. They also address very basic life science questions about how animal physiology changes in a weightless environment. Prior to and during the time of station assembly, the Space Shuttle Program hosted the Animal Enclosure Module (AEM) studies. The AEM flew 28 missions conducting research, such as the Commercial Biomedical Testing Module or CBTM investigations. The AEM system was well suited to the Space Transportation System (STS), allowing researchers important access to their rodent subjects both before flight and during post flight recovery.

With the end of the shuttle program, it was clear that the use of newly designed transportation vehicles would necessitate redesign efforts for AEM use aboard station. Conducting such investigations not on the vehicle, but aboard the station would enable longer-duration studies. The change from a few weeks to a few months in microgravity increases the potential research returns, but also requires some changes in the design of the hardware.

NASA’s Rodent Habitat module, seen here with both access doors open, is the next generation replacement to its predecessor, the Animal Enclosure Module (AEM). (NASA/Dominic Hart)

NASA’s Rodent Habitat module, seen here with both access doors open, is the next generation replacement to its predecessor, the Animal Enclosure Module (AEM). (NASA/Dominic Hart)

The importance of continuing rodent research aboard the space station is laid out by the National Research Council (NRC) in their 2010 Decadal Study Report, “Recapturing a Future for Space Exploration Life and Physical Sciences Research for a new Era.” In that study’s section on animal and human biology a third of the recommendations specifically called out the use of mouse or animal model organisms as the mechanism to proceed with research on the orbiting laboratory. These recommendations focus on muscle and bone loss, the testing of drugs for osteoporosis, changes to the animal immune system, the effects of aerosol exposures to the lungs and multi-generational and developmental studies.

To accomplish the wide array of research that the NRC proposed, some improvements were made to the AEM system to update the workhorse that had served well during the shuttle years. Improvements include features such as upgraded longer lasting filters, changeable food trays and support systems within the microgravity science glovebox (MSG) facility. These changes allow for studies to focus on the effects of microgravity exposure over much longer time frames. While the AEM of the shuttle era only housed rodents for up to 17 days, the new facility on space station can maintain an investigation for months.

NASA astronaut Nicole P. Stott, STS-133 mission specialist, is photographed using a camcorder to record Mouse Immunology-2 investigation in one of the orbiter Discovery’s middeck lockers. (NASA)

NASA astronaut Nicole P. Stott, STS-133 mission specialist, is photographed using a camcorder to record Mouse Immunology-2 investigation in one of the orbiter Discovery’s middeck lockers. (NASA)

Part of what makes rodents ideal test subjects is the fact that they reach maturity and age much quicker than humans. The typical rodent lifetime is about 2.5 years versus about 72 years for the comparable human. The capability to support rodents for up to 180 day stays is in development for the space station. During stays that long, researchers can begin to investigate questions that deal with developmental biology and extended exposure to microgravity. A half a year stay for a rodent might be the equivalent of a 14 year exposure to a human.

Updates to the old system also add both white light and infrared cameras for observing rodent conditions and behaviors. This capability allows researchers on the ground to closely monitor their studies. It also requires less crew time, as the observations can be done remotely, which in turn frees up that crew time to get more science done aboard the space station.

The first flight of the new Rodent Research Facility is on the upcoming SpaceX-4 mission to the space station. During this flight, designers will validate all of the initial performance goals for the rodent research hardware. The facility also will get a head start on some of the NRC decadal recommended goals with the CASIS sponsored portion of the Rodent Research-1 investigation. This study will include 10 of the 20 mice flying in the two habitats, and is in partnership with the commercial pharmaceutical company, Novartis.

A view of the SpaceX Dragon Commercial Resupply Services-3 (CRS-3) spacecraft grappled by the Canadarm2 Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS) during Expedition 39. (NASA)

A view of the SpaceX Dragon Commercial Resupply Services-3 (CRS-3) spacecraft grappled by the Canadarm2 Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS) during Expedition 39. (NASA)

The test subjects will live aboard the space station for about 21 days. The CASIS mice will include five wild type—or typical—and five transgenic MuRF-1 knockout mice. Researchers will compare results from these two groups and the ground control counterparts to determine whether this genetic knockout impacts muscle atrophy and muscle sparing—where tissue is conserved—in those mice.

While the inaugural flight of the new rodent habitat system is right around the bend, the rodent research project team at NASA’s Ames Research Center is already hard at work. They are planning more complex investigations and improving the system to accommodate longer durations and more experimental aims for researchers. Rodent research will become a routine part of space station for the decade to come.

For me, personally, it’s been a great experience working with these teams to get this facility ready for flight. I’m excited by all the possibilities for the new research avenues that this opens for NASA and CASIS researchers. I’m humbled by the effort that has gone into this capability, and I hope you all will tune in during the mission to follow along with the accomplishments of the team.

Kirt Costello completed a Ph.D. in Space Physics and Astronomy at Rice University in 1998. Kirt is the Assistant International Space Station Program Scientist for National Research. In this position he works with the International Space Station Chief Scientist, NASA research organizations and CASIS to advise on the objectives and priorities of science being prepared to fly to the space station.

AMS Amassing Answers to the Questions of the Universe

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In today’s A Lab Aloft our guest blogger is Trent Martin, the NASA project manager for the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer instrument. Martin shares the challenges and excitement of seeking to unravel the mysteries of the universe.

Can a single data point make a difference? When speaking of the collected billions of data points since the inception of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-02 (AMS-02) to the International Space Station (ISS), the answer is yes. Every data point leads us closer to unveiling the answers to the questions of the universe.

A handful of those unique data points were the topic of the keynote speech delivered by AMS principal investigator Professor Samuel Ting at this year’s ISS Research and Development Conference in Chicago. Approximately 90 percent of the universe is not visible and is called dark matter. Collisions of “ordinary” cosmic rays produce positrons. Collisions of dark matter will produce additional positrons. This excess of positrons has been seen in the AMS data. While more data is needed, this specific handful of points tells us something we didn’t know before about our universe. It adds to our current knowledge and guides us on our path to answers in the areas of dark matter and more.

Professor Samuel Ting answers questions while attending the 2014 International Space station Research and Development Conference in Chicago, where he was a keynote speaker on the topic of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. (NASA/Bill Hubscher)

Professor Samuel Ting answers questions while attending the 2014 International Space station Research and Development Conference in Chicago, where he was a keynote speaker on the topic of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. (NASA/Bill Hubscher)

In May, 2011 as the space shuttle Endeavor sat on the pad ready to launch the AMS-02 to the space station, it carried the hopes and dreams of 600 physicists, engineers and technicians from 60 institutes in 16 countries who had worked for nearly 1.5 decades to build the most sophisticated magnetic spectrometer ever to be put into space. Led by Ting, a Nobel Laureate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the detector is designed to cull through galactic cosmic rays searching for the origins of the universe, evidence of dark matter, evidence of naturally occurring anti-matter and other cosmic phenomena.

In the words of Ting, “the most exciting objective of AMS is to probe the unknown; to search for phenomena which exist in nature that we have not yet imagined nor had the tools to discover.” AMS-02 provides that set of tools.

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-02 (AMS-02) operating aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-02 (AMS-02) operating aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

It is exciting to have the chance to continue to collect data to close the gap on these types of questions. The AMS-02 will run aboard station for the next decade—a timeline granted by the station extension to 2024, but also thanks to a design change just prior to the launch to the space station. This was at the time of an earlier station extension to 2020, at which point the original cryogenic magnet was swapped for a permanent magnet. Had we kept the original magnet, the AMS-02’s life expectancy for operations on orbit would already be at a close—and we’d be left with questions unanswered. Instead, the final selection of a permanent magnet enabled our continued quest towards discovery today.

Let’s take a closer look at how AMS-02 works to help us seek those answers. If you asked a high-energy experimental physicist to provide a wish list of every instrument they would like to see on some theoretical detector, they would likely provide a list that is identical to the six instruments that make up the AMS-02. Since the detectors are so complex and include over 300,000 data channels, providing for easily replaceable systems in space was nearly impossible. Instead, the systems were designed and built with a significant amount of redundancy. Multiple detectors measure charge, momentum, and energy of a passing particle. Although each detector measures in a different way, it provides us redundant and confirming measurements. The electronics for the detectors are also redundant. In most cases, the electronic systems have four-fold redundancy. This makes for a reasonably secure fail-safe, most would agree.

Operations on the station began within hours of the AMS-02 installation on the S3 truss. Since May 2011, there has been very little time when AMS-02 was not collecting data. The amount of information has been somewhat unexpected. AMS-02 has measured more than 52,000,000,000 particles. In fact, we measure at a rate of 16,000,000,000 particles per year. We were expecting more like 11 billion particles per year. This improved rate of return means more data points in each communication for ground teams to analyze.

In addition to the external instrument, which is the largest payload aboard station, the AMS-02 employs a laptop that is dedicated to the instrument’s operations from the interior of the orbiting laboratory. This internal system acts as a crew interface to AMS-02 and provides a backup system in the event of a long-term loss of data from the space station to the ground. This is an important capability for our search for antimatter because it only takes one of the billions of events to see an antimatter particle.

View of Don Pettit, Expedition 30 Flight Engineer, holding the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) laptop in the U.S. Laboratory of the International Space Station. (NASA)

View of Don Pettit, Expedition 30 Flight Engineer, holding the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-02) laptop in the U.S. Laboratory of the International Space Station. (NASA)

The search for anti-matter is actually quite challenging. I think of it like this, during the spring in Houston, there are many rain showers. If we assume it is a very rainy day in the large city of Houston, it would be like someone asking you to look at all of those clear rain drops and find one drop that is colored red! As we look at the billions of data points, we are seeking a drop in a rainstorm of information.

A view of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-02 (AMS-02)  as mounted aboard the exterior of the International Space Station. (NASA)

A view of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-02 (AMS-02) as mounted aboard the exterior of the International Space Station. (NASA)

The AMS-02 science data points are stored on NASA computers as soon as the information reaches the ground at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. It is stored again as soon as it reaches Geneva. Teams of scientists work daily to analyze the data coming from the AMS-02. Typically these teams are broken into two groups to ensure that the analysis is independently analyzed. The teams meet about once per month to go through their results, work on papers, and identify new areas of interest. AMS-02 publications can be found here.

Thanks to the extremely high data rate and the precision of the AMS-02 detectors, the data is providing significantly improved tolerance bands on the measured data when compared to other detectors. In the past hundred years, measurements of charged cosmic rays by balloons and satellites have typically contained approximately 30 percent uncertainty. AMS-02 will provide cosmic ray information with closer to one percent uncertainty.

Nobel Laureate Samuel Ting, principal investigator for the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, speaks about the first published results of AMS-02 during a 2013 press conference at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. (NASA/James Blair)

Nobel Laureate Samuel Ting, principal investigator for the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, speaks about the first published results of AMS-02 during a 2013 press conference at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. (NASA/James Blair)

There is a lot of excitement that surrounds the findings from this instrument. The first paper published by AMS-02 was published in Physical Review Letters. The paper was highlighted in a Viewpoint appearing in the April 2013 issue of Physics. Being chosen for Viewpoint is a very selective process. According to the editor in chief of American Physical Society, “The APS published a total of about 18,000 articles last year, but only around 100 Viewpoints will appear each year. This places your paper in an elite subset of our very best papers.”

Based on the data coming from AMS-02, the space station has become a unique platform for precision physics research. During this orbiting laboratory’s lifetime, we expect to obtain 300 billion events. It is my hope and belief that somewhere buried in those 300 billion events we will find a better understanding of the origins of the universe.

Trent Martin, NASA project manager for the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer at Johnson Space Center in Houston. (NASA/Robert Markowitz)

Trent Martin, NASA project manager for the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer at Johnson Space Center in Houston. (NASA/Robert Markowitz)

Trent Martin is currently the associate director of engineering for advanced development at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, in addition to serving as the AMS NASA project manager. Martin has a bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas and an MBA from the University of Houston at Clear Lake. He has worked at Johnson since 1995.

Orchestrating Space Station Science – A Day in the Life of a POD

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In today’s A Lab Aloft, International Space Station Payload Operations Director Stephanie Buskirk Dudley shares a behind-the-scenes look at work on the ground leading up to and supporting research in orbit.

Right now, at this very minute, there are hundreds of investigations going on above your head. This research ranges from growing plants to burning different kinds of materials. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, astronauts aboard the International Space Station are living and working in the most sophisticated laboratory ever built. And it’s my job to keep track of all that research and ensure that the orbital lab runs like a well-tuned orchestra.

I am one of 23 payload operations directors (PODs) in the Payloads Operations Integration Center (POIC) at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Together, we are responsible for planning the crew’s work schedules down to 5-minute increments, ensuring research stays on track and liaising between the astronauts performing experiments and the investigators conducting the research. It is a lot like conducting a symphony. At any given time we could have 10, 20 or 50 different things happening in orbit, in the POIC and in the five similar control rooms around the world. It’s a thrilling, high-intensity job that leaves me exhausted at the end of the day. There are times I don’t get a chance to eat or even run to the bathroom; but I love it. I really do have the coolest job, and when my shift is over, I look back and say, “Wow. Look what we accomplished!”

The Payload Operations Integration Center at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. (NASA/Emmett Given)

The Payload Operations Integration Center at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. (NASA/Emmett Given)

We have three shifts working around the clock every day of year—including holidays and weekends—supporting space station research. We have research that requires astronauts’ participation, but we also have studies that we control from the ground. This ground-controlled research frees up the astronauts’ time to do other research or maintenance on the station. It also allows us to do research while the crew is asleep. Since we have research going on all day and night, our schedules vary between the day, afternoon and midnight shifts.

Our work begins long before we show up for our shift. In fact, we start planning any given day on the space station about 12 months in advance. We need to consider a number of logistics when planning for the crew to run an experiment. For example, we need to factor the amount of power needed, the thermal output and gaseous exhaust produced, limitations of specific systems, spatial conflicts and bandwidth for video and data, as well as the set number of video channels needed to observe and record the experiment. And that’s just naming a few things we worry about. Sometimes, a year just doesn’t seem enough.

Expedition 38 Flight Engineer Mike Hopkins of NASA sets up the Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG) for the Burning and Suppression of Solids (BASS-II) investigation in the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station. BASS-II explores how different substances burn in microgravity with benefits for combustion on Earth and fire safety in space. (NASA)

Expedition 38 Flight Engineer Mike Hopkins of NASA sets up the Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG) for the Burning and Suppression of Solids (BASS-II) investigation in the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station. BASS-II explores how different substances burn in microgravity with benefits for combustion on Earth and fire safety in space. (NASA)

Even with all that planning, we still have to deal with the unforeseen and be prepared to adapt. Just like in our homes on Earth, things need to be repaired aboard the station. If the toilet breaks, for instance, that becomes the highest priority for the crew, and research gets pushed to the backburner until the facilities are fixed. My fellow PODs and I understand. The exercise equipment also is a high priority in orbit since the crew members must work out for two hours a day to keep their bones and muscles healthy.

Expedition 36 Flight Engineer Karen Nyberg of NASA gets a workout on the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED) in the Tranquility node of the International Space Station. (NASA)

Expedition 36 Flight Engineer Karen Nyberg of NASA gets a workout on the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED) in the Tranquility node of the International Space Station. (NASA)

So, how do we balance all these constraints, logistics and demands? With lots of preparation and a well-trained team. I actually begin reviewing plans about a week prior. I will check to see if the investigations have been conducted in the past and ask myself how did we do them before and what’s different this time. I will refresh my training on the old and new studies, payload regulations, flight rules and any planning constraints that may impact the day’s activities for both the crew and the ground teams.

This research helps me be prepared for anything. Let’s say I’m working the day shift–my favorite shift because the crew is still awake. They have been working all morning, and I need to be up-to-speed on what they’re doing even before I get to work. If I get to the POIC and find the crew is ahead of schedule, I can adjust the timeline accordingly. Likewise, if they are behind schedule or an investigation hasn’t gone according to plan that morning, I need to be prepared for that as well. The research I’ve done the previous week helps greatly.

I am also briefed when I arrive at work. The day shift begins at 7 a.m., but I’m usually there about a half hour before to review the stack of papers the midnight shift has left me. After reading the daily logs and familiarizing myself with what went on overnight, I scan the handover sheet. This document details what’s going on with the crew, provides information related to specific payloads and lists items the previous shift was unable to complete. The outgoing PODs work hard to ensure that incoming PODs have everything they need, and the previous POD will always include notes that will help the incoming POD.

International Space Station commentator Lori Meggs interviews Katie Presson, a payload operations director in the Payload Operations Integration Center, or POIC, at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. (NASA/Emmett Given)

International Space Station commentator Lori Meggs interviews Katie Presson, a payload operations director in the Payload Operations Integration Center, or POIC, at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. (NASA/Emmett Given)

Armed with the latest information, I have a conference call with the morning flight director in Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston as well as my counterparts from NASA’s International Space Station partners. In that call, I get more information about what happened before I arrived and how the day is scheduled to go. I also provide a report to the morning flight director on what our shift will look like. This includes issues my team and I are tracking, crew and research statuses and anything else that might be out of the ordinary. Once everyone has spoken and the flight director is confident we’re all on the same page, we officially transfer from the midnight shift to the day shift.

Once the shift transfers, I literally take the outgoing POD’s seat and lead my team for the day. From this point until the day shift hands over the reins to the afternoon shift, I am responsible for all the research on the space station NASA is conducting. When you think about it, that’s a pretty incredible thing! If things go well, I have an awesome sense of accomplishment. If, on the other hand, things don’t go so well, I am the person the flight director calls for answers.

Stephanie Buskirk Dudley working during a shift as an International Space Station payload operations director at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. (NASA/Fred Deaton)

Stephanie Buskirk Dudley working during a shift as an International Space Station payload operations director at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. (NASA/Fred Deaton)

Fortunately, I have a solid team working with me in the POIC, and we’re all focused on making sure the space station is producing the best research possible. Depending on the shift, the team ranges from five to 10 people, as well as two to four addition folks who are responsible for managing the POIC facility. They ensure we have power to run the computers that crunch the data coming down from the station day and night.

Image from the Payload Operations Integration Center's 12th anniversary, from left, Kevin Barnes, payload rack officer; Rick Rodriguez, Stephanie Buskirk Dudley and Katie Presson, all payload operations directors; Penny Pettigrew, payload communications manager; Carol Jacobs, payload operations director; and Ola Myszka, operations controller. (NASA/Emmett Given)

Image from the Payload Operations Integration Center’s 12th anniversary, from left, Kevin Barnes, payload rack officer; Rick Rodriguez, Stephanie Buskirk Dudley and Katie Presson, all payload operations directors; Penny Pettigrew, payload communications manager; Carol Jacobs, payload operations director; and Ola Myszka, operations controller. (NASA/Emmett Given)

Like a band where each member has a specific instrument, everyone on the team has a specific responsibility. The PAYCOMs, what we call the payload communications managers, are vital to ensuring the research gets done properly. If the crew has a question about the study they are working on, the PAYCOMs have the answers. They are the voice of the POIC. It’s not an easy job either; the PAYCOM must be able to understand the research well enough to explain the investigator’s hypothesis to the crew and describe the actions the astronaut is to perform. Although it’s a demanding job, it also has its perks. The PAYCOMs get to speak regularly with the crew. Some might find this intimidating, but our PAYCOMs really enjoy it.

The operations controllers (OC) are responsible for helping all of us stay on track. Without the OCs, the timelines could fall apart, and the past 12 plus months of planning would have been in vain. The OCs try to stay ahead of the astronauts and anticipate what tools or resources might be needed. This way, everything will be on hand when it’s needed, and we won’t have to slow down to find the right information. The operations controllers are also responsible for any safety issues that might arise. Safety is our number one priority, and the PODs rely heavily on the OCs to make sure we stay safe.

NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins works with the Department of Defense Synchronized Position, Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites-Resonant Inductive Near-field Generation System (DOD SPHERES-RINGS). (NASA)

NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins works with the Department of Defense Synchronized Position, Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites-Resonant Inductive Near-field Generation System (DOD SPHERES-RINGS). (NASA)

Another member of the team is the payload rack officer (PRO). This position definitely has the best acronym, and it’s apropos because the men and women who are PROs really are pros! The PROs are responsible for sending the commands to the space station that enable the research. They ensure there is enough power to run the experiment, thermal controls are set properly, adequate venting is provided, communications links are established and other logistics needed to allow the research to be conducted. They also manage the command link, which allows investigators all over the world to operate their studies on the station. Thanks to computers and the Internet, it probably surprises no one that these days scientists conducting investigations aboard the space station could be located anywhere in the world. Researchers from countries such as Belgium, Canada, France, Italy, Norway, Spain and Switzerland operate and command research everyday with the help of our PROs.

It’s no small task to get the scientific data to these researchers in far off countries. The data management coordinators (DMC) are responsible for providing the data, including video when available, to the scientists on the ground. They route the information from the various science facilities on the station to the POIC, and our ground systems teams get the data to the researchers. The DMCs must negotiate limited bandwidth and manage our up- and downlink capabilities. For instance, if the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS)—an investigation looking into dark matter and one of our biggest data users—started to get behind on downlinking data, a DMC would adjust demands to free up bandwidth for AMS from other studies that are perhaps ahead of schedule or of a lower priority.

Inside the Payload Operations Integration Center (POIC), Data Management Coordinator (DMC) Candace Jones manages the onboard data and video systems to ensure scientists around the world receive their experimental results. (NASA/Emmett Given)

Inside the Payload Operations Integration Center (POIC), Data Management Coordinator (DMC) Candace Jones manages the onboard data and video systems to ensure scientists around the world receive their experimental results. (NASA/Emmett Given)

One of the greatest challenges for most of us is remembering where we left things. Imagine how much harder it is to keep track of objects when they can float away instead of just dropping to the floor if you let go. The responsibility of remembering where everything is falls to the stowage engineer. Personally, I think they have the greatest challenges of everyone on the team, especially when new hardware arrives at the station. Stowage information is only as good as the information the crew gives us. We tell the crew where to find tools and materials and where to return them; however, if the crew doesn’t secure the objects properly, they could float away. It’s the stowage engineers who are tasked with finding the missing objects. This is a pretty stressful task from 250 miles away, but our stowage engineers are experts at finding missing objects and knowing where to store things. They keep the station a tight ship.

Expedition 30 Commander Dan Burbank (left) and Flight Engineer Don Pettit of NASA stow camera equipment in a container in the Harmony node of the International Space Station. (NASA)

Expedition 30 Commander Dan Burbank (left) and Flight Engineer Don Pettit of NASA stow camera equipment in a container in the Harmony node of the International Space Station. (NASA)

Each shift has an increment scientist representative (LIS rep) who helps us make priority calls on operations. They are the science experts in attendance and can make a call on how to adjust an investigation if things aren’t running as smoothly as planned. If the LIS reps don’t know the answers, they get in touch with the principal investigators or payload developers immediately. If things are not going right or running longer than the schedule allows, the LIS reps help determine the best course of action.

If it becomes necessary to adjust the schedule, the timeline change officer (TCO) helps make those changes. We don’t always change the timeline because of problems. Sometimes unexpected results occur, and the investigator wants to spend a little more time to understand what’s happening. When it becomes necessary to extend or shorten the schedule for one reason or another, it is the TCOs who process the paperwork to get the timeline changed and manage all the residual effects of the change.

NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio works on the Antibiotic Effectiveness in Space-1 (AES-1) investigation during Expedition 38 aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio works on the Antibiotic Effectiveness in Space-1 (AES-1) investigation during Expedition 38 aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

So much is going on all day, every day that it can seem like a cacophony of investigations, data transmissions and research questions. It is my job as a POD to manage the various aspects of the day and bring harmony to the clamor of science in the POIC. I love what I do. I love being the conductor of this amazing orchestra of research.

Stephanie Buskirk Dudley (NASA/Emmett Given)

Stephanie Buskirk Dudley (NASA/Emmett Given)

Stephanie Buskirk Dudley is an International Space Station payload operations director at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. She has a Bachelor of Science in engineering science, a Master of Science in biomedical engineering and a Master of Engineering in industrial and systems engineering from the University of Florida. She previously worked at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida as an analytical engineer on the space shuttle solid rocket boosters.

International Space Station’s Place in the Global POV of the World Science Festival

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In today’s A Lab Aloft, guest blogger Tara Ruttley, Ph.D., NASA International Space Station associate program scientist, shares her experience from the 2014 World Science Festival.

I think I’m finally recovering from the amazing whirlwind that was the World Science Festival. From May 28 to 31, NASA had the exciting opportunity to participate in the event held in New York City. The festival, created by physicist Brian Greene, is an annual city-wide series of events that include smaller panels, interactives, demonstrations and presentations, all with the goal of sharing fascinating and cutting-edge science with the public.

Kids and adults alike got a kick out of the NASA mobile exhibit during the World Science Festival. (Tara Ruttley)

Kids and adults alike got a kick out of the NASA mobile exhibit during the World Science Festival. (Tara Ruttley)

My role was to coordinate and present the science happening on the International Space Station (ISS) with attendees in a World Science Festival style. This means “Go Big!” The kinds of exchanges that happen in environments like this have dual benefits for the agency. The public gets informed about the work that NASA does—and we really hope they get inspired and motivated—and NASA gets to learn just what the public thinks about us, for better or worse.

When given the challenge last fall to prepare for NASA’s participation in the festival, the first thing I did was identify some of the most passionate, excited space station scientists. I then invited them to showcase their work among the many World Science Festival activities sprinkled throughout the week in June. Of course our very own International Space Station Program Science Office was ready to share our investigations with the masses. There were so many great researchers and experiments that came to mind that I wanted to share with the visitors to the event.

Considering the array of schedule constraints and correct alignment of the cosmos, I was finally able to put a team together to represent space station research at the event. I recruited space station fluid physicist Mark Weislogel from Portland State University, who talked with audiences about his wild findings on fluid behavior in microgravity. I also asked aerospace engineer Nancy Hall, who brought her drop tower out for public interaction from NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Ohio. Then I also recruited Alvar Saenz-Otero and his award-winning MIT SPHERES team, who had demonstration units used for the Zero Robotics: ISS Programing Challenge for the public to try out.

At left, Alvar Saenz-Otero, Ph.D., and his team present the Zero Robotics: International Space Station Programing Challenge to the public at the World Science Festival in New York. (Tara Ruttley)

At left, Alvar Saenz-Otero, Ph.D., and his team present the Zero Robotics: International Space Station Programing Challenge to the public at the World Science Festival in New York. (Tara Ruttley)

From NASA’s Human Research Program, Andrea Dunn attended and demonstrated the space station’s new Force Shoes investigation. Team members from NASA’s Human Research Program based at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston showed visitors how liquid recycling happens in space. They explained the importance of hydration for astronauts and those of us here on Earth.

Speaking of NASA astronauts, Sandy Magnus, Mike Massimino, and Mike Hopkins made appearances to talk about their space science experience with eager listeners. The Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, John Grunsfeld, also joined in to discuss the actual science behind the movie “Gravity.”

NASA astronaut Mike Massimino meets a young fan at the 2014 World Science Festival. (World Science Festival)

NASA astronaut Mike Massimino meets a young fan at the 2014 World Science Festival. (World Science Festival)

This was quite a unique series of events with an assortment of participants representing the research we have done, continue to do and plan to do for the next decade aboard the space station. As we scientists were celebrated for our love of discovery—BONUS!—we got to share that enthusiasm with a massive crowd. For self-proclaimed science geeks like me, it was utopia!

For months leading up to the big week, our space station teams were hard at work to deck out the NASA mobile exhibit to look like the inside of the space station. We also included displays of some of the most stunning science footage ever taken aboard the station. We really wanted the public to experience what the astronauts feel in orbit—Ok, I admit the addition of a microgravity component itself would have been really cool, if we could create such a thing. I believe we achieved our goal of conveying the importance of the types of science we do on station to advance both human exploration of space and to improve our lives on Earth.

A young visitor to the NASA mobile exhibit interacts with a display of a research rack as it would appear aboard the International Space Station. (Tara Ruttley)

A young visitor to the NASA mobile exhibit interacts with a display of a research rack as it would appear aboard the International Space Station. (Tara Ruttley)

Once inside the exhibit, NASA scientists were on hand to answer questions from visitors like: What happens when we light fires in space? Why do astronauts lose bone mass at a rate equivalent to Earth-based osteoporosis? Why do we study fluid behaviors in space? Do fish get confused when swimming in space?

All of these questions can be answered along the same theme: we’re learning about new behaviors, relationships and processes we’ve never even discovered before on Earth. In so doing, we apply that knowledge to existing systems on Earth and in space to constantly improve our very existence. During the week of the World Science Festival, we must have answered hundreds of questions as we interacted with upwards of 150,000 people interested in space station science!

And, inevitably, yes, we did get the common question we’ve come to expect: how do you go to the bathroom in space? The NASA exhibit even came prepared with a demonstration unit of the Waste Management Center (WMC)—that is, a space potty! For display purposes only, of course.

A visitor to the NASA exhibit at the World Science Festival experiences the Waste Management Center (WCS) “potty” on display during the event. (Tara Ruttley)

A visitor to the NASA exhibit at the World Science Festival experiences the Waste Management Center (WCS) “potty” on display during the event. (Tara Ruttley)

Potty talk aside, the public cares about the science we conduct on the space station. They ask many of the common questions surrounding science in space, and they also ask new questions, which leads us all to think about “what if…” ideas that we may just try out in space one day. One thing’s for certain, when we support science outreach events like these, the people we meet usually have as big an impact on us as we do on them. And for that, many thanks for your inspiration!

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Tara Ruttley, Ph.D. (NASA)

Tara Ruttley, Ph.D., is associate program scientist for the International Space Station at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Ruttley previously served as the lead flight hardware engineer for the ISS Health Maintenance System and later for the ISS Human Research Facility. She has a Bachelor of Science in biology and a Master of Science in mechanical engineering from Colorado State University and a doctorate in neuroscience from the University of Texas Medical Branch. Ruttley has authored publications ranging from hardware design to neurological science and holds a U.S. utility patent.

A PECASE for Space and Skeletal Biology Research

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In today’s A Lab Aloft, Joshua S. Alwood, Ph.D., shares his postdoctoral research into the impact of microgravity and ionizing radiation exposure on bone health – work that led to his receiving the 2012 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

I am honored to be a recipient of a 2012 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). This award is based on the cumulative body of work achieved during my postdoctoral fellowship at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., while working with my advisor Ruth Globus, Ph.D. and on my contribution to experiments that flew on International Space Station assembly flights STS-131 and STS-135 with collaborator Eduardo Almeida, Ph.D.

Ellen Stofan, Ph.D., NASA's Chief Scientist presents Josh Alwood, Ph.D., the 2012 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) award. (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Ellen Stofan, Ph.D., NASA’s chief scientist presents Josh Alwood, Ph.D., the 2012 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) award. (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

The big question motivating our studies is, how does spaceflight cause bone loss in astronauts? While weightless, astronauts lose about one percent bone mineral density per month. To put this into context, this is about 10 times faster than osteoporosis typically progresses on Earth. The longer the mission, particularly outside Earth’s protective magnetic fields, the greater the doses of ionizing radiation astronauts will accumulate, which may also negatively impact the skeleton.

NASA astronauts Tracy Caldwell, STS-118 mission specialist, and Charles Hobaugh, pilot, working with the Commercial Biomedical Testing Module 2 investigation aboard space shuttle Endeavour. (NASA)

NASA astronauts Tracy Caldwell, STS-118 mission specialist, and Charles Hobaugh, pilot, working with the Commercial Biomedical Testing Module 2 investigation aboard space shuttle Endeavour. (NASA)

In our ground-based research, we asked the following questions: how do the conditions of simulated weightlessness and ionizing radiation exposure affect the skeleton, and are the results any different when these conditions are combined? Our results suggest that each condition causes bone loss on its own, though at differing rates and severity. Together, weightlessness and radiation exposure cause bone loss to worsen beyond either treatment alone. These results have to do with the behavior of different types of bone cells. Combined, the balance of bone formation and bone resorption—breaking down—define a normal process called bone remodeling, which the body uses to maintain a healthy skeletal structure throughout life.

Following radiation exposure, there is a rapid stimulation of bone resorption—this can lead to a net loss of skeletal tissue caused by a specific cell called an osteoclast. We quantify this by measuring the number of osteoclast cells on the surface on the bone and their level of activity through specific proteins secreted into circulation. At the tissue level, we use X-ray imaging and computed tomography to build and quantify three-dimensional models of the skeleton. This rapid resorption is concentrated, yet it appears to be short-lived. At the doses we’ve investigated, it doesn’t get worse after the initial burst.

X-rays of mouse bones from the CBTM study showing a ground control (left), as treated with Osteoprotegerin in microgravity (middle), and with no drug treatment during spaceflight (right). (L. Stodieck, Bioserve and T. Bateman, University of North Carolina)

X-rays of mouse bones from the Commercial Biomedical Testing Module (CBTM) study showing a ground control (left), as treated with Osteoprotegerin in microgravity (middle), and with no drug treatment during spaceflight (right). (L. Stodieck, Bioserve and T. Bateman, University of North Carolina)

In contrast, structural changes caused by simulated weightlessness gradually appear. Simulated weightlessness activates bone resorption by the osteoclasts and additionally reduces bone formation by inhibiting a second cell type called an osteoblast.

Exposure to space radiation affects osteoblasts as well. Our research shows that at the estimated doses potentially accumulated over a three-year Mars mission, long-lasting effects to the osteoblast-lineage cells occur. This may result in abnormal bone remodeling in the long-term. To this end, we determined that spongy bone—found on the inside of some bones—recovered less efficiently following radiation exposure vs. recovery from simulated microgravity.

Osteocyte lacunae from the ground-based control (left) and after 15 days of spaceflight (right). Space-flown lacunae appear larger, indicative of osteocytic remodeling. (Blaber, et al, PLoS One, 2013)

Osteocyte lacunae from the ground-based control (left) and after 15 days of spaceflight (right). Space-flown lacunae appear larger, indicative of osteocytic remodeling. (Blaber, et al, PLoS One, 2013)

The second component of the PECASE acknowledges my work with the Biospecimen Sharing Program for shuttle flight STS-131. Along with Almeida, the project investigator, I used a new application of a high-resolution (30 nanometer) X-ray transmission microscope at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory to analyze bone health following 15 days of spaceflight.

We scanned the bones and processed the images for three-dimensional tomographic analyses. As a result, we were able to quantify changes in the bone’s osteocyte cells. In a unique mechanism of bone loss, osteocytes actively remodel and enlarge their living spaces, known as lacunae, in response to spaceflight. This is an additional mode of bone resorption that occurs during spaceflight at the bone’s surface.

My research employs a basic biology approach with the overriding motivation to enable human exploration of space. In other words, the goal is to expand the envelope of mission durations, the distance from Earth that missions can access, and to mitigate the skeletal consequences following radiation exposure for astronauts. My colleagues and I use a basic approach to uncover the cellular and molecular mechanisms that underlie skeletal changes in the space environment. Eventually we can use this knowledge to develop countermeasures to better manage astronaut skeletal health.

On Earth, this research has applications towards improving our knowledge of bone diseases such as osteoporosis. It may also help people living sedentary lifestyles, providing positive impacts to their health. The sedentary environment is somewhat similar to weightlessness. The take-home message: use your skeleton or lose it. The ability to work on advancing an area of biology that may help humans both in space and on the ground is truly its own reward.

Fluorescent image of femur diaphysis from ground control placebo treated mouse, indicating greatly decreased bone formation. (NASA)

Fluorescent image of femur diaphysis from ground control placebo treated mouse, indicating greatly decreased bone formation. (NASA)

I was inspired to enter this area of research from childhood experiences. I grew up in Florida and witnessed space shuttle launches in my front yard. This really captivated my attention towards space. As I got older, I learned about the skeleton and how it is a living structure that adapts to its mechanical environment. For example, joggers experience forces equivalent to about three times their body weight. Those two factors overlapped in my extracurricular readings on astronauts and the changes in their bodies during weightlessness. That connection propelled me to focus on science and engineering in my education, and further to study the skeleton. I am driven to continually learn new things, which prompted me to enter graduate school and become an independent researcher.

NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, STS-133 mission specialist, using a camcorder to record Mouse Immunology-2 investigation in one of the space shuttle Discovery’s middeck lockers. (NASA)

NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, STS-133 mission specialist, using a camcorder to record Mouse Immunology-2 investigation in one of the space shuttle Discovery’s middeck lockers. (NASA)

Although I do not have an immediate investigation going to the space station, I am applying for opportunities through NASA’s Space Biology Project. It’s an exciting time to be part of NASA’s research program. In the meantime, I continue to develop hypotheses worth studying aboard the space station and generating preliminary evidence while working in my lab on the ground. My goal is to eventually take my science into orbit or beyond.

The work cited in this PECASE Award was made possible by key funding organizations, including NASA Space Biology; grants to Globus from the National Space Biomedicine Research Institute; the U.S. Department of Energy and the NASA Space Radiation Project Element; and grants to Almeida from the NASA Bion-M1 Biospecimen Sharing Program and the National Institutes of Health / National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering.

Josh Alwood in the Bone and Signaling Lab at NASA's Ames Research Center. (NASA /Dominic Hart)

Josh Alwood in the Bone and Signaling Laboratory at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. (NASA /Dominic Hart)

Joshua S. Alwood, Ph.D., is a senior scientist with CSS-Dynamac working at the Bone and Signaling Lab at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. Alwood earned his Ph.D. in Aeronautics and Astronautics from Stanford University, as well B.S. degrees in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Florida.

Crystallizing Opportunities With Space Station Research

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In today’s A Lab Aloft, Dr. Larry DeLucas, a primary investigator for International Space Station studies on protein crystal growth in microgravity, explains the importance of such investigations and how they can lead to human health benefits.

We have many proteins in our body, but nobody knows just how many. Consider that the human genome project is more than 20,000 protein-coding genes, and many of these genes or portions of those genes combine with others to create new proteins. The human body could have anywhere from a half million to as many as two million proteins—we’re not sure. What we do know, is that these proteins control aspects of human health and understanding them is an important beginning step in developing and improving treatments for diseases and much more.

A protein crystal is a specific protein repeated over and over a hundred thousand times or more in a perfect lattice. Like a row of bricks on a wall, but in three dimensions. The more perfectly aligned that row of bricks or the protein in the crystal, the more we can learn of its nature. Today there are more than 50,000 proteins that have been crystallized and the structures of the three-dimensional proteins comprising these crystals have been determined. Unfortunately many important proteins that we would like to know the three-dimensional structures for have either resisted crystallization or have yielded crystals of such inferior quality that their structures cannot be determined.

Crystals of insulin grown in space (left) helped scientists determine the vital enzyme's structure with much higher resolution than possible with Earth-grown crystals (right). (NASA)

Crystals of insulin grown in space (left) helped scientists determine the vital enzyme’s structure with much higher resolution than possible with Earth-grown crystals (right). (NASA)

Once we have a usable protein crystal—one that is large and perfect enough to examine—the primary technique we use to determine the protein molecular structures is x-ray crystallography. When we expose protein crystals to an x-ray beam, we get what’s called constructive interference. This is where the diffracted x-rays coming from the electrons around each atom and each protein come together, providing a more intense diffraction spot. We collect hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of diffraction spots for a protein. The more perfectly ordered the individual protein molecules are within the crystals, the more intense these spots. The higher signal to noise ratio in these strong spots creates an improved resolution of the structure, allowing us to map the crystal in detail.

Well-ordered protein crystal x-ray diffractions create sharp patterns of scattered light on film. Researchers can use a computer to generate a model of a protein molecule using patterns like this. (NASA)

Well-ordered protein crystal x-ray diffractions create sharp patterns of scattered light on film. Researchers can use a computer to generate a model of a protein molecule using patterns like this. (NASA)

Using computers, we take those diffraction spots and mathematically determine the structure of where every atom is in the protein. For example, in most protein structures we can’t even see the hydrogen atoms. We guess where they are because we know the length of a hydrogen bond. So if we see a nitrogen atom from an amino acid that we know has a hydrogen linked to it, and then at a hydrogen-bonding distance away we see an oxygen atom, then we can make an educated guess that the hydrogen is pointed towards that oxygen atom, so we position it there.

While we can grow high-resolution crystals both in space and on the ground, those grown in space are often more perfectly formed. That’s the main advantage and reason we’ve gone to space for these studies. In many cases where we could not see hydrogen crystals on the ground, we then flew that protein crystal in space and let them grow in microgravity. Because of the resulting improved order of the molecules laying down in the crystal lattice, we were able to actually see the hydrogen atoms. Usually to see the hydrogen atoms, you are talking about getting down to a resolution of one angstrom, which is not easy to do—it would take 10 million angstroms to equal one millimeter!

Another example of protein crystals grown in space (right), which are larger and more perfect than those grown on the ground (left). (JAXA)

Another example of protein crystals grown in space (right), which are larger and more perfect than those grown on the ground (left). (JAXA)

We also can look at bacteria and virus protein structures to identify how to target those proteins with drugs. Having this information is very important to pharmaceutical companies and universities. That structure provides a road map that is critical for the understanding of the life cycle of the bacteria or virus.

We’ve only done a fraction of the more important complex protein structures–I’m referring to membrane proteins and protein-protein complexes. Protein complexes are often composed of two, three or more proteins that interact together to form new macromolecular complexes that are often important in terms of disease and drug development. Membrane proteins are the targets for about 55 percent of the drugs on the market today. Scientists have determined the three-dimensional structures for less than 300 membrane protein structures thus far. However, there remain thousands more for which the structures would help scientists understand their important roles in chronic and infectious diseases.

When we see a specific region in a protein and we know exactly where every atom is, chemists can design drugs that will interact in those regions. We can take some of the drugs they design that work, but maybe not as well as we would like. We then grow new crystals of the protein with the drug attached to the protein to see exactly how it’s bound to the protein. That lets other scientists—modelers—determine very clearly how the drug interacts with the protein, information that enables them to design new, more effective compounds. This whole process is called structure-based drug design.

The International Space Station provides a unique environment where we can improve the quality of protein crystals. During the days of protein crystallization studies on the space shuttle, one of the most frustrating aspects of the microgravity experiments was the length of time it took to produce a usable crystal. This is actually part of why space-developed crystals are better—they grow much more slowly. On the shuttle you only had 10-12 days for a study, but aboard the space station you have as long as you need.

As an astronaut and scientist, I personally flew a record 14-day flight in 1992 where we studied 31 proteins. I was looking at results and planning to set up new experiments, changing the chemical conditions to optimize the crystallization. The rule for my sample selection was that the proteins had to nucleate—that means to begin to grow a crystal—and grow to full size in three days. Once I got up there, however, by the third day nothing had nucleated. I was worried, but then on the fourth day I could see little sparkles where crystals had started to grow in about half of the proteins. By mission end I was really only able to optimize the crystal growth for six of the proteins. How much longer it takes a crystal to nucleate and grow to full size was a dramatic discovery.

Astronaut Larry DeLucas, payload specialist, handles a Protein Crystal Growth (PCG) sample at the multipurpose glovebox aboard the Earth-orbiting space shuttle Columbia. (NASA)

Astronaut Larry DeLucas, payload specialist, handles a Protein Crystal Growth (PCG) sample at the multipurpose glovebox aboard the Earth-orbiting space shuttle Columbia. (NASA)

With constant access to a microgravity lab, such as the space station, I am confident that we can improve the quality of any crystal. With protein crystals it is important to note that just because we get a better structure with higher resolution, it doesn’t at all mean it’s going to lead to a drug.

The ability to grow good crystals typically involves a great deal of preparation on the ground where we first express and purify and grow the initial crystals. But if space can give you higher resolution, there’s no drug discovery program that’s going to take a lower resolution option. From the time you determine that structure and chemists work with it, the typical time frame to develop a drug is 15 to 20 years and the cost is around a billion dollars. Identifying the structure of the protein crystal is only the first step. Many times even with the structure a project goes nowhere because the drugs they develop end up being unusable. There are so many aspects to drug discovery beyond the opening act of structure mapping.

If crystals and the structure of a target protein are available, pharmaceutical and biotech companies certainly prefer to use that structure to help guide the drug discovery. After the first 18 months they’ve developed the drug candidates, they may not need to use the crystal structure again for say 10 years. During that time they are doing clinical trials and pharmacology. The majority of the money it takes to get a drug approved by the FDA is after the initial phase. If you break down what they say is about a billion dollars to develop a drug, the portion needed to get the structure up front will range from half to two million dollars—a small fraction of the whole process.

View of Expedition 28 Flight Engineer Satoshi Furukawa with the JAXA Protein Crystal Growth (PCG) investigation aboard the International Space Station Japanese Experiment Module (JEM). (NASA)

View of Expedition 28 Flight Engineer Satoshi Furukawa with the JAXA Protein Crystal Growth (PCG) investigation aboard the International Space Station Japanese Experiment Module (JEM). (NASA)

For the upcoming Comprehensive Evaluation of Microgravity Protein Crystallization investigation we focused on two things. First, we selected proteins that are of high value based on their biology. Having this information of their structure can lead to new information about structural biology—how proteins work in our body. The other major requirement for the candidates for selection was that the proteins had to have already been crystallized on Earth, but the Earth-grown crystals were not of good quality.

We are flying 100 proteins to the space station on SpaceX-3, currently scheduled for March 2014. Twenty-two of these are membrane proteins, 12 are protein complexes, and the rest are aqueous proteins important for the biology we will learn from their structures. The associated disease was the last thing we considered, as we were looking at the bigger picture of the biology. That being said, for the upcoming proteins flying you can almost name a disease: cystic fibrosis, diabetes; several types of cancer, including colon and prostate; many antibacterial proteins; antifungals; etc. There are even some involved with understanding how cells produce energy, which I suspect could lead to a better understanding of molecular energy.

Not long ago a Nobel Prize was awarded for the mapping of the ribosomes complex protein structure. This key cellular structure will also fly for study aboard the space station, because the resolution was not all that great using the ground-grown crystals. We now have the chance to learn more about how the ribosomes actually makes proteins and clarify the whole process. This is just one of the exciting projects flying in relation to protein crystal growth.

Crystallized structure of a nucleosome core particle that was grown aboard the Mir space station. (NASA)

Crystallized structure of a nucleosome core particle that was grown aboard the Mir space station. (NASA)

This space station experimentation is a double blind study. This means that all the experiment chambers are bar coded for anonymity. We also will have exact controls done with the exact same batch of proteins prepared at the same time. The crystals will grow for the same length of time, as they are activated simultaneously in space and on the ground. When the samples come down, we will perform the entire analysis not knowing which are samples grown in space versus Earth. Only one engineer will have the key to the bar codes. When we’re completely done with the analysis, then he will let us know which were from space or ground. This will allow our study to provide definitive data on the value of space crystallization.

We also wanted to ensure that our analysis looked at a sufficient number of samples, statistically speaking, to provide conclusive data. How many data sets we collect per crystal sample will depend on the quality of that crystal. Statistically the study will be relevant in terms of how many proteins we fly, as well as how many crystals we evaluate from space and ground to make the comparison.

Astronaut Nicole Stott works with the high-density protein crystal growth (HDPCG) apparatus aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

Astronaut Nicole Stott works with the high-density protein crystal growth (HDPCG) apparatus aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

The microgravity environment is so beneficial because it allows the crystals to grow freely. Without the gravitational force obscuring the crystal molecules, as seen on Earth, the crystals can reveal their full form. We are giving all of these protein crystals the chance to grow to their full size in a quiescent environment. This is a very important investigation, not only because of the high number of proteins we are flying, but the statistical way we will evaluate them. Based on the results of the study, we will know if PCG in space is worth continuing.

Once the crystals come back to Earth, it will take at least one year to complete the full analysis. However, we will likely know that we’ve got some exciting results within the first three months. To publish something, it will be at least a year to complete the analysis, as we will have about 1,400 data sets to analyze. These results will determine the future of microgravity protein crystallization.

Larry DeLucas, O.D., Ph.D. (University of Alabama at Birmingham)

Larry DeLucas, O.D., Ph.D. (University of Alabama at Birmingham)

Larry DeLucas, O.D., Ph.D. is Director for the Center of Structural Biology and a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Dr. DeLucas flew as a payload specialist on the United States Microgravity Laboratory-1 flight, Mission STS-50, in June1992. His work is currently funded through NASA and the National Institutes of Health.

Space Station 15 Year Milestone — Measure and a Motivation

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In today’s A Lab Aloft, International Space Station Chief Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D. speaks with NASA experts in microgravity research disciplines. Together they take the opportunity of the 15 year anniversary of the station to reflect on accomplishments and discuss what’s next aboard the orbiting laboratory.

It’s hard to believe that the International Space Station has already celebrated 15 years in orbit with the anniversary of the first module, Zarya. That decade and a half included nail-biting spacewalks, and an assembly of parts designed and built around the world that was a miraculous engineering and international achievement. Our research ramped up after assembly was completed in 2011, and we are nowhere near done. In fact, with NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden’s recent announcement that the space station will continue operations till 2024, this is a time of opportunity. With full utilization already at hand, an ever-growing research community is enthusiastic about what’s next in discoveries and benefits for humanity.

A look at the International Space Station in its early days shows the Zarya module (left) connected to the second element, the US Unity module (right). (NASA)

A look at the International Space Station in its early days shows the Zarya module (left) connected to the second element, the US Unity module (right). (NASA)

I want to share with you the thoughts from some of my colleagues who have worked to enable these key achievements leading up to this milestone year for the various space station disciplines. I also asked them to share what they look forward to as we continue. With space station planned for the next decade and likely beyond, this is no time to rest, but to ramp up and make full use of this amazing laboratory.

The most important development on the space station is the emergence of a public-private partnership enabled by congress in designating the station as a National Laboratory. Managed by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), this National Laboratory provides funding avenues for universal access for users, in addition to NASA-funded research. “Through the creation of CASIS, our organization is able to leverage partnerships with commercial companies, other government agencies and academic institutions to generate a variety of research capable of benefitting life on Earth,” said Gregory H. Johnson, President and Chief Executive Officer of CASIS. “The foundation of NASA-funded research discoveries on the space station helps us work with new users interested in applied research. Each year this user base is expanding due to the past success and the future promise of life sciences, materials science and Earth remote sensing.”

From a technology perspective, the design and assembly of the space station is a major international collaborative achievement in and of itself. Beyond this, the station is a unique technology test bed for everything from remote Earth sensing instruments to life support for distant destinations, such as an asteroid or Mars. As NASA’s International Space Station Technology Demonstration Manager George Nelson noted, “In these first 15 years of the space station we have managed to launch, activate, and use the state-of-the-art spaceflight systems that enable long-duration human missions. We continue to evaluate their performance and, using what we learn, we are taking steps to mature those systems in ways that better allow us to explore our solar system.”

The completed International Space Station took 115 assembly flights to complete and researchers conducted more than 1,500 investigations in the first 15 years of assembly and operations. (NASA)

The completed International Space Station took 115 assembly flights to complete and researchers conducted more than 1,500 investigations in the first 15 years of assembly and operations. (NASA)

When it comes to remote Earth sensing, the space station is not only a test bed, but an orbital platform capable of providing a constant watch on our planet, as well as our universe. William Stefanov, Ph.D., senior remote sensing specialist with NASA’s International Space Station Program Science Office, provides an overview of the station’s orbital perspective on our planet.

“During the past 15 years, the space station has become recognized as a valid and useful platform for Earth remote sensing,” said Stefanov. “Handheld camera imagery collected by astronauts from the earliest days of the station have demonstrated its usefulness as both a compliment to more traditional free-flyer sensor systems and as a vantage point in its own right, providing unique opportunities to collect both day and night imagery of the Earth system due to its inclined equatorial orbit.”

Major new instruments will be arriving during the coming years, including ISS RapidSCAT and the Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS) in 2014. Looking to the future, Stefanov touched on anticipated benefits, such as those already realized by the use of the Hyperspectral Imager for the Coastal Oceans (HICO) instrument. Data from HICO is accessible to the public through the OceanColor website maintained at Goddard Space Flight Center. HICO also is now available for new data collection requests through a proposal submission process.

“The space station is now viewed by NASA and its international partners as an attractive platform to test and deploy advanced multispectral and hyperspectral passive sensor systems for land, oceanic/coastal, and atmospheric remote sensing,” said Stefanov. “We also can support humanitarian efforts related to disaster response through collection of remotely sensed information for disaster-stricken areas. The capacity to host active sensor systems, such as lidar, is also being explored. The space station is well on its way to expand its role as a test bed and become an integral part of the NASA fleet of Earth remote sensing satellites.”

Hurricane Raymond as photographed by astronaut Karen Nyberg from the vantage point of the International Space Station on October 22, 2013. (NASA)

Hurricane Raymond as photographed by astronaut Karen Nyberg from the vantage point of the International Space Station on October 22, 2013. (NASA)

While the various sensors aboard station take quite a bit of physics into account, it’s important to note that there’s plenty of physics going on inside, too. The space station also is a laboratory for fundamental physics microgravity research. I spoke with International Space Station Fundamental Physics Senior Program Executive Mark Lee, Ph.D., about station contributions in this discipline.

“In the past 15 years I think we have done a couple of really important investigations on the space shuttle before the space station came into use,” said Lee. “Specifically the Lambda Point Experiment (LPE) and the Confined Helium Experiment (CHEX) investigations. These two look at the quantum effect in a very low temperature also coupled with the dimensionality in a bulk three dimension, versus a confined limit to a two dimensional space, to see how the quantum physics behaved. These studies were provided by Mother Nature of which we cannot change, but from now on we can design our own quantum systems.”

According to Lee, quantum physics is mysterious and still barley understood, making future investigations fertile grounds for progress. “Though humanity has known of quantum physics for just a about 100 years, before the 1990s, however, we had to rely on nature to provide us with a quantum system. For instance, superconductivity, superfluid in liquid helium, even a neutron star and a black hole are gigantic star quantum systems. In the next decade on the space station we are developing the Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) as a ‘designer’s quantum system’ apparatus.”

A multi-user facility, CAL’s design will enable the study of ultra-cold quantum gases in microgravity from aboard the space station. The primary goal is to explore extremely low temperatures, previously inaccessible, for quantum phenomena.

Artist’s concept of an atom chip for use by NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) aboard the International Space Station. CAL will use lasers to cool atoms to ultracold temperatures. (NASA)

Artist’s concept of an atom chip for use by NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL) aboard the International Space Station. CAL will use lasers to cool atoms to ultracold temperatures. (NASA)

Lee continued, “The ability to study Bose Einstein condensates (BEC) and extremely cold atoms in space is a totally new dimension. With the kind of manipulation we will have in CAL, we can create different atom interactions and novel quantum configurations in such a way by manipulating individual atoms to look deeply into the quantum effect. Even Einstein’s Equivalence Principle (EEP) can be tested in space for the first time using this quantum system vs. that of previous classical ones. This is a very exciting area. This excitement, of course, is reflected in the Nobel Prize awards for related areas of study in 1997, 2001 and 2005. I can’t wait to see what happens when researchers can superbly cool and control a quantum system on the space station.”

Another exciting area of study in microgravity is that of physical science. Natural elements such as fluids and fire react quite differently and are some particularly interesting and useful areas of study in this environment. Program Executive for Physical Sciences, International Space Station Research Project Fran Chiaramonte, Ph.D., also weighed in on where we’ve been and where we are going.

When asked about the discipline of physical science in microgravity thus far, Chiaramonte responded, “I think the top achievement was the cool flames discovery. This was made when flames were detected at a temperature significantly below the known ignition temperature for the liquid droplet fuels we were studying in space. This came out of what we call the Flame Extinguishment Experiment (FLEX) where we were looking at droplet combustion in the Combustion Integrated Rack (CIR). The finding was unexpected from that research. Follow-on investigations will continue the quest to understand these flames and better define their characteristics. This has applications in the automotive industry—the findings would hand off via research publications and would be of value to them.”

Flames, like the one pictured here from the Flame Extinguishing Experiment (FLEX), burn more perfectly in microgravity, helping researchers get a better understanding of the nature of combustion in space and on Earth. (NASA)

Flames, like the one pictured here from the Flame Extinguishing Experiment (FLEX), burn more perfectly in microgravity, helping researchers get a better understanding of the nature of combustion in space and on Earth. (NASA)

Chiaramonte cited that in looking to the future, it is the early space station investigations that provide the basis for what’s next. Especially when talking about fluid physics. “In complex fluids, it started with a series of very simple experiments on phase separation between a host liquid and polymer particles. In a weightless environment, these particles will remain suspended in the solution almost indefinitely. On Earth they would settle to the bottom of the container and the experiment would be over before any meaningful science could be done. Over time the particles clumped together and separated out of the solution.”

“These precursor experiments led up to the next series of tests, called the Advanced Colloids Experiment (ACE) series,” continued Chiaramonte. “Now scientists study similar types of solutions under a microscope with a range of magnification and we are looking for a more strategic outcome. For instance, Paul Chaikin, Ph.D., is studying the self-assembly of particles, which has been a plaguing challenge for the future of advanced optical materials. In that work, they have successfully arranged one-dimensional line of particles, and have now successfully arranged a two-dimensional line of particles. This has important industrial applications.”

The gel structure, like that under investigation in the Advanced Colloids Experiment (ACE), is often dominated by fragile strands composed of many particles in a cross-section. (NASA)

The gel structure, like that under investigation in the Advanced Colloids Experiment (ACE), is often dominated by fragile strands composed of many particles in a cross-section. (NASA)

“It will take many researchers beyond Chaikin’s work,” said Chiaramonte, “but by using the space station for that kind of study, we can anticipate a major contribution in this area of three-dimensional ordering of particles and optical computing.”

From questions looking at the microscopic scale of physical phenomena, we now move on to the important minutia within our own bodies with the study of life sciences in microgravity. In speaking with Space Biosciences Division Chief Sid Sun, the research that stands out to him from the space station’s tenure involves the importance of where we’re heading next.

“In life sciences what we’ve been able to do over the last 15 years is answer at a first level the various questions that are associated with life in space,” said Sun. “Essentially how the unique environment of space, such as the microgravity and different radiation levels affect living organisms. As is typical with science, every time you answer one question, a whole other set of questions pop up, so that’s where the future of the research will take us. In particular, we’ll be studying more of the changes in the genomics of living systems.”

Astronaut Sunita Williams, Expedition 14 flight engineer, prepares a laptop for data entry during a blood draw as part of the Nutritional Status Assessment (Nutrition) study in the Destiny laboratory module of the International Space Station. (NASA)

Astronaut Sunita Williams, Expedition 14 flight engineer, prepares a laptop for data entry during a blood draw as part of the Nutritional Status Assessment (Nutrition) study in the Destiny laboratory module of the International Space Station. (NASA)

“Something that the advances in biotechnology are allowing us to do now is better understand what is happening in the basic genetic code within organisms and how that code is being expressed or not expressed in space compared to Earth,” Sun continued. “The space station allows studies of record length for a wide variety of organisms. On the space shuttle scientists were limited to from 10 to 14 days every five years. Now with the continued orbit of the space station we are able to do experiments in microgravity for months, maybe heading into half a year to a year in length, and we continuously have scientists study a wide variety of organisms. That is going to be especially critical as we look to study humans in space for multiyear missions.”

These findings flow to future areas of study, where model animals will play an important role. “Being able to study other organisms, especially rodents, will shed a lot of insights into how spaceflight will be affecting people for long periods of time. In particular, during space station assembly, pharma demonstrated that space biomedical research could enable both drug discovery on Earth and biomedical research important for astronauts. With the new Rodent Research Facility we’re developing for the space station we’re going to take that research to the next level, again taking that research into longer experiments and having more animals up there. It will be high speed compared to the experiments of the past.”

An engineering drawing of NASA’s Rodent Research Facility that will operate aboard the International Space Station. (Lockheed Martin)

An engineering drawing of NASA’s Rodent Research Facility that will operate aboard the International Space Station. (Lockheed Martin)

While model animal studies are key to human health developments, our crew also serves as test subjects for a variety of important investigations. From the beginning, our astronauts collected samples, kept journals and participated in experiments to help increase the understanding of what life in space meant for the human body.

“The first 15 years of the space station provided us with a much deeper understanding of how humans respond to six months of space flight and how to deal with those changes,” said Craig Kundrot, Deputy Chief Scientist, Human Research Program. “We have learned how to prevent or limit problems like bone loss, muscle loss, or aerobic fitness. We have discovered new changes that were not as clear in the one to two week long shuttle missions: changes in the immune system and visual impairment, for example. We have pushed technology to new limits, like the use of ultrasound for the detection of bone fractures and kidney stones.”

“In the ensuing years, we seek to overcome the remaining challenges like visual impairment,” Kundrot continued. “We also plan to progress from overcoming the challenges one at a time to overcoming the challenges with an integrated suite of countermeasures and technologies that keep the astronauts healthy and productive in future exploration missions.” These findings and the development of countermeasures and treatments are not limited to space explores, but have real world applications. From strengthening bones for those suffering from osteoporosis to boosting the immune systems of the elderly and immunosuppressed, there is much to gain from human research in microgravity.

With so much to be proud of in our 15 years of assembly and operations, it’s not surprising we have plenty to look forward to. From my perspective, I am particularly excited to see what space station researchers will discover next. Now is the time for microgravity studies to come into their own. While these future endeavors are fascinating, I am especially touched by the ways such findings return for expanded use on the ground. Whether addressing health concerns, advancing engineering designs, or inspiring the next generation, the space station may have already secured its place in history, but we are far from mission end. If anything, we have only just begun!

1037755main_Julie Robinson.jpg
Julie A. Robinson, Ph.D.
International Space Station Chief Scientist

Julie A. Robinson, Ph.D., is NASA’s International Space Station Chief Scientist, representing all space station research and scientific disciplines. Robinson provides recommendations regarding research on the space station to NASA Headquarters. Her background is interdisciplinary in the physical and biological sciences. Robinson’s professional experience includes research activities in a variety of fields, such as virology, analytical chemistry, genetics, statistics, field biology, and remote sensing. She has authored more than 50 scientific publications and earned a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Utah State University, as well as a Doctor of Philosophy in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology from the University of Nevada Reno.

The Sense in Earth Remote Sensing from the International Space Station

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In today’s A Lab Aloft blog entry International Space Station Chief Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D., shares the benefit to using the space station as a platform for Earth remote sensing instruments.

One of the amazing things that you’re going to see on the International Space Station in the coming years is its emergence as a serious remote sensing platform. Looking at the Earth from space gives researchers a powerful vantage point to study our planet’s water, air, vegetation, and more.

People in remote sensing are used to having their own satellites and putting those instruments at the perfect orbit so that they go over the ground at the perfect time. Fortunately, when the space station was designed, planners recognized that having a platform in low Earth orbit (LEO), which is about half the altitude of most Earth remote sensing satellites, provided researchers the opportunity to do something unique. Designers put locations on the station exterior that provide data, thermal and power support. Basically the space station is a giant, well-equipped satellite that can host a wide variety of remote sensing instruments—dozens of them.

A detailed view of the location for Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment III (SAGE-III) instrument, once it is externally mounted to the International Space Station. You can see the numerous other mounting locations available for other remote sensing investigations. (NASA)

A detailed view of the location for the Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment III (SAGE-III) instrument, once it is externally mounted to the International Space Station. You can see the numerous other mounting locations available for other remote sensing investigations. (NASA)

Now that the space station is complete, we are starting to see scientists take advantage of this platform as their sensors get launched and mounted. I want to talk a little bit about why these instruments are finding a valuable home on the space station. I also want to mention that there are openings through the Earth venture instrument opportunity and other calls via NASA’s Mission Directorate for both small, lower cost instruments and venture-class instruments. It’s wonderful to see the entire Earth science community looking at how the space station can help them achieve their research goals.

One huge advantage to using the space station is the frequent transportation to orbit. The abundant power and data capabilities are also tremendous benefits. Something else to consider is that station is a bit more jittery compared to other Earth remote sensing satellites, but engineers can adapt designs to work around this, as well as to manage contamination concerns for such a complex vehicle.

When I look at the instruments coming to the space station, one thing that is singular is the 51.6 degree inclination of our platform. That means that instead of passing over at the same time every day, which is typical of an Earth remote sensing satellite, the space station actually has a precessing orbit and does not go over the poles. In other words, the ground track moves westward along each of 16 daily tracks as it travels, with ground track repeats every three days, and a 63-daylight cycle. That gives you some unique opportunities. While at first it may not appear ideal for certain kinds of Earth remote sensing, researchers are working with that difference to turn it from a challenge into an asset.

The precessing orbit of the space station laid out over a map of the Earth. (NASA)

The precessing orbit of the space station laid out over a map of the Earth. (NASA)

What I’m seeing in the instruments coming forward are some trends in how they are using the space station to their advantage. One area is in the capability to fill data gaps using station-mounted sensors, specifically where other satellites have failed or not yet made it to orbit. Station provides a rapid turnaround opportunity to fill those data gaps, providing a fuller insight into each area of research.

A second trend I’ve noticed has to do with areas where there is a new airborne technology. People would like to have those get on global satellites, but first the instruments need to be tested and the technology refined. The space station is a great place to do that kind of advancement, so that in the future the more expensive satellite mission can be successful.

Another group of instruments are taking advantage of the diurnal—daytime and daily activity—variability of the station. For instance, if you have a sensor on a satellite in sun-synchronous orbit, it goes over the ground at the same time every day. When you add a second, parallel instrument you can take advantage of observing things at different times. Think of MODIS, which is going over the tropics daily at the same time. That area may be cloudy most of the time, because of the specific schedule. With the space station, however, you could now and then get that same data early in the morning before the clouds have built up.

The Earth's atmosphere seen in the thin blue line fading into the darkness of space, as photographed by a crew member aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

The Earth’s atmosphere seen in the thin blue line fading into the darkness of space, as photographed by a crew member aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

Another pattern we are seeing is the opportunity for cross-calibration, where researchers compare data sets from both the station- and satellite-related sensors. It can be really valuable to have a second instrument aboard station for this cross-validation of data. There are several instruments in orbit now, and the station will eventually pass under each of those sensors and simultaneously collect data. That allows for the cross-calibration of instruments that would otherwise be impossible.

With that as a background, here are a few highlights of instruments coming up for use aboard the space station for remote Earth sensing.

The Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment III (SAGE-III) is a spectrometer that uses occultation. This basically means that it looks at the light transmitted from the sun or the moon filtered through the atmosphere and measures the aerosols that are found there. SAGE-III is scheduled to launch to the space station in 2015. This latest spectrometer has a heritage of previous SAGE instruments that discovered the ozone hole, which we all know about now and that led to the 1987 Montreal Protocol.

The updated SAGE-III will help us understand atmospheric composition and long-term variability. The space station’s orbit is actually ideal for these types of occultation measurements. Having the opportunity to mount this major instrument to our platform is thrilling.

The Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment III (SAGE-III) instrument, seen in this artistic rendering, is scheduled to launch to the International Space Station in 2015. It will capture remote Earth sensing data of the aerosols in the atmosphere. (NASA)

The Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment III (SAGE-III) instrument, seen in this artistic rendering, is scheduled to launch to the International Space Station in 2015. It will capture remote Earth sensing data of the aerosols in the atmosphere. (NASA)

Another instrument that is going up to station very soon on SpaceX-5, scheduled for 2014, is a LIDAR instrument looking at clouds. Called the Cloud Aerosol Transport System (CATS), this sensor will mount to the JEM exposed facility. This is a case of testing an instrument that was developed for airborne use, but has not flown on a satellite yet.

What CATS does is it emits a laser light signal at three different wavelengths. It then looks at the signal that comes back to measure the layer height of the clouds, the layer thickness, the backscatter (the reflected light back), the optical depth and the depolarization. In so doing, CATS helps us understand the structure of those clouds. This is hugely important for global climate modeling, because clouds can function as insulators. They can prevent sun from getting to the ground, and they also can prevent heat from getting out of the Earth.

Sample LIDAR data from the airborne Cloud Physics LIDAR, predecessor to the Cloud Aerosol Transport System (CATS), showing cloud heights and aerosol layers. (NASA)

Sample LIDAR data from the airborne Cloud Physics LIDAR, predecessor to the Cloud Aerosol Transport System (CATS), showing cloud heights and aerosol layers. (NASA)

The ISS-RapidScat also is planned for launch to space station in the not too distant future. This is a radar scatterometer measuring ocean wind speeds. The instrument is a refurbished engineering model of the sea wind scatterometer that was on QuickScat, which had some failures. This updated version is a data gap filler and the information is used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other agencies in predicting hurricane intensification and understanding these major storms. The next satellite scatterometers that will go up are going to have intersections with ISS-RapidScat. It’s inspiring to see the cross-calibration capabilities that come with this series of instruments.

An artist rendering of the ISS-RapidScat aboard the International Space Station. This instrument will measure wind speeds to provide hurricane prediction data to researchers. (NASA)

An artist rendering of the ISS-RapidScat aboard the International Space Station. This instrument will measure wind speeds to provide hurricane prediction data to researchers. (NASA)

The space station provides this extraordinary emerging opportunity with rapid implementation of airborne and space-borne instruments to fill data gaps. This includes the ability to test an airborne technology globally before launching a premier satellite-based instrument, as well as the ability to take advantage of the somewhat unusual space station orbit tracks. We can capture diurnal opportunities that other instruments miss and even use the data to cross-calibrate across a constellation of sensors to really improve the quality of the overall global data sets.

We are going to have our first dedicated session for space station remote Earth sensing at this year’s American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, from December 9-13, 2013. It is encouraging to have all of these newer science instruments coming to space station in the next year or two. I am thrilled to see the scientific community putting their creativity out there as they think about what instruments make sense for the space station and proposing those in solicitations.

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Julie A. Robinson, Ph.D.
International Space Station Chief Scientist

Julie A. Robinson, Ph.D., is NASA’s International Space Station Chief Scientist, representing all space station research and scientific disciplines. Robinson provides recommendations regarding research on the space station to NASA Headquarters. Her background is interdisciplinary in the physical and biological sciences. Robinson’s professional experience includes research activities in a variety of fields, such as virology, analytical chemistry, genetics, statistics, field biology, and remote sensing. She has authored more than 50 scientific publications and earned a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Utah State University, as well as a Doctor of Philosophy in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology from the University of Nevada Reno.

 

Cool Flames on the International Space Station – An Anatomy of Discovery

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In today’s A Lab Aloft, Mike Hicks, project scientist at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, blogs about discovering the “cool” world of combustion aboard the International Space Station.

In a recent posting on this blog one of our International Space Station combustion researchers, Sandra Olson, noted that when it comes to combustion experiments in microgravity one should expect surprises. This has certainly proven to be true with one of our liquid fuel combustion investigations currently operating aboard the space station.

The Flammability and Extinction (FLEX) study burns liquid fuels dispensed in the form of small, single droplets. The goal is to answer two key questions: the first is how difficult it is to keep a flame burning in microgravity? We call this flammability mapping. The second is how effective is gaseous carbon dioxide (CO2) (or other diluents) in extinguishing spacecraft fires? Gaseous CO2 is particularly important because this is the current fire suppressant used in the U.S. module of the space station.

To answer these and other “burning questions” the FLEX team of scientists studies small droplets of fuel. This approach allows a large number of tests to take place under a wide range of conditions. The flame that results from igniting these fuel droplets (ranging in size from 1.0 mm to 6.0 mm in diameter) achieves a shape that can only happen in a reduced gravity environment—that is, they become little glowing balls of fire.

Image of a burning droplet in microgravity during a Flammability and Extinction (FLEX) test aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

Image of a burning droplet in microgravity during a Flammability and Extinction (FLEX) test aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

Within fractions of a second following ignition, the reaction front—visualized as a flame—quickly wraps around the fuel droplet and assumes a spherical shape. This remains mostly motionless until the droplet of fuel is consumed or until the conditions are such that the flame can no longer exist. You can watch the Strange Flames on the International Space Station video to see these microgravity flames in action.

The overarching goal of FLEX is to better understand the complicated physical processes behind determining whether or not a flame can exist in a given environment for a given fuel type. The environment varies based on the amount of oxygen in the combustion chamber along with other gases that balance out the test atmosphere.

Since combustion processes are rich in physics and chemistry, there are many parameters that play a role in flame survival. The FLEX experiments allow scientists a way to study these competing physical processes—such as the rate of fuel consumption, fuel characteristics, the controlling energy and mass transfer processes, and the physical properties of the gases that make up the test environment. By understanding and modeling these processes, we hope to better predict fire behavior in space. This also leads to Earth technology advances, such as more fuel efficient engine designs.

FLEX recently led us to a “cool” discovery, igniting the imaginations of many combustion researchers. During one of their many late night test sessions, the FLEX operations team noticed a very peculiar orange afterglow about 20 seconds after the flame had extinguished. It was so intense that the team first thought something else other than the fuel droplet was burning.

A cloud of condensed fuel, like a fog, forms around the heptane fuel droplet following its dual-stage extinguishment in the FLEX investigation. (NASA)

A cloud of condensed fuel, like a fog, forms around the heptane fuel droplet following its dual-stage extinguishment in the FLEX investigation. (NASA)

After a few repeated tests, the team concluded that this bright afterglow resulted from tiny droplets of re-condensed fuel vapor. The idea was that these tiny droplets formed a fog, scattering the yellow-orange backlight that is used to project the droplet’s shadow onto one of the diagnostic cameras. The afterglow was initially dismissed as an artifact of the test configuration—or so we thought.

A few days later we recovered the data from the space station and processed the images for accurate measurements. As we looked closely at the droplet shadow images we realized this glow was actually a clue to something new.

Typically when a flame extinguishes, the evaporation of the fuel droplet will nearly stop, and the droplet stops shrinking, which makes entirely good sense—no flame, well then, no fuel consumption. We discovered with FLEX that under certain conditions when the flame disappeared, the droplet of fuel continued to evaporate at almost the same rate as when the flame was visible. In many cases this “apparent” fuel consumption without a flame lasted longer than with the flame.

Video screen shot of a FLEX ignition test for a ~2.5 mm methanol fuel droplet formed on tip of needle. (NASA)

Video screen shot of a FLEX ignition test for a ~2.5 mm methanol fuel droplet formed on tip of needle. (NASA)

Even more startling, we saw that when the pressure of the chamber was slightly increased, the flame momentarily reappeared in a brief flash before quickly going out again. In some cases this phenomena repeated until the fuel was consumed. This finding has a number of interesting ramifications, both from a purely scientific perspective as well as from a fire safety perspective. It provides the first direct observation of a long held concern—the possibility that microgravity conditions were conducive to re-ignition of flammable mixtures.

Ignition of 4.5 mm droplet on tethering fibers (crossed fibers shown as glowing lines) developing into a large weak flame which quickly extinguishes (t = 10.8 seconds), followed by period of low-temperature burning (~ 2 seconds) with no visible flame, a brief return to high-temperature burning (for ~ 1.5 seconds at t = 12.9 seconds). This cycle repeated once, until the fuel droplet was completely consumed. (NASA)

Ignition of 4.5 mm droplet on tethering fibers (crossed fibers shown as glowing lines) developing into a large weak flame which quickly extinguishes (t = 10.8 seconds), followed by period of low-temperature burning (~ 2 seconds) with no visible flame, a brief return to high-temperature burning (for ~ 1.5 seconds at t = 12.9 seconds). This cycle repeated once, until the fuel droplet was completely consumed. (NASA)

At first glance, it seemed irrational that the fuel droplet continued to evaporate with no visible flame. Some of the science team argued, myself included, that this could be explained by characteristics of the test chamber environment. It was suggested that once the visible flame extinguished, that there was still a sufficient amount of energy remaining in the surrounding gases to continue the rate of the droplet’s evaporation.

Since buoyant forces are absent in microgravity flames, the hot gases simply remain stationary around the droplet—so we theorized that as these gases cooled, heat transferred back into the droplet. We quickly realized, however, that this would have resulted in a gradual slowing of the droplet’s evaporation rate, which was not the case. During the “dark burning periods” when no flame was visible, the evaporation rates were essentially constant, similar to what is seen with a visible flame. Interestingly, these evaporation rates suddenly stopped when the afterglow of the scattered light began to appear.

In 65 years of previous droplet experiments, and employing a staggering breadth of microgravity test configurations—from converted mine shafts in Japan to experiments performed on the recently retired space shuttles—this phenomena had never been observed. The prior universal observation was that when the flame went out, the rapid evaporation of the droplet stopped. However, with these tests we now had a fuel droplet that continued to be consumed at a rapid rate without an apparent flame.

NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, Expedition 36 flight engineer, services the Combustion Integrated Rack (CIR) Multi-user Droplet Combustion Apparatus (MDCA) in the International Space Station's Destiny laboratory. This is the facility in which the FLEX investigation tests take place in orbit. (NASA)

NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, Expedition 36 flight engineer, services the Combustion Integrated Rack (CIR) Multi-user Droplet Combustion Apparatus (MDCA) in the International Space Station’s Destiny laboratory. This is the facility in which the FLEX investigation tests take place in orbit. (NASA)

After a great deal of deliberation, the collective wisdom of the FLEX team came up with a theoretical explanation: “cool flames!” The technical explanation for this phenomena first appeared in Combustion and Flame in an article entitled “Can Cool Flames Support Quasi-Steady Alkane Droplet Burning?

So what exactly is a cool flame and why is it important? The discovery of cool flames is often attributed to Sir Humphry Davy in 1812. While investigating flames for the purpose of designing safety lamps for coal miners, Davy observed that he could generate flames in the lab that were so weak that they could would not even ignite a match. This finding was followed by W.H. Perkins, who published in 1882 the first investigation of cool flames. Perkins observed that vapors of organic fuels produced what he characterized as “blue lambent flames.” Generally speaking, cool flames are the visible light of oxidation reactions occurring at low temperatures, sometimes nearly 10 times less than normal flame temperatures.

This side-by-side image shows a comparison of a flame burning on Earth (left) and a flame in microgravity (right). (NASA)

This side-by-side image shows a comparison of a flame burning on Earth (left) and a flame in microgravity (right). (NASA)

Cool flame temperatures depend on fuel type and atmosphere. For n-heptane—the alkane fuel used in the FLEX experiments—cool flames appear at temperatures just above 600 degrees Fahrenheit. This is about 176 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the temperature for baking bread and considerably less, by about 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit, than the flame one might roast a marshmallow over. Hence the name “cool flame.”

Despite the name, these flames’ temperatures are still sufficiently high to sustain chemical reactions. Understanding exactly what kind of chemical reactions are taking place, as well as the conditions necessary to propel the chemistry into the high temperature realm of hot flames, are key research areas in the study of cool flames.

Prior to the FLEX discovery, it was thought cool flames were primarily pre-ignition phenomena generally limited to pre-mixed gases. If you’ve ever taken your car in for engine knocking, you’ve experienced an example of this. Pockets of gas in the cylinder undergo low temperature reactions (i.e., cool flames) that result in poorly timed pressure peaks. These deviations from the optimal peak pressure timing that should occur shortly after spark ignition result in the noise often associated with engine knock.

The FLEX study, however, showed a post-ignition cool flame. This occurred in a controlled system where reactants are initially separated, requiring time to travel to the reaction zone, which we see as the flame. This appears as a relatively steady phenomenon, suggesting a delicate balance between heat generated by the reaction and heat losses to the surrounding—to date, only achievable in space.

The microgravity cool flame discovery is significant for a number of reasons. Low temperature combustion in internal combustion engines, for instance, offers a number of advantages: reduced emissions, less wear on engine parts and increased fuel efficiencies. A better understanding of these low temperature burning regimes may help address challenges facing new internal combustion technologies, such as the Homogenous Charge Compression Ignition (HCCI) and Reactivity Charge Compression Ignition (RCCI) engines. Since these technologies lack a spark for localized ignition, knowledge of cool flames may help with precise timing of the combustion event—based, in this case, on a reactant mixture that may only be partially pre-mixed.

Microgravity cool flames are exciting in their own right, because of the potential for refining our understanding of a very complicated combustion phenomena. This is true of all serendipitous discoveries, giving one more example of how the space station provides an opportunity for discoveries that would otherwise never get made.

Mike Hicks is pictured with his granddaughter, Emma, while roasting marshmallows over “cool” flames of another kind.

Mike Hicks is pictured with his granddaughter, Emma, while roasting marshmallows over “cool” flames of another kind. (Image Courtesy of Mike Hicks)

Mike Hicks, project scientist at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, has been with NASA for 22 years and is currently probing the mysteries of droplet combustion as a co-investigator on the Flammability and Extinction (FLEX) study. He is also the principal investigator on the Supercritical Water Mixture (SCWM) International Space Station flight investigation, which is designed to study precipitation phenomena in near-critical water. Hicks spends much of his free time as a doctoral candidate at Case Western Reserve University putting the finishing touches on a dissertation he plans to complete in the fall of 2013.

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