Tag Archives: Benefits

Space Station Espresso Cups: Strong Coffee Yields Stronger Science

Posted on by .

In today’s A Lab Aloft, International Space Station researcher, Mark Weislogel, Ph.D., boils down why brews served in microgravity will percolate better science than coffee, thanks to the Space Cup.

*UPDATE: The Space Cup was named one of “The Most Cleverly Designed Objects of 2015” by WIRED Magazine!*

SA (European Space Agency) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti - dressed in a Star Trek Voyager uniform - takes a sip of espresso from the new Capillary Beverage investigation, also known as Space Cup while looking out of the Cupola window.

European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti – dressed in a Star Trek Voyager uniform – takes a sip of espresso from the new Capillary Beverage investigation, also known as Space Cup while looking out of the Cupola window. Credits: NASA

You may have heard the “caffeine buzz” around the Internet about the ISSpresso machine that recently launched to the International Space Station. It would be out of this world indeed to have a cup to go along with it. So we designed, fabricated, tested, and flight qualified one. In fact six such cups are now on the space station and ready for action. With real science backing the design, our microgravity coffee cup will do more than lift espresso to astronauts’ lips — it will also provide data on the passive movement of complex fluids as part of the Capillary Beverage investigation. The results will confirm and direct math models that help engineers exploit capillary fluid physics (capillary fluidics) to control how liquids move by designing containers specific to the task at hand. Whether getting the last drop of fuel for a rocket engine or delivering the perfect dose of medication to a patient, there are real Earth benefits behind the brew.

In 2008, astronauts aboard the International Space Station demonstrated the pouch method of drinking yesterday’s coffee and today’s coffee, while the Space Cup will serve the coffee of tomorrow — providing real science for fluid physics research. In the front, left to right, crew members Michael Finke and Chris Ferguson, with Eric Boe and Donald Pettit in the back. (NASA)

In 2008, astronauts aboard the International Space Station demonstrated the pouch method of drinking yesterday’s coffee and today’s coffee, while the Space Cup will serve the coffee of tomorrow — providing real science for fluid physics research. In the front, left to right, crew members Michael Finke and Chris Ferguson, with Eric Boe and Donald Pettit in the back. (NASA)

On Earth, gravity is responsible for making bubbles rise and liquids fall. Such mechanisms vanish in the weightless environment of orbiting spacecraft. In fact, in microgravity there is no concept notion of floating or sinking, or up or down. Other forces such as surface tension that are normally overwhelmed by gravity on Earth rise to dominate liquid behavior.

In a spacecraft, if the effects of surface tension are not understood, liquids (e.g., water, fuel) can be just about anywhere in the container that holds them. Similarly, the gas (e.g., oxygen, nitrogen) in such containers can freely range, too. You’re in for a challenge if you want to find where these fluids are and use them. Even if you just want to drink them. This is why in space you’ll only see astronauts drinking from bags with straws so that they can completely collapse the bag to assure the liquids come out. From a practical safety perspective, the bags also provide a level of containment.

When my laboratory heard of ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti and the Italian Space Agency’s espresso machine investigation (ISSpresso) going to space, it got us thinking about that beautifully complex drink and how it would behave differently — especially whether the coffee would develop a crema or not. Currently, we don’t believe so because the bubbles that form during the espresso brew process won’t naturally rise to the surface due to absence of buoyancy in the microgravity environment. Other weaker forces often masked by gravity are present and will likely play an unearthly role in what happens, making the espresso fun to observe. It will be a different kind of fun altogether to get real science out of the process at the same time.

In a normal cup of espresso, carbon dioxide bubbles release and collect to form a crema. Some of the bubbles adhere to the walls of the cup, while the remainder rise and stratify due to their size in layers we refer to as foam. Steam rises above the surface of the crema in part condensing in an advancing front on the inside surfaces of the cup. The cup cools by natural convection and the aromatics waft at rates determined by buoyancy. These processes are completely induced by gravity!

When the influence of gravity is greatly reduced, as it is aboard orbiting spacecraft, not much of this stuff is going to happen. This will be unusual for the astronauts. Even the smell of the coffee diffusing through the crema is driven by natural convection currents in the air, which are absent in the microgravity environment. So the simple, every day fluid physics taking place in your daily coffee are highly dependent on gravity. From taste to smell, we anticipate what may even be a disappointing cup of coffee in space. But only the astronauts will know, and we will have to take their word for it in the hopes of one day trying this for ourselves.

Touching your lips to the rim of the Space Cup establishes a capillary connection allowing the drinker access to the entire contents. Sip-by-sip or in one big gulp, the cup’s contents may be imbibed somewhat normally in space, as on Earth. (A. Wollman, IRPI)

Touching your lips to the rim of the Space Cup establishes a capillary connection allowing the drinker access to the entire contents. Sip-by-sip or in one big gulp, the cup’s contents may be imbibed somewhat normally in space, as on Earth. (A. Wollman, IRPI)

You can imagine how many variables are at play for the drinking experience from a human factors perspective, but gravity influences many of these, too. Sinus drainage, saliva migration, time aloft, and others are reasonable microgravity-related parameters affecting one’s response to the drinking experience in space. We designed the Space Cup with the central objective of delivering the liquid passively to the lip of the cup. To do this we exploit surface tension, wetting conditions, and the special geometry of the cup itself. We have yet to learn the human-cup interaction in microgravity. The cup design forces the drinker’s nose directly over the fluid contents. But since the aromatics do not rise, one might expect a rather concentrated dose upon the first whiff. Maybe this won’t be a big deal since astronauts report a reduced sense of smell while in space, due to somewhat clogged sinuses. This is presumably due to the headward fluid redistribution that occurs in spaceflight.

We were highly motivated to make the cup transparent so we could observe all of the fluid physics going on in the process. It may sound nerdy, but that’s what we do—we study microgravity fluid physics in hopes of designing more reliable fluid systems for future spacecraft, and more effective fluid systems for applications on Earth.

Touching your lips to the rim of the cup establishes a capillary connection, almost like the wicking of water through a paper towel, allowing the drinker access to the entire contents. My colleagues and I have been doing research aboard station for more than 10 years. During the course of hundreds and hundreds of experiments, we’ve been developing the mathematical predictive tools and computational tools for such passive capillary fluidic processes. Now we are in a place to develop designs for systems in space — systems with promises of high reliability because they perform their function passively, without moving parts. Examples include things like urine treatment and processing, and systems to close the water cycle helping to enable truly long duration crewed space exploration. These same tools also help us with fuel systems, cooling systems, water processing equipment for plant and animal habitats, and much more.

Perfecting these systems can also help us prevent disasters in orbit or on long-duration missions such as the journey to Mars. For example, the primary oxygen supply systems on many spacecraft use electrolysis. If the system gets a single air bubble lodged within its tubing, it can shut down until the bubble is found and removed. To get a sense of working with these types of systems in space, you need an understanding of capillary phenomena from studies, believe it or not, like Capillary Beverage.

The Space Cup’s specific design uses known geometry, gathered in prior International Space Station research, to direct fluids to the lip of the user. (Credit: M. Meyer, IRPI)

The Space Cup’s specific design uses known geometry, gathered in prior International Space Station research, to direct fluids to the lip of the user. (Credit: M. Meyer, IRPI)

While fun, this study has plenty of design research behind it. Many of the aspects of our fluid physics research in microgravity are present in this simple cup demonstration — the effects of wetting, the effects of geometry, and the effects of fluid properties, especially surface tension. The results could provide information useful to engineers who design fuel tanks for commercial satellites, for instance. If you can find all your fuel, you can save costs and maximize the mission duration.

With this cup we can also study complex fluids that we have not previously addressed. For example, just adding sugar or milk to tea is expected to radically change the performance of the process of how the fluids move. We’ll approach this systematically aboard the space station. We’re starting off with water, then clear juice, then tea, tea with sugar, etc., including complex drinks like cocoa, a chocolate breakfast drink, and even a peach-mango smoothie. Undissolved solids, dissolved gasses, foams, free bubbles, surfactants, varying viscosities, temperature effects and more — all in little transparent 3D printed cups used by astronauts to drink on the space station. This progression from simple to complex beverages will give us a wealth of data — data which we aim to apply not just in space, but on Earth, too.

The astronaut(s) will set up the experiment near the galley, position the cup, camera, and lighting for orthogonal views (views at right angles), and a variety of experiments will be performed using the HD video as our quantitative data source. For example, when the astronaut fills the cup, the filing process is research. When the astronaut drains the cup, the draining is research. The static and dynamic interface shapes tell us everything we need to know, from wetting conditions to stability, to visco-capillary interaction. This is the exciting part for us! We see the profile of the interface, we watch particles and bubbles as flow tracers, we get velocities and volumetric drain rates, and all as functions of what the astronaut is doing — enjoying a cup of coffee! Astronaut Kjell Lindgren is planning to take up plenty of his own espresso during Expeditions 44/45. We have plenty to look forward to.

International Space Station Expedition 44/45 crew members Kjell Lindgren and Kimiya Yui enjoying food tasting at NASA’s Habitability and Environmental Factors Office in Houston. Lindgren plans to take his own espresso grounds with him into orbit to enjoy as part of the Capillary Beverage study. (NASA/Bill Stafford)

International Space Station Expedition 44/45 crew members Kjell Lindgren and Kimiya Yui enjoying food tasting at NASA’s Habitability and Environmental Factors Office in Houston. Lindgren plans to take his own espresso grounds with him into orbit to enjoy as part of the Capillary Beverage study. (NASA/Bill Stafford)

With this cup, most everything is taken care of passively by the shape of the cup. There isn’t a straight line in it. There are no moving parts. Wouldn’t it be nice if all the fluid systems on spacecraft worked like that? We know it would result in less worry on the ground. The simpler things are, the more robust their function and the less time is needed for maintenance.

Check out this video about our first version of a zero-g coffee cup.

What we are learning here is not just for space. All the design tools we are developing are applicable to small fluidic systems on Earth, too. For example, portable point-of-care medical diagnostic devices exploit capillary flow to passively move a very small sample of blood to any variety of regions on a testing chip. That makes it possible to diagnose infectious diseases in places where there is no power or where power is unreliable. It also reduces the time between sample collection and diagnosis and, therefore, initiation of treatment. We will report more on this connection in the future.

The next time you brew a cup of your favorite coffee, imagine what it might be like to take a sip from the Capillary Beverage cup aboard the International Space Station while watching the Earth go by. Then consider the fluids research off the Earth, that can make a difference right here on the Earth.

Mark Weislogel, Ph.D. (Portland State University)

Mark Weislogel, Ph.D. (Portland State University)

Mark Weislogel, Ph.D., is senior scientist and vice president of IRPI LLC and professor Mechanical Engineering at Portland State University. He was founded in microgravity fluid physics while employed at NASA’s  Glenn Research Center. Whether in the private sector or academia, Weislogel has since continued to make extensive use of NASA ground-based low-gravity facilities and has completed investigations aboard space shuttles, the Russian Mir Space Station, and the International Space Station. He led the design of the Dryden Drop Tower, which has conducted over 4,000 drop tests and continue at a rate of over 1,000/year. Current efforts are directed to research, development, and delivery of advanced fluid systems for spacecraft.

Health Research off the Earth, For the Earth

Posted on by .

Today’s A Lab Aloft was posted by Ellen Stofan and Julie Robinson on April 17, 2015.

The International Space Station is a unique laboratory for performing investigations that affect human health both in space and on Earth. Since its assembly, the space station has supported research that is providing a better understanding of certain aspects of both fundamental and applied human health, such as the mechanisms causing aging and disease. Several biological and human physiological investigations have yielded important results, including improved understanding of bone loss and rebuilding, and development of new medical technologies that have impacted lives right here on Earth.

From studying the behavior of cells to developing potential improvements in clinical settings, a variety of health research arrived at the space station today aboard the sixth SpaceX contracted resupply mission. The Dragon spacecraft delivered research equipment for biology, biotechnology, human research, as well as additional research and supplies to the station. These new and ongoing investigations continue to assist researchers in pursuing scientific and medical knowledge not possible under the weight of gravity on Earth.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying the Dragon resupply spacecraft on the sixth commercial resupply services mission to the International Space Station. Liftoff was at 4:10 p.m. EDT on April 14. (NASA/Tony Gray)

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying the Dragon resupply spacecraft on the sixth commercial resupply services mission to the International Space Station. Liftoff was at 4:10 p.m. EDT on April 14. (NASA/Tony Gray)

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and his identical twin brother Mark will participate in a series of human health studies as part of the recently begun One-Year Mission aboard the space station. The data collected comparing the twins, Scott on the space station, and Mark living on Earth, will enable researchers to determine how cognitive function, metabolic profiles, gastrointestinal microbiota, immune system and genetic sequences are affected by different factors attributable to the environmental stress of spaceflight. Results could potentially be used as the first steps to understand how to help develop new treatments and preventive measures for health issues on Earth.

Another investigation will study how and why some astronauts experience eye changes that can affect their vision during missions aboard the station. There are several factors that may cause this problem during spaceflight. This research will improve scientists’ understanding of this phenomenon and how changes in the brain and eye shape affects vision. It could also help people on Earth suffering from conditions that increase swelling and pressure in the brain.

NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins and European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano perform ultrasound eye imaging as part of the Fluid Shifts investigation during Expedition 37 on the International Space Station. (NASA)

NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins and European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano perform ultrasound eye imaging as part of the Fluid Shifts investigation during Expedition 37 on the International Space Station. (NASA)

Studying cells in space is another important area of health research on the station. Research in microgravity provides an important novel tool to better understand the mechanisms that cause cellular functions such as cell division, gene expression and shape. Looking at cells in space provides unique insights, because in the absence of Earth’s gravity, cells grow with a similar structure as they do in the body. Scientists can use this knowledge to improve diagnosis and therapies.

A type of bone cell, called osteocytes, will arrive at the space station on today’s cargo delivery as part of a project funded under the Biomedical Research on the International Space Station (BioMed-ISS). This initiative is a collaborative effort among the National Institutes of Health, the ISS National Laboratory and NASA. The investigation team, led by Dr. Paola Divieti Pajevic, Assistant Professor at Boston University and the Director of the bone cell core at Massachusetts General Hospital, will analyze the effects of microgravity on the function of osteocytes. The study will provide better understanding of the mechanisms behind bone disorders on Earth, such as osteoporosis.

The three colorful bioreactors where mouse bone cells grow within a 3D material for the Osteo-4 investigation aboard the International Space Station. (Divieti Pajevic Laboratory)

The three colorful bioreactors where mouse bone cells grow within a 3D material for the Osteo-4 investigation aboard the International Space Station. (Divieti Pajevic Laboratory)

Additional investigations also may yield results that can potentially improve patient health in clinical settings on Earth. Scientists may be able to develop methods for combating hospital-acquired infections, a chronic problem in clinical settings, by researching bacterial growth in a microgravity environment. Moreover, by studying protein crystallization in space, scientists may be able to improve crystallization technology that can change the way drugs are used for treating various human diseases.

The programs outlined here illustrate only a fraction of the space station’s potential as a groundbreaking scientific research facility. The International Space Station National Laboratory, as designated by the 2005 NASA Authorization Act, is a unique scientific platform that continues to enable researchers to put their talents to work on innovative experiments that could not be done anywhere else. Use of the space station’s singular capabilities as a permanent microgravity platform with exposure to the space environment is improving life on Earth; fostering relationships among NASA, other federal entities, and the private sector; and advancing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.

We may not know yet what will be the most important discovery gained from this orbiting laboratory, but we already are doing significant research on the International Space Station that could greatly benefit human health. Through advancing the state of scientific knowledge of our planet, looking after our health, and providing a space platform that inspires and educates health, science and technology leaders of tomorrow, these benefits will drive the legacy of the space station as its research enhances the quality of life here on Earth.

Ellen Stofan is the Chief Scientist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA/Jay Westcott)

Ellen Stofan is the Chief Scientist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA/Jay Westcott)

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

 

 

2014 Retrospective a Look Forward as the Space Station Comes into its Own

Posted on by .

In today’s A Lab Aloft International Space Station Chief Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D., looks back on 2014 to highlight some of the year’s milestones and research achievements.

As I take a moment to reflect on the accomplishments of the past 12 months, I can’t help but think of how they relate to where we’re going next with the International Space Station. From the crew capabilities to research goals, from NASA’s plans for continued exploration to the benefits for humanity from station studies, there are some key areas that stand out from 2014.

Expedition 41 crew portrait on the International Space Station. From left: ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst, Roscosmos cosmonauts Elena Serova, Maxim Suraev and Alexander Samokutyaev, and NASA astronauts Reid Wiseman and Barry Wilmore. (NASA)

Expedition 41 crew portrait on the International Space Station. From left: ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst, Roscosmos cosmonauts Elena Serova, Maxim Suraev and Alexander Samokutyaev, and NASA astronauts Reid Wiseman and Barry Wilmore. (NASA)

During the last year there has been so much demand for research on the space station—including investigations that require crew time—planners really have had to push the schedule. We deferred some preventative maintenance, scaling back on some filter changes, for instance, to adjust operations for increased crew time for research. That’s allowed us to get as much as 47 hours a week averaged in a six-month period. This number is the total for the three U.S. astronauts, rather than the original standard of 35 hours for science. When you think about it, that’s almost half again as much research as the designed schedule.

This is a great performance of balancing time aboard station, though we won’t always be able to hold to that. This is why we still need to go to seven crew members. The crew dedicating time to tend to investigations helps us to optimize the research coming out of space station, as well. Currently we house six crew members in orbit aboard the space station, and some of you may know that this is one person short of the craft’s design to sleep seven. This is because our Soyuz “lifeboat” can only return six crew members in an emergency. The advent of commercial crew will allow us to expand by that extra crew member, as the new vehicles can ferry four. This is a future goal that we all look forward to:  a full house.

The crew was particularly busy during the latter part of 2014 with a huge new capability for biological research using model animals. This also was driven by user demand to launch rodents—meaning mice and rats, though so far we’re starting with mice on the space station. We now have a system that can launch rodents aboard the SpaceX Dragon vehicle. The animals can live aboard station for a long period of time in special habitats, and then either be processed on orbit or eventually returned live. This system was important to get online this year, because we had a large number of users in medical research and pharmaceuticals interested in using space station as a test bed for their studies.

NASA astronaut Butch Wilmore setting up the Rodent Reseach-1 Hardware in the Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG) aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

NASA astronaut Butch Wilmore setting up the Rodent Reseach-1 Hardware in the Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG) aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

There are many discoveries that have affected human health that were dependent on the use of animals as what we call “model organisms,” from the discovery of insulin to the that of tamoxifen to treat breast cancer to kidney transplants. This doesn’t mean these organisms are going to grace the cover of a magazine, but rather that they provide a model for humans to help us understand disease processes. By watching how they respond to research, we can in turn learn how to fight those diseases.

The use of model organisms in laboratories on Earth and aboard the International Space Station can lead to insights for researchers into human health. (NASA/Julie Robinson)

The use of model organisms in laboratories on Earth and aboard the International Space Station can lead to insights for researchers into human health. (NASA/Julie Robinson)

Having the ability to fly mice to space for long-duration studies is a huge advance. Fulfilling this capability was our response to the Decadal Survey recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences. We have years of research already lined up hoping to get access to these mice. To optimize the potential for discovery, we combine as many experiments together on this precious resource as possible.

This is an exciting area of study, as just a handful of mice have flown in the past—both on space station assembly flights and one flight in a system called mice drawer system. Even so, those findings account for a significant number of our highest profile publications from space station research. With access twice per year, we now have this type of study as a routine capability. This means we can expect to see a huge ramp-up in high-impact research in biomedical areas.

Another big change this year has been the space station maturing as a platform for Earth science. My colleagues in Earth sciences at NASA have called this the year of the Earth, because they’ve had five related instruments go into space this year. That’s a record, and two of these are on the space station, a first!

Artist's rendering of NASA's ISS-RapidScat instrument (inset), which launched to the International Space Station in 2014 to measure ocean surface wind speed and direction and help improve weather forecasts, including hurricane monitoring. It wasinstalled on the end of the Columbus laboratory. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Johnson Space Center

Artist’s rendering of NASA’s ISS-RapidScat instrument (inset), which launched to the International Space Station in 2014 to measure ocean surface wind speed and direction and help improve weather forecasts, including hurricane monitoring. It was installed on the end of the Columbus laboratory. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Johnson Space Center

Moving forward we’re going to see a couple instruments a year go up until the space station’s current external sites are primarily full, likely in 2017. We now need to study whether to grow our capabilities to support more Earth sciences instruments, as well as astrophysics and heliophysics studies.

It’s really thrilling to see these initial instruments come to station and begin operations right off the bat. The first of these, ISS-RapidScat, was bringing hurricane data home within three hours—this was less than a week after installation. The instrument measured the sea-surface winds and was used to look at Typhoon Vongfong in Japan. How quickly scientists can use these data and incorporate findings into use for us on the ground can provide real benefits. The results can give valuable information that people need to know to protect their lives and property, making it an important advance to have available aboard station.

Next is the Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS), an imager that looks at clouds and aerosols for climate research. CATS will be followed by a number of instruments that are either brand new to science or that fill a gap from similar satellites to provide cross calibration. Our understanding of the Earth is going to improve thanks to the research from all of these instruments.

Supertyphoon Vongfong as seen by the crew of the International Space Station on Oct. 9, 2014. (NASA)

Super typhoon Vongfong as seen by the crew of the International Space Station on Oct. 9, 2014. (NASA)

One of the areas that congress has encouraged us to pursue is the development of commercial applications and commercial research on the space station. To this end, they declared the space station U.S. segment a national laboratory in 2005. In 2011 we selected CASIS, the Center for Advancement of Science in Space, to manage that national lab side for use by researchers that are not funded by NASA. These scientists may be funded by other government agencies or the private sector or nonprofit organizations.

This year CASIS grew substantially with the advent of their ARK-1 and ARK-2 suites of investigations aboard station. Also in 2014, the first National Institutes of Health (NIH) investigator of the space station national lab era launched her immunology research study. There are other NIH studies to come, including one that looks at bone loss. CASIS also brought large initiatives in protein crystal growth, Earth sciences, stem cells and materials science to continue to advance commercial research aboard the space station.

I recently spoke with Brian Talbot, marketing and communications director with CASIS, and he shared his thoughts with me on the accomplishments of the organization for the past year. “The continued growth of CASIS as an organization in 2014 speaks to the limitless opportunities commercial and academic researchers see aboard the space station. Through funded solicitations in proven areas of space-based research to innovative and non-traditional commercial users, CASIS is moving ever closer towards its goal of fully utilizing of the national lab for Earth-benefit inquiry.”

When I talked about crew time, you may have noticed that it was broken down by U.S. and Russian segments and crew members. While this division is useful for tracking purposes, it’s important to mention how we are blurring those boundaries. This international laboratory brings collaborations together through research that transcend relations on the ground. The space station exemplifies a global partnership at its best.

One thing that has driven us to continue advancing our partnership is the announcement of the joint one-year expedition. Since the 2013 announcement, we have made advances in finalizing our research goals in preparation for the 2015 launch. This extended expedition will have an astronaut and a cosmonaut both stay aboard the space station for 12 months, instead of the current six-month standard. It’s been decades since astronauts were in space that long. With the leaps in our medical technology, the one-year stay will help us to better understand what happens to the human body on long-duration flights. These studies also may help answer related concerns for health here on Earth.

Selected crew members for the one-year mission aboard the International Space Station, U.S. Astronaut Scott Kelly (pictured left) and Russian Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko (pictured right). (NASA)

Selected crew members for the one-year mission aboard the International Space Station, U.S. Astronaut Scott Kelly (pictured left) and Russian Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko (pictured right). (NASA)

I’m really excited about how that international collaboration across all of our partners has evolved. We’re combining more investigations, we’re releasing open data for the entire global scientific community to work with and we’re joining crew member resources to optimize all of these activities. Whether it’s microbial sampling, taking care of plants or making specific observations of the human body, our crew members are working together on what is truly an international station in space.

Early this year, John Holdren, the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy for the Obama administration, announced their support of extending the space station to 2024. We have worked through the impacts that this has for space station research and this extension gives us 90 percent more external research and close to 50 percent more pressurized research—those studies taking place in the cabin. 2024 is very important to what we can achieve with this global microgravity resource of the space station.

When we have scientists already in line wanting to do investigations, having more time to get those studies done and even to do follow-on research opens up the discovery potential. This also provides more time for research markets to develop independently. Just like on the ground, when someone wants to study a certain area, they contract a lab to do the experiments. Someday, when space station is gone, we want scientists to have continued access through this emerging market of microgravity research in space. This longer duration for station to remain as a platform helps to open up those opportunities for researchers around the world. This is the world’s chance to continue the mission of discovery off the Earth for the Earth.

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.

Space Station 15 Year Milestone — Measure and a Motivation

Posted on by .

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

Posted on by .

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.

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.

 

Model Organisms: Shining Examples for Simple, Effective Biology Research

Posted on by .

In today’s A Lab Aloft blog entry Camille Alleyne, Ed.D., assistant program scientist for the International Space Station Program Science Office, shares with readers the role of model organisms in microgravity research.

Have you ever thought about why biologists use the term “model organism?” This does not imply that these particular species set an example for the others in their genus. Rather, they have characteristics that allow them easily to be maintained, reproduced and studied in a laboratory. Conducting basic research on model organisms also helps researchers better understand the cellular and molecular workings of the human body, in addition to how diseases propagate. This is because the origins of all living species evolved from the same life process that is shared by all living things.

Model organisms can be plants, microbes (e.g., yeast) or animals (e.g., flies, fish, worms and rodents), all of which are widely studied and have a genetic makeup that is relatively well-documented and well-understood by scientists. Researchers favor these organisms because they grow relatively quickly and have short generation times, meaning that they swiftly produce offspring. They also are usually inexpensive to work with and are quite accessible, making them ideal for experimentation.

Aboard the International Space Station, researchers conducting studies on animal and plant biology disciplines also prefer to use model organisms. In several investigations, scientists use these test subjects to advance their knowledge of the fundamental biological processes, as they are already well-known in the specific species based on ground experimentation. 

Researchers use model organisms to study how microgravity affects cells. Examining the impacts of the space environment on an organism’s development; growth; and physiological, psychological and aging processes can lead to a better understanding of certain diseases and issues associated with human health.

 

Space radiation hitting cell DNA.(NASA)

Space radiation hitting cell DNA.(NASA)

Cells behave differently in space than on Earth because the fluids in which the cells exist move differently in the microgravity environment. The fundamental nature of the cell changes, including its shape and structure, how signals pass back and forth between cells, how they differentiate or split, how they grow or metabolize and alterations to the tissue in which cells live. Developmental biologists can learn much from these adaptations.

The Biological Research in Canisters (BRIC) experiment series of space station investigations, for instance, focuses on the area of plant biology. The study uses the thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) as its model organism. Scientists look at the fundamental molecular biological responses and gene expression of these plants to the microgravity environment. This small, flowering plant already has a well-sequenced genome—meaning researchers already have a map for the heredity of organism’s genetic traits. These traits are what control the characteristics of an organism, such as how it looks, behaves and develops over time.

Thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) seedlings. (NASA)

Thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) seedlings. (NASA)

Thale cress is approximately three- to seven-tenths of an inch tall and can produce offspring in large quantities in about six weeks. It also has the advantage of a small genome size—so it’s not complicated to study—and an abundance of available genetic mutants—which allows for varied areas of research focus. Specifically in the BRIC-16 investigation, Anna-Lisa Paul, Ph.D., and Robert Ferl, Ph.D., at the University of Florida in Gainesville examined the changes in the genome sequencing and DNA of these plants. Results assisted space researchers in understanding how to maintain food quality and quantity for long-duration spaceflights, in addition to how to provide and maintain life-support systems. There also are Earth applications, including understanding basic plant processes that may increase our ability to control more effectively plants for agriculture purposes.

In the area of animal biology, there are numerous investigations that use a variety of model species as subjects. In the Micro-5 investigation, principal investigator Cheryl Nickerson, Ph.D., of Arizona State University—along with co-principal investigators Charlie Mark Ott, Ph.D., of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston; Catherine Conley, Ph.D., at NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif.; and Dr. John Alverdy, University of Chicago—use an organism referred to as Caenorhabditis elegans. This human surrogate model helps us better understand the risks of flight inflections to astronauts during long-duration spaceflight.

C. elegans nemotodes, or round worms, undergo examination by project scientists. The worms are descendants of those that were part of an experiment that flew on space shuttle Columbia's final mission, STS-107. (NASA/Ames/Volker Kern)

C. elegans nemotodes, or round worms, undergo examination by project scientists. The worms are descendants of those that were part of an experiment that flew on space shuttle Columbia’s final mission, STS-107. (NASA/Ames/Volker Kern)

C. elegans are free-living, transparent nematodes, or roundworms, that live in temperate soil environments. They are inexpensive and easy to grow in large quantities—producing offspring with a generation time of about three days. Members of this species have the same organ systems as other animals, making it a great model organism choice. In this study, C. elegans will be infected with the salmonella (Salmonella typhimurium) microbe, which causes food poisoning in humans and is known to become more virulent in microgravity—meaning it increases its disease causing potential. Studying this host-pathogen combination provided researchers with insight into how this bacterium will respond in space explorers, if infected. The knowledge lays a solid foundation for the development of vaccines and other novel treatments for infectious diseases.

Another model is Candida albicans, which is an opportunistic fungus or yeast that exists in a dormant state in about three of every four people. It has greater potential to become active in individuals with compromised immune systems, hence the term “opportunistic.” When active, this pathogen causes thrush or yeast infections. Easily mutated, this organism’s genes are readily disrupted for study. Principal investigator Sheila Nielsen-Preiss, Ph.D., of the Montana State University in Bozeman, used this model for the Micro-6 investigation during Expedition 34/35. As in other model organisms, the well-understood genetic makeup of this fungus made it easier for scientists to identify changes that occurred in microgravity. This led to a better understanding or the fungus’ fundamental physiological responses and their ability to cause infectious diseases.

On a larger scale, one of the human body’s major adaptations to spaceflight is the loss of bone mineral density. Understanding the mechanisms by which bones break down and build back up in this extreme environment is critical to human space exploration. In order to understand these phenomena more fully, researchers study Medaka fish (Oryzias latipaes) in the Aquatic Habitat (AQH) aboard the space station.

The above image shows an Aquatic Habitat (AQH) specimen chamber housing Medaka fish for study. (JAXA)

The above image shows an Aquatic Habitat (AQH) specimen chamber housing Medaka fish for study. (JAXA)

These model animals found in Asia are used extensively in biological research. They are vertebrates—meaning they have backbones—making them a good choice for studying bone activity. Medaka also have a well-mapped genome, a short gestation period and reproduce extremely easily. They are resilient and can survive in water of various levels of salinity.

In the Medaka Osteoclast investigation, principal investigator Akira Kudo, Ph.D., of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, along with co-principal investigators Yoshiro Takano, DDS, Ph.D., of the Tokyo Medical and Dental University; Keiji Inohaya, Ph.D., of the Tokyo Institute of Technology; and Prof. Masahiro Chatani of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, studied the process by which bone breaks down via the activity of bone cells known as osteoclasts. The transparency of the fish gave researchers a view into the mechanism of this process that would not be possible with other fish species. The goal of this research is to advance our knowledge on human bone health, leading to development of treatments and countermeasures for both astronauts living in space and patients suffering from osteoporosis on Earth.

In the coming year, the space station will add two new facilities as research resources to house a couple of distinct model organisms. The first is a fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) habitat. This type of insect is one of the 1,200 species in the genus of flies that is particularly favorable in genetic research. You may be surprised to know that the genes of D melanogaster are very similar to those of humans. More than half of our genes that map to diseases have been found to match those of fruit flies.

Since fruit flies reproduce quickly and their genome is completely sequenced, they serve as good models to study diseases in a much shorter time than it would take via human research. In the context of human spaceflight, scientists will continue to use fruit flies as a model to test gene expression in the space environment, adding to work done on the space shuttle.

Sharmila Bhattacharya, Ph.D., is the principal investigator for the Fungal Pathogenesis, Tumorigenesis and Effects of Host Immunity in Space (FIT) fruit fly investigation. In this image, Bhattacharya is inspecting the fly experiment containers before flight. (NASA)

Sharmila Bhattacharya, Ph.D., is the principal investigator for the Fungal Pathogenesis, Tumorigenesis and Effects of Host Immunity in Space (FIT) fruit fly investigation. In this image, Bhattacharya is inspecting the fly experiment containers before flight. (NASA)

The second habitat coming to the space station will house rodents. Mice (Mus musculus) are the most widely known of the model species in scientific research, because their genetic code and physiological traits are very similar to humans. They are vertebrate mammals with a 10-week generation time. Their genome is very well-sequenced and understood, and they are easy to mutate and analyze. 

Mice, more than any of the other animal model organism mentioned here, allow researchers to study beyond just the cellular cycle. They have the opportunity to advance their fundamental understanding of other human systems such as the immune, cardiovascular and nervous systems, to name a few. Mice afflicted with various diseases, including osteoporosis, cancer, diabetes and glaucoma, can lead researchers to findings that advance treatment options.

These developments and findings from past, present and future investigations aboard the space station continue to enable biologists in their studies. As researchers better understand the adaptation of model organisms in a microgravity environment, they can facilitate future ways doctors will manage human health, both in space and on Earth.

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

Camille Alleyne, Ed.D., is an assistant program scientist for the International Space Station Program Science Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. She is responsible for leading the areas of communications and education. Prior to this, she served as the deputy manager for the Orion Crew and Service Module Test and Verification program.  She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from Howard University, a Master of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering (Composite Materials) from Florida A&M University, a Master of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering (Hypersonics) from University of Maryland, and a doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Houston.

Could You Choose Just One? Looking Beyond the Top Ten Space Station Research Results Countdown

Posted on by .

In today’s A Lab Aloft entry International Space Station Program Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D., concludes her countdown of the top research results from the space station.

I’ve shared with you my top ten research results from the International Space Station in this blog series, and this is only the middle of the mission. With the space station scheduled to continue operating until at least 2020—and likely beyond—we continue with investigations that present us with more interesting facts and findings. Even as you read this entry, hundreds of investigations are active in orbit.

Whatever missions we look to tomorrow—including travel to an asteroid and Mars—they absolutely depend on the success of the space station. That is because the station was developed to return benefits and discoveries to us here on Earth. How we use the space station, both in our success as an industry and in returning benefits back to our nations and our economies, impacts everybody. If we don’t all take ownership to share this story, it makes our stakeholders look at our future ideas and say, “well yeah, that’s great for you, but what’s in it for the rest of the country.”

The International Space Station seen against the backdrop of the Earth, as photographed by the STS-130 crew aboard space shuttle Endeavour. (NASA)

The International Space Station seen against the backdrop of the Earth, as photographed by the STS-130 crew aboard space shuttle Endeavour. (NASA)

I was originally challenged to pick a set of top 10 research results by the organizers of an aerospace industry meeting, the International Astronautical Congress. Now I would like to challenge not only the members of the aerospace community, but all of those reading this blog who may one day benefit from this orbiting laboratory—that means you. Please take home one of these top ten research facts to share with your family, friends and colleagues. There are many more benefits and results than just those I highlighted, but it’s a good place to start.

Of the examples I gave you in this series, be ready to own the one that you choose. If you are talking with a government official, the press, your students, your family, that stranger sitting next you to on a plane, whomever you encounter, be prepared to share. The space station is our pinnacle of human spaceflight, it is our example of international cooperation and it is doing outstanding things in science yesterday, today and tomorrow. You don’t have to be a scientist to share the wonder and the value of the science we are doing there with others.

To make the difficult choice of a top 10 possible, there are a lot of things I didn’t include in the list. Sometimes, these were more technology spinoffs than research results. I also didn’t include the specific knowledge being gained for the purposes of future exploration—that could be another top 10 by itself. The use of space station ultrasound techniques in saving lives of women and their unborn children around the world, for instance. New remote ultrasound practices are being tested in developing nations, but this was a pure spinoff—no additional research needed—which is why it did not make my list. I also did not touch on the space station technology used today for air purification in daycares or the fresh water technology from station. Again, I did not select these primarily because they are pure spinoffs.

WINFOCUS and Henry Ford Innovation Institute members, Dr. Luca Neri and Alberta Spreafico work with Kathleen Garcia from Wyle Engineering to help train Dr. Chamorro from the rural community of Las Salinas, Nicaragua, using the ADUM and tele-ultrasound applications. (WINFOCUS/Missions of Grace)

WINFOCUS and Henry Ford Innovation Institute members, Dr. Luca Neri and Alberta Spreafico work with Kathleen Garcia from Wyle Engineering to help train Dr. Chamorro from the rural community of Las Salinas, Nicaragua, using the ADUM and tele-ultrasound applications. (WINFOCUS/Missions of Grace)

These examples are equally impactful and perhaps even more quickly connected to saving lives here on Earth. I encourage you to learn more by visiting our resources as we continue to share new developments, findings and benefits from space station research. Why limit this topic to so few as just ten; quite frankly, why limit the conversation to just the aerospace industry?

Amazingly enough, people you know have not heard about the space station, so we all need to take responsibility for sharing this message. There are some great resources we’ve put together as a partnership for you, so you won’t have to just remember the words you read here. You can look at the space station benefits for humanity website, which has been translated into multiple languages. You also can keep up on all the great things going on by following space station research on nasa.gov, revisiting this A Lab Aloft blog and by following our Twitter account: @ISS_Research.

I’d like to close by pointing out how sharing a view of the space station over your town can have a big impact on the people in your own orbit. My husband does not work in aerospace; he’s in the insurance industry. I remember one time there was going to be a great overpass of the space station in Houston, and I suggested to him that he go up on top of his building to see it. He sent an email around his office as an invitation and he ended up on the roof of the building with his colleagues and a senior executive. Together they watched this amazing space station pass. While looking up, the executive leaned over to my husband and said, “that was really neat! I had no idea we had people in space.”

One of our “people in space,” NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg works with the InSPACE-3 colloid investigation in the Microgravity Science Glovebox. (NASA)

One of our “people in space,” NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg works with the InSPACE-3 colloid investigation in the Microgravity Science Glovebox. (NASA)

The fact is that leaders in the world of business outside of aerospace are not paying attention to what we are doing. Science policy position and analysis can have scant information about what is really going on and what we are accomplishing. In the din of public policy debates, it is sometimes hard for us to get people hear about the good news. Two things that we really need to share with everyone are that the space station is up there with humans working on orbit, and that it is bringing back concrete benefits for use here on Earth. These returns make our economies stronger, make our individual lives better and save peoples’ lives. That really is the core of space exploration and why we do it.

Here, again, are my top ten space station research results in review.

10. Preventing the loss of bone mass in space through diet and exercise

9. Understanding mechanisms of osteoporosis and new ways to treat it

8. Hyperspectral imaging for water quality in coastal bays

7. Colloid self assembly using magnetic fields for development of nanomaterials

6. A new process of cool flame combustion

5. Pathway for bacterial pathogens to become virulent

4. Forty-three million students and counting

3. Dark matter is still out there

2. Robotic assist for brain surgery

1. New targeted method of chemotherapy drug delivery with breast cancer trials now in development

Thank you for sharing!

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

Top Space Station Research Results Countdown: One, New Targeted Method of Chemotherapy Drug Delivery; Clinical Breast Cancer Trials Now in Development

Posted on by .

In today’s A Lab Aloft entry, International Space Station Program Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D., continues her countdown to the top ten research results from the space station, recently presented at the International Astronautical Conference in Beijing, China. Be sure to check back for daily postings of the entire listing.

Last, but not least in my International Space Station top ten countdown is a new targeted method of chemotherapy drug delivery, with breast cancer trials now in development. This treatment has the potential to change the landscape for how we address cancer—a devastating illness that has touched many of our lives—which is why the result ranks number one on my list.

This research goes clear back to Expedition 5 in 2002 when astronaut Peggy Whitson was aboard the space station for the first time. Scientists were interested in looking at whether or not microencapsulation—basically, building a microballoon that could contain a small amount of a chemotherapy drug—could do a better job of delivering that treatment to a tumor. There were some theoretical models that suggested that if you didn’t have gravity in the way, you could assemble these microballoons with better properties to streamline delivery right to the tumor site.

Single cell microencapsulation. (NASA)

Single cell microencapsulation. (NASA)

The Microencapsulation Electrostatic Processing System (MEPS) investigation proved that if you took gravity out of the equation, you could actually make these microencapsules with the right kind of properties. But of course you can’t make clinically useful quantities in space. So scientists spent the next five years perfecting a way to make these microballoons in clinically relevant quantities and clinical purity on the ground. Those technologies were licensed to a commercial company, which then began developing microencapsulation as a therapeutic measure. That process in itself can take decades.

If you asked me six months ago, I would not have even included this particular topic in the top ten. The reason it’s back on the list is because of the new work being done to adapt this technology for treating breast cancer. Clinical trials also appear to be getting closer, with MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Researchers are finishing out the work that it takes to get FDA drug approval, so this is looking more promising for making it through to development, and finally to patient care.

Dr. Morrison with Microencapsulation Electrostatic Processing System (MEPS) flight hardware ready to pack for the International Space Station UF-2 mission. (NASA)

Dr. Morrison with Microencapsulation Electrostatic Processing System (MEPS) flight hardware ready to pack for the International Space Station UF-2 mission. (NASA)

As you can see from the span of the top ten, in research things go up and down and these developments can take decades. So the topic of targeted drug delivery for cancer treatment may fall off the list again, or it may successfully go all the way to the finish line. I think for sheer persistence in taking a great space station result and making it into something with lifesaving potential, the researchers and doctors working on this topic deserve credit for their endeavors. This is why they are number one on this year’s countdown.

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

Top Space Station Research Results Countdown: Two, Robotic Assist for Brain Surgery

Posted on by .

In today’s A Lab Aloft entry, International Space Station Program Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D., continues her countdown to the top ten research results from the space station, recently presented at the International Astronautical Conference in Beijing, China. Be sure to check back for daily postings of the entire listing.

Number two on my countdown of International Space Station research results shows just how versatile the developments we’ve made for space can be when reexamined and repurposed for use on the ground. In this case, robotic assist for brain surgery is giving surgeons a helping hand to save the lives of patients with otherwise inoperable brain tumors and other diseases. I include this example not only as a technology spinoff, but to highlight the fact that it took a lot of research back on the ground to make this a reality.

The International Space Station Canadarm (pictured here) led to a technology spinoff to assist with brain surgery on Earth. (NASA)

The International Space Station Canadarm (pictured here) led to a technology spinoff to assist with brain surgery on Earth. (NASA)

The aptly named neuroArm technology came from the space station’s robotic arm. The Canadarm was developed by MDA for the Canadian Space Agency. For use in space, the arm needed to be resilient, perform well in doing critical space station assembly tasks without failing, and be able to continue operations while taking radiation hits. These specific traits made this technology ideal to translate for developing a robotic arm surgical assist. Doctors likewise needed equipment that they could trust to function consistently and that could go right inside an MRI and still operate effectively.

Paige Nickason, the first patient to have brain surgery performed by a robot, points to the area on her forehead where neuroArm performed surgery to remove a tumor from her brain. (Jason Stang)

Paige Nickason, the first patient to have brain surgery performed by a robot, points to the area on her forehead where neuroArm performed surgery to remove a tumor from her brain. (Jason Stang)

The neuroArm allows robotic guidance of brain surgery with keep out zones, such that physicians can remove tumors too close to sensitive areas of the brain for surgery by hand alone. The combination of having the MRI, the robotic guidance and the keep out zones allows the surgeon to do the procedure safely, without impacting the other areas of the brain. It is no wonder that Garnette Sutherland, M.D., University of Calgary, was recognized for outstanding results on advancing neurosurgery through space technology – named a top medical application from the space station for 2012.

The use of neuroArm has led to some extraordinary patient outcomes. The first set of research publications on the clinical trials published recently in the Journal of Neurosurgery for the initial 35 patients; many other patients have now had tumors successfully removed. This is a really exciting technology spinoff that also led to research results back here on Earth that are saving lives.

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

Top Space Station Research Results Countdown: Three, Dark Matter is Still Out There

Posted on by .

In today’s A Lab Aloft entry, International Space Station Program Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D., continues her countdown to the top ten research results from the space station, recently presented at the International Astronautical Conference in Beijing, China. Be sure to check back for daily postings of the entire listing.

Number three on my countdown of the top ten International Space Station research results acknowledges that dark matter is still out there—and the space station is helping to find it. I want to start this entry out by apologizing to any astrophysicists reading this, as I am a biologist. But for all of those who are not astrophysicists, perhaps a biologist’s interpretation is a good one. Today I am focusing on the first results from the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) aboard the space station.

AMS is the most sophisticated magnet for making measurements of galactic cosmic rays that has ever existed. The state-of-the-art particle physics detector collects particles arriving from deep space, measures their energies, and most importantly the direction they are coming from. Particle physicists have dark matter as the best existing theory and keep trying to find evidence to either disprove it or get more information to validate it. Findings point to a new phenomenon that has researchers across the globe working to solve the cosmic puzzle of the origins of the universe through the pursuit of antimatter and dark matter.

Alphamagnetic Spectrometer (AMS) mounted externally to the International Space Station. (NASA)

Alphamagnetic Spectrometer (AMS) mounted externally to the International Space Station. (NASA)

One of the important sets of particles that the instrument is looking at are positrons. The first paper, published this year in Physical Review Letters, looked at positrons up to 300 giga electron volts (GeVs)—visible light has an energy of between 2 and 3 eV, by way of comparison. This is the same range studied with two other instruments, PAMELA and Fermi. But AMS has far greater accuracy than observations from these instruments. What the AMS results show is that there are far too many high energy positrons than can be explained from any established natural phenomenon. Those positrons appear to be coming not just from the center or the outside of the universe, but from every which direction.

The flux of high-energy particles near Earth (cosmic rays) can come from many sources. “Primary” particles (green) come from the original cosmic-ray source (typically, a supernova remnant). “Secondaries” (yellow) come from these particles colliding with interstellar gas and producing pions and muons, which decay into electrons and positrons. A third, interesting possibility is that electrons and positrons (purple) are created by the annihilation of dark matter particles, denoted by χ˜ in the figure, in the Milky Way and its halo. Note that for illustrative purposes the background image used here is of Andromeda, a typical spiral galaxy, roughly similar to ours. (GALEX, JPL-Caltech, NASA; Drawing: APS/Alan Stonebraker)

The flux of high-energy particles near Earth (cosmic rays) can come from many sources. “Primary” particles (green) come from the original cosmic-ray source (typically, a supernova remnant). “Secondaries” (yellow) come from these particles colliding with interstellar gas and producing pions and muons, which decay into electrons and positrons. A third, interesting possibility is that electrons and positrons (purple) are created by the annihilation of dark matter particles, denoted by χ˜ in the figure, in the Milky Way and its halo. Note that for illustrative purposes the background image used here is of Andromeda, a typical spiral galaxy, roughly similar to ours. (GALEX, JPL-Caltech, NASA; Drawing: APS/Alan Stonebraker)

The way Nobel Prize Laureate, Samuel Ting, Ph.D., summarized the findings in his paper was to say that these observations showed the existence of “new phenomena, whether from particle physics or from an astrophysical origin.” But of course what it really means is that the data is consistent with what you would see if dark matter were being annihilated and producing positrons.

Ting and his hundreds of colleagues have published additional papers on other particles at meetings during the summer. What’s really exciting, though, is the next set of data that Ting will publish. For example, the instrument is measuring positrons up to 1 Tera electron volt (TeV). The 300 GeV measurement matches all the other data, but as a good statistical sample builds and there is enough data on particle events to publish 300 GeV to the 1 TeV, all of that information will be completely new to science.

Big questions are out there. Even though we see events becoming rarer at high energies, will we continue to see an increased proportion of those? And at what energy levels and frequencies? All of that data becomes really important for answer the questions about the nature of dark matter and dark energy as we seek to unravel the mysteries of our universe.

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

Page 1 of 41234