Tag Archives: Conference Highlights

AMS Amassing Answers to the Questions of the Universe

Posted on by .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on by .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1023637main_Tara Ruttley 2011.jpg

Tara Ruttley, Ph.D. (NASA)

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

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.

 

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

Top Space Station Research Results Countdown: Four, 43 Million Students and Counting

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.

Research results can have exponential growth rates as scientists build on each other’s findings. That kind of inspiration carries with it innumerable possibilities that are in no way limited to the professional world. Number four on my list is 43 million students and counting—the number of students touched by the International Space Station’s educational endeavors. You can read more in the education publication: “Inspiring the Next Generation: International Space Station Education Opportunities and Accomplishments, 2000-2012.”

Cover of the education publication: “Inspiring the Next Generation: International Space Station Education Opportunities and Accomplishments, 2000-2012.” (NASA)

Cover of the education publication: “Inspiring the Next Generation: International Space Station Education Opportunities and Accomplishments, 2000-2012.” (NASA)

I included this educational topic in a list of investigation examples because it also links to key research on how you motivate students to take on careers in math and science. The statistical summary we put together during the last year across the space station partners included participation of 44 countries, 25 thousand schools, 2.8 million teachers, and 43.1 million students.

Of those students, 1.7 million participated in inquiring-based learning. This type of education is what research has shown us is really important and has set the recommendations of the National Science Teachers Association. When students test a hypothesis on their own or when they do work in their lab and compare it to what’s going on aboard the space station, they are most motivated towards math and science.

The YouTube Space Lab competition, Student Spaceflight Experiment Program (SSEP), and Zero Robotics are just a few examples of inquiry-based space station study done by students during the first 15 years of our mission. Google’s Zahaan Bharmal was recognized at this year’s International Space Station Research and Development Conference for the outstanding impacts from the YouTube Space Lab Project, a top education application. This is real research and contributes to education, while adding to the collective knowledge for various science disciplines.

Logo from the YouTube Space Lab competition that engaged students around the world to suggest and have the chance to launch their microgravity investigations to be conducted aboard the International Space Station. (YouTube Space Lab)

Logo from the YouTube Space Lab competition that engaged students around the world to suggest and have the chance to launch their microgravity investigations to be conducted aboard the International Space Station. (YouTube Space Lab)

The larger population of 43.1 million students learned about life in space from astronauts, gained encouragement through demonstrations, and built excitement by participating in educational programs. But those 1.7 million students that actually engaged in the scientific process themselves are the most likely to be the next explorers. They are the future employees of our agencies and companies currently working for aerospace and research today. This is an extraordinary impact from a spaceflight program and the inquiries of millions of students as they learn to become scientists is worth a place in the top 10 next to the research of today’s scientists.

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

Top Space Station Research Results Countdown: Five, Pathway for Bacterial Pathogens to Become Virulent

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.

We’re at the halfway point for my top ten research results for the International Space Station. As we kick off the second portion, I hope you have already learned something new to take home about our amazing orbiting laboratory.

Number five on our countdown is the pathway for bacterial pathogens to become virulent, in this case Salmonella. This is a topic that you may have heard about, because it was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It has been heavily discussed by some of our stakeholders; the original discovery came from some human research focused investigations.

 

An example of Salmonella invading cultured human cells. (Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID, NIH)

An example of Salmonella invading cultured human cells. (Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID, NIH)

There was some indication from ground research that certain bacteria might become more pathogenic (more able to cause disease) when they went into space, in particular Salmonella bacteria. Salmonella infections results in 15,000 hospitalizations and 400 deaths annually in the United States. Cheryl Nickerson, Ph.D., from Arizona State University proposed to NASA that it may be good to look at this to find out if there was an increased risk for food borne illnesses in astronauts. NASA’s human research program funded the first study to fly these bacteria into space.

What researchers found was that the bacteria did become more able to cause this disease. More importantly, however, they identified the genetic pathway that was turning on in the bacteria, allowing the increased virulence in microgravity. This pathway had to do with the way that ions pass through the culture media. In a later study funded by NASA’s space life and physical sciences project, Nickerson was able to fly media that did not have those ions, and then control whether or not that bacteria became more or less virulent.

 

A photomicrograph of Salmonella bacteria. (Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

A photomicrograph of Salmonella bacteria. (Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

 

Astronaut Shane Kimbrough works with a Group Activation Pack (GAP) aboard the space shuttle Endeavour during an assembly mission to the International Space Station. (NASA)

Astronaut Shane Kimbrough works with a Group Activation Pack (GAP) aboard the space shuttle Endeavour during an assembly mission to the International Space Station. (NASA)

This is a great piece of scientific research showing the importance of doing biology experiments in this unique environment. There was a time when I would have had one of my top results be the possibility of developing vaccines on the ground—a private company did some additional studies in this area on the space station. Developing new medical treatments can take years, though, and have a lot of ups and downs. Right now that doesn’t appear to be developing as quickly as one might have hoped, so the jury is still out on the final benefit. Still, the core discovery here remains significant.

Scientists are working through other species of bacteria now, trying to understand if this is a common pathway. If so, how can we use it to increase or return benefits back to Earth, and can this new knowledge be used to help fight disease? Nickerson and colleagues continue to work on these questions, using the important discovery of this new pathway found through space station investigation.

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

Top Space Station Research Results Countdown: Six, New Process of “Cool Flame” Combustion

Posted on by .

In today’s A Lab Aloft entry, International Space Station Program Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D., continues the countdown of her 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 six on my countdown of the top ten International Space Station research results is an exciting finding for a new process of cool flame combustion. Cool flame combustion is an interesting term, because to a scientist a hot flame is in the range of thousands of degrees, while a cool flame is in the range of hundreds of degrees—600 to 800 degrees Celsius.

Aboard the space station, we use a facility called the Combustion Integrated Rack (CIR) for experiments where we burn droplets of fuel. In the image below you can see what that looks like in microgravity during the Flame Extinguishing Experiment (FLEX and FLEX 2) investigations. FLEX principal investigator Vedha Nayagam, Ph.D., National Center for Space Exploration Research/Case Western Reserve University, was honored with an award in recognition of this cool flame discovery at this year’s International Space Station Research and Development Conference.

A heptane combustion event (left) as seen during a Flame Extinguishing Experiment (FLEX) experiment run. In the time between the two photos, the flame quenches and goes dark. This is then followed by an afterglow (right)—the first evidence of a cool flame event. (F. Williams, University of California San Diego/NASA)

A heptane combustion event (left) as seen during a Flame Extinguishing Experiment (FLEX) experiment run. In the time between the two photos, the flame quenches and goes dark. This is then followed by an afterglow (right)—the first evidence of a cool flame event. (F. Williams, University of California San Diego/NASA)

On the left you see a droplet of heptane fuel burning. You can see it burns in a sphere and doesn’t look like a candle flame at all, because there is no density or buoyancy-driven convection on the space station. This means warm air does not rise in the same way as it would on Earth, so instead you get this blue, spherical flame. What’s really interesting is what happens after the combustion quenches.

At a certain point in time, the combustion products start suffocating the oxidation reaction—the flame goes out. What was discovered with FLEX was that after a period of time, researchers saw an unexpected afterglow. In the right hand picture above you can see that event enhanced photographically.

That afterglow, it turns out, is combustion continuing at a much lower temperature (600 degrees Celsius or 1,112 degrees Fahrenheit—still hot enough to burn you!); a “cool flame.” This was previously an unknown process, so it is too soon to say what the application of this finding will be over time. This first discovery was published in Combustion and Flame, but a lot of analysis and modeling will need to be done to include this new process in our understanding of combustion without gravity. I think it’s obvious to see, however, that if you can learn about a new property of combustion that was not in the models before, there should definitely be applications to help in the design of more efficient combustion in processes on the ground. It just may take a while before we see them come to fruition.

The amount of combustion research done aboard the space station far exceeds all the combustion studies done in space over the last 50 years. Having a 24/7/365 laboratory makes all the difference in making discoveries.

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

Page 1 of 3123