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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tara Ruttley, Ph.D. (NASA)

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

Space Station 15 Year Milestone — Measure and a Motivation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Model Organisms: Shining Examples for Simple, Effective Biology Research

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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.

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

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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 Ten Space Station Research Results Countdown: Ten, Preventing Loss of Bone Mass in Space Through Diet and Exercise

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In today’s A Lab Aloft entry, International Space Station Program Scientist Julie Robinson, Ph.D., continues her countdown of 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.

This topic of research is the culmination of years of study, starting with the very first International Space Station flight investigation into the loss of bone by astronauts. During the first part of space station history, astronauts were losing about one and a half percent of their total bone mass density per month. That’s a rate similar to a post-menopausal woman’s bone loss for an entire year—which is really significant.

Quantitative computed tomography (QCT) images of hip bones. (T. Lang, University of California, San Francisco)

Quantitative computed tomography (QCT) images of hip bones. (T. Lang, University of California, San Francisco)

Early space station researchers first identified this loss rate. Then they found that the exercises we were having the crew perform were not really providing the right forces to counter the bone mass reduction. Scientists started looking at crew member diet and exercise routines, along with the addition of upgraded exercise hardware. This progression culminated in the September 2012 publication in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research.

Scientists found that the correct mixture of set durations of high-intensity resistive exercise, combined with the right amount of dietary supplementation for vitamin D and specific caloric intake were key for bone health. With all of these things together, the astronauts could return to Earth after living in space without having lost significant bone mass. This is just one solution; there may be others. But this is a viable answer to an issue identified clear back during the Gemini missions, addressing a huge problem when humans go into space and lose gravity loading on their bodies.

Astronaut Lee Archambault, commander of the STS-119 mission, conducts an Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED) workout in the Unity node aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

Astronaut Lee Archambault, commander of the STS-119 mission, conducts an Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED) workout in the Unity node aboard the International Space Station. (NASA)

With this research, we can better understand how bone changes throughout life, in growth and aging, and how to prevent outcomes such as age-related bone fractures. This topic received an award at this year’s International Space Station Research and Development Conference, recognizing the community of NASA and academic scientists for carrying out research to define the extent and characteristics of bone loss in spaceflight, and for developing exercise- and drug-based approaches to attack the problem. Thomas Lang, Ph.D., professor of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging at the University of California San Francisco, was the recipient of the team award in recognition of outstanding results on preventing bone loss in long-duration spaceflight.

This is important of course for future exploration by astronauts, but also for patients on the ground. The paper made the cover of the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, due to the fact that it provides a very different way of looking at bone loss from what is typical in the osteoporosis research community.

When most women are diagnosed with osteoporosis, the next thing their doctor will tell them is: “Well, stay active, go walking, but don’t do anything too rigorous.” We found that by doing rigorous exercise, however, astronauts that don’t have other kinds of health issues were able to protect their bone. It’s going to take some time for the medical community to absorb how these results with astronauts might be applicable to others, especially those on the ground. This is a compelling result for the whole world, because it gives us insights into how bone is formed and maintained in the human body that could not have been obtained any other way.

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

Women in Space Part One, Female Firsts in Flight for Space Exploration and Research

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In today’s A Lab Aloft, guest blogger Liz Warren, Ph.D., recalls the inspirational contributions and strides made by women in space exploration and International Space Station research.

This month we celebrate the anniversaries of three “firsts” for female space explorers. On June 16, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova of the Soviet Union became the first woman in space. Then on June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became America’s first woman in space, followed by Liu Yang as China’s first woman in space on June 16, 2012. Though their flight anniversaries are not in June, I would be remiss if I did not mention the first European woman in space: Helen Sharman in 1991; the first Canadian woman: Roberta Bondar in 1992; and the first Japanese woman: Chiaki Mukai in 1994.

Women in space_1

At the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia, Dec. 2, 2010, NASA astronaut Cady Coleman (right), Expedition 26 flight engineer, meets with Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to fly in space, on the eve of Coleman’s departure for the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, where she and her crewmates, Russian cosmonaut Dmitry Kondratyev and Paolo Nespoli of the European Space Agency launched Dec. 16, Kazakhstan time, on the Soyuz TMA-20 spacecraft to the International Space Station. Tereshkova, 73, became the first woman to fly in space on June 16, 1963, aboard the USSR’s Vostok 6 spacecraft. (NASA/Mike Fossum)

Each of these milestones built upon each other by inspiring the next wave of female explorers, continuing through today with the women of the International Space Station and beyond. With this in mind, I’d like to take a moment to celebrate women in space and highlight those with a connection to space station research. It is amazing to me to see just how connected these seemingly separate events can be. The steps of the intrepid explorers who engage in space exploration set the course for future pioneers, blazing the trail and providing the inspiration for those who follow.

To date, 57 women including cosmonauts, astronauts, payload specialists and foreign nationals have flown in space. Our current woman in orbit is NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, working aboard the space station as a flight engineer for Expeditions 36 and 37. While Nyberg lives on the orbiting laboratory for the next six months, she will perform experiments in disciplines that range from technology development, physical sciences, human research, biology and biotechnology to Earth observations. She also will engage students through educational activities in addition to routine vehicle tasks and preparing her crewmates for extravehicular activities, or spacewalks.

Women in space_2

NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg performs a test for visual acuity, visual field and contrast sensitivity. This is the first use of the fundoscope hardware and new vision testing software used to gather information on intraocular pressure and eye anatomy. (NASA)

Many of the women who have flown before Nyberg include scientists who continued their microgravity work, even after they hung up their flight suits. In fact, some of them are investigators for research and technology experiments recently performed on the space station. Whether inspired by their own time in orbit or by the space environment, these women are microgravity research pioneers ultimately looking to improve the lives of those here on Earth.

Chiaki Mukai, M.D., Ph.D. of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, for instance, served aboard space shuttle missions STS-65 and STS-95. She now is an investigator for the space station investigations Biological Rhythms and Biological Rhythms 48, which look at human cardiovascular health. She also is the primary investigator for Hair, a study that looks at human gene expression and metabolism based on the human hair follicle during exposure to the space station environment. MycoMyco 2Myco 3, other investigations run by Mukai, look at the risk of microorganisms via inhalation and adhesion to the skin to see which fungi act as allergens aboard the space station. Finally, Synergy is an upcoming study Mukai is leading that will look at the re-adaptation of walking after spaceflight.

Women in Space_3

STS-95 payload specialist Chiaki Mukai is photographed working at the Vestibular Function Experiment Unit (VFEU) located in the Spacehab module. (NASA)

Peggy Whitson, Ph.D. served aboard the space shuttle and space station for STS-111Expedition 5STS-113, and Expedition 16. She also is the principal investigator for the Renal Stoneinvestigation, which examined a countermeasure for kidney stones. Results from this science have direct application possibilities by helping scientists understand kidney stone formation on Earth. Whitson, who blogged with A Lab Aloft on the importance of the human element to microgravity studies, also served as the chief of the NASA Astronaut Office at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston from 2009 to 2012.

Women in Space_4

Expedition 16 Commander Peggy Whitson prepares the Capillary Flow Experiment (CFE) Vane Gap-1 for video documentation in the International Space Station’s U.S. Laboratory. CFE observes the flow of fluid, in particular capillary phenomena, in microgravity. (NASA)

Sally Ride, Ph.D. (STS-7STS-41G) initiated the education payload Sally Ride EarthKAM, which was renamed in her honor after her passing last year. This camera system allows thousands of students to photograph Earth from orbit for study. They use the Internet to control the digital camera mounted aboard the space station to select, capture and review Earth’s coastlines, mountain ranges and other geographic areas of interest.

Women in Space_5

Astronaut Sally Ride, mission specialist on STS-7, monitors control panels from the pilot’s seat on space shuttle Challenger’s flight deck. Floating in front of her is a flight procedures notebook. (NASA)

Millie Hughes-Fulford, Ph.D. (STS-40) has been an investigator on several spaceflight studies, including Leukin-2 and the T-Cell Activation in Aging study, which is planned to fly aboard the space station during Expeditions 37 and 38. This research looks at how the human immune system responds to microgravity, taking advantage of the fact that astronauts experience suppression of their immune response during spaceflight to pinpoint the trigger for reactivation. This could lead to ways to “turn on” the body’s natural defenses for those suffering from immunosuppression on Earth.

Hughes-Fulford has been a mentor to me since I was in high school. It was Hughes-Fulford who encouraged me to pursue a career in life sciences, and she also invited me to attend her launch aboard space shuttle Columbia on STS-40, the first shuttle mission dedicated to space life sciences. In fact, STS-40 also was the first spaceflight mission with three women aboard: Hughes-Fulford; Tammy Jernigan, Ph.D.; and Rhea Seddon, M.D.

I followed Hughes-Fulford’s advice, and, years later, I found myself watching STS-84 roar into orbit carrying the life sciences investigation that I had worked on as a student at the University of California, Davis. In the pilot’s seat of shuttle Atlantis that morning was Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot and command the space shuttle. Our investigation, Effects of Gravity on Insect Circadian Rhythmicity, was transferred to the Russian space station Mir, where the sleep/wake cycle of insects was studied to understand the influence of spaceflight on the internal body clock.

Women in Space_6

Payload Specialist Millie Hughes-Fulford checks the Research Animal Holding Facility (RAHF) in the Spacelab Life Sciences (SLS-1) module aboard space shuttle Columbia. (NASA)

Women at NASA always have and continue to play key roles in space exploration. Today we have female flight controllers, flight directors, spacecraft commanders, engineers, doctors and scientists. In leadership positions, Lori Garver is at the helm as NASA’s deputy administrator, veteran astronaut Ellen Ochoa is director of Johnson; and Lesa Roe is director of NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

In space exploration and in science, we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. These women pushed the boundaries and continue to expand the limits of our knowledge. What an incredible heritage for the girls of today who will become the scientists, engineers, leaders and explorers of tomorrow.

Liz Warren

Liz Warren, Ph.D., communications coordinator for the International Space Station Program Science Office. (NASA)

Liz Warren, Ph.D., is a physiologist with Barrios Technology, a NASA contractor. Her role in the International Space Station Program Science Office is to communicate research results and benefits both internally to NASA and externally to the public. Warren previously served as the deputy project scientist for Spaceflight Analogs and later for the ISS Medical Project as a science operations lead at the Mission Control Center at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Born and raised near San Francisco, she has a Bachelor of Science degree in molecular, cellular and integrative physiology and a doctorate in physiology from the University of California at Davis. She completed post-doctoral fellowships in molecular and cell biology and then in neuroscience. Warren is an expert on the effects of spaceflight on the human body and has authored publications ranging from artificial gravity protocols to neuroscience to energy balance and metabolism.

Touching Lives via International Space Station Benefits

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We are proud to announce the new International Space Station Benefits for Humanity website. Today’s entry highlights how this international collaborative effort communicates positive impacts to life here on Earth from space station research and technology.

Last month at the International Space Station Heads of Agencies meeting in Quebec, Canada, my international counterparts and I had the opportunity to share the results of more than a year’s worth of work across the international partnership. This collaboration culminated in the launch of the International Space Station Benefits for Humanity website, which looks at the early results from the space station and highlights those that have returned major benefits to humanity.

This website was translated into all the major partner languages and there also is a downloadable book format. The 28 stories found on the site focus on human health, education, and Earth observation and remote sensing, but these are just some of the benefit areas. Others, such as the knowledge gained for exploration or basic scientific discovery, are found on the space station results and news websites.

It can be a bit challenging at first see which station efforts will generate direct Earth benefits. This is because when we do the research, we finish things on orbit and then it can take two to five years for the results to publish, and possibly another five years after that before the knowledge yields concrete returns. I think each of us, while developing these stories, found things that surprised us. I suspect readers will, too. Some of these developments and findings are so amazing they go straight to your heart!

For example, the Canadian Space Agency robotic technology developed for the Canadarm was really cutting edge; now it has been applied to a robotic arm that can assist with surgery. Brain surgeons have used this robotic arm to help some patients who were not eligible for a standard operation, because the surgeries were too delicate for human hands. With the robotic assist, still in the testing phase, they were able to save the lives of several patients. This is a remarkable development.


Paige Nickason was the first patient to have brain surgery performed by the neuroArm robot, developed based on International Space Station technology. (Jason Stang) View large image

Another area where space technology returns offer a benefit to humanity is in the ability to provide clean water in remote regions and disaster areas. We also have stories about the ability to use station related telemedicine to improve the success and survival for women and their babies, if they anticipate complications during delivery. Providing a remote diagnosis to women in hard-to-reach areas enables them to seek life-saving medical care. These are just a few of the remarkable returns from space technologies.


Expectant women around the world can experience safer deliveries in part due to International Space Station technology in telemedicine. (Credit: Scott Dulchavsky)

The website also includes stories that focus on the research knowledge obtained during station investigations. One particular area gaining attention is vaccine development. Scientists are now creating candidate vaccines for salmonella that fight food poisoning, as well as one in the works for MRSA—an antibiotic resistant bacteria that is very dangerous in hospitals.


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

We also see ongoing benefits in the area of Earth observation, which our Japanese colleagues compellingly described after the Fukushima earthquake in Japan. The Japanese people were responding to that event in such courageous ways. Having information about what was going on really helped and the global community mobilized all the possible Earth remote sensing resources to provide aid via imagery of the disaster. The station provided imagery and data of the flooding from the original tsunami surge. I would like to share with you the comments of my JAXA colleague, Shigeki Kamigaichi, who was on the ground after the disaster:

“The Earth observation by astronauts from the International Space Station brought us several impressive image data offerings. Furthermore, the crew comments concerning the tsunami damage from March 11, 2011, to the people who suffered gave us a feeling of oneness and relief.”


Oblique image of the Japanese coastline north and east of Sendai following inundation by a tsunami. The photo was taken Mar. 13, 2011. Sunglint indicates the widespread presence of floodwaters and indicates oils and other materials on the water surface. (NASA) View large image

One of the exciting things about Earth observations work is that the station passes over populated parts of the world multiple times a day. Our Russian colleagues shared some examples of work they had done to track pollution in the Caspian Sea using data from the space station. They also used Uragan imagery to understand a major avalanche in the Russian Caucasus region, determining glacial melting as the root cause of the avalanche. These imaging efforts really help as we look at ways to better respond and predict disasters and prevent future loss of life.


Oil pollution in the northern part of the Caspian Sea, on the basis of data received from the Uragan experiment: 40 oilfields, equaling approximately 10 percent of the surface covered with oil film. (Roscosmos) View large image

Of course, there also are the compelling educational benefits from the space station. It is inspiring to see students get excited about science, technology, engineering and math, simply by connecting them to space exploration. Education is a bonus, since this is not why you build a laboratory like this. Once you have that laboratory, however, you can make a huge impact in children’s futures.

One of the most widely influential examples of educational benefits are when we hear students from all over the world, not just station partners, using HAM radio contacts to speak with astronauts aboard station. This happens on the astronauts’ free time, when they can just pick up the ham radio and contact hundreds of students through amateur radio networks. These children ask questions and learn about everything from space to life aboard the station to how to dream big. It is a recreational activity for the astronauts, taking just a few minutes, but the students are touched for a lifetime.

Because this effort is so readily routed internationally, students in developing countries can benefit just as easily as students in other areas. In fact, 63 countries already have participated with the space station; a much larger number than the 15 partner countries. Education activities are a core international benefit.


A student talks to a crew member aboard the International Space Station during an ARISS contact. (Credit: ARISS) View large image

While this initial launch of the Benefits for Humanity website was a big release, it is something we plan to maintain and continue over time with our partners. The work for these derivatives of station activities will continue to roll out over time, but we anticipate it to grow. When you have hundreds of experiments active during any six-month period on orbit, the throughput and the amount of crew time going to research each week is unprecedented!

The experiments are being completed faster than ever before and we are going to see these benefits and results coming out much more quickly, so it is an exciting time. It is important to start talking about these developments as we turn the corner from assembly to the full mission of research aboard this one-of-a-kind orbiting laboratory.


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


The Importance of the Recent MAXI X-ray Nova Discovery

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(Originally posted October 27, 2010)

About a month ago, I received a really interesting press release from JAXA about the discovery of a new X-ray nova via the International Space Station Monitor of All-sky X‑ray Image (MAXI) instrument. One of the first things I did was contact colleagues in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate to ask what they thought of the finding. I have a background in Earth science, not space science, so I was interested in their point of view on what sounded like an exciting discovery. They were full of additional questions and wanted more information. So we contacted our Japanese associates to better understand the discovery and impacts.

Of particular assistance was Masaru Matsuoka, the JAXA lead member on the MAXI team. I wanted to know if this was a new X-ray nova occurring or an existing one that was missed in previous surveys. He responded that the X-ray nova discovered by MAXI was a new X-ray source, not previously identified or catalogued. In other words, he continued, this nova occurred as an outburst in this location for the first time, which is why RIKEN named it MAXI J1659-152.

Matsuoka-san added that what makes this X-ray source especially interesting is that it is the type that likely has a black hole at its center. A new find like this is made once or twice a year overall. This is the first new source discovered by MAXI.

 

              Comparison of all-sky images before and after September 25 when the nova was found.
(Image courtesy of JAXA press release)

The MAXI instrument was able to locate this recent find by using two slit cameras (a gas slit camera and a solid-state camera) to continuously monitor astronomical X-ray objects. MAXI performs an entire sky scan once every rotation of the space station around the Earth. Mounted to the exterior of the KIBO module, MAXI has open access to the space environment where it identified the X-ray nova event. The information from the sky scans downloads to RIKEN, where the MAXI team disseminates data to scientists around the globe for study.

This is a promising result from the operations of this instrument. The more X-ray sources we find and study, the better knowledge astronomers can gain about the nature of black holes and their distribution in the universe.

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

 

(Update: Originally posted December 3, 2010)

On October 17, 2010, MAXI discovered yet another new X-ray nova, located in Centaurs. Since the emerging nova was dark, scientists continued to collect data while waiting for it to brighten. They announced the discovery on October 20, 2010 and named it MAXI J1409-619. The nova was confirmed as an unprecedented bright X-ray source, after NASA’s astronomical satellite, Swift, conducted an urgent target-of-opportunity observation. This nova is either a black hole or a neutron star with a companion star of a massive star existing over several ten thousands light-years.

Images of areas of 10 degrees in radius around the nova MAXI J1409-619. A celestial body that was not observed on Oct. 12 shone bright on the 17th. Right ascension 14 hr. 09 min. 2 sec., Declination -61 deg. 57 min. The detailed X-ray image shot by the Swift satellite. An unknown bright new celestial body was seen in the brighter part (0.2 degrees in radius) observed by the MAXI.

(Images courtesy of JAXA Press Release)

When will we know if research on the ISS has paid off?

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I often have the opportunity to do interviews with reporters who are interested in the kind of research happening on the International Space Station. Sometimes they are veteran space reporters, other times they are new and just learning about space research for the first time.

 

Regardless of their past experience, they often ask me for evidence that research on the space station is worth the cost. It is a simple question, but a misleading one. This is because it counts every penny on the cost side, but fails to account for the multiple benefits in addition to research results: international cooperation, engineering accomplishments, and research accomplishments.

 

The space station already benefits the country and the world through its construction and operation—even if it were never used as a laboratory, this would still hold true. We should not lose track of the power of daily international cooperation in constructing, operating and using the space station. The fact that this cooperation is on the cutting edge of space technology and for peaceful purposes amazes the previous generation, but is business as usual for us today. I work closely with colleagues at the main partner agencies, including Russia, the European Space Agency, Japan, and Canada; over 59 countries have participated in space station research or education activities through 2010.

 

Crewmembers from ISS Expedition 20 represent five nations and the five partners in building the International
Space Station: Belgium (European Space Agency), Canada, Japan, Russia, and the United States.
                                                                                                   
Image courtesy of NASA: ISS020e008898

 

The value of the space station as an engineering accomplishment should also not be underestimated. Common standards allow parts manufactured all over the world to interchange and connect flawlessly the first time they meet in orbit. Year round operations, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, have now extended for 11 years, and we have more than a decade ahead of us. The various life support technologies developed for station provide redundant capabilities to ensure the safety of the crew. They also provide technology advances that benefit people right here on Earth—for example, new compact technologies provided water purification after earthquakes in Pakistan and Haiti.

 

Water filtration plant set up in Balakot, Pakistan, following the earthquake
disaster in 2005. The unit is based on space station technology and processes
water using gravity fed from a mountain stream.

                                       Image courtesy of the Water SecurityTM Corporation

 

Even if we could place a monetary value on peaceful international cooperation and engineering advances from building and operating spacecraft, finding the true long-term payoffs of scientific research is very challenging. Some items could be tabulated as direct benefits from space station research—things such as new materials and products that can have a measurable market impact. Beyond the obvious items, however, the calculations get fuzzy. New products can lead to long-term economic value by making safer vehicles, by extending human life, and even by advancing the quality of life. What might appear as esoteric knowledge may indeed be the first critical steps on the path to a high-value breakthrough. Let us not forget indirect benefits from educational activities, job creation, and economic growth, as well. Colin Macilwain wrote a great critical review of the general challenges of valuing the worth of science in Nature last June, Science Economics: What Science is Really Worth, which I recommend for those interested in the challenge of valuing science.

 

In the coming weeks I will share with you stories of some of the direct benefits that I see coming from space station research. These developed from the modest research throughput during the station assembly period, prior to the full use of the finished laboratory we have today. Based on publications so far, most space station experiments take 2-5 years post-laboratory to publish results. New products related to these results take another 5-10 years or more to transition to a direct benefit. In fact, the space station will be deorbited before an accounting can be completed.

 

Along this journey, there are some really exciting possibilities emerging. I invite you to browse developments from space station research via our key results Web site, as we monitor the progress from knowledge to direct benefits.

 

Julie A. Robinson, Ph.D.

ISS Program Scientist

 

Who will be the Carl Sagan for the International Space Station?

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(Originally published October 19, 2010)


At the 2010 meeting of the International Astronautical Congress, I moderated a session of international investigators talking about the importance of the International Space Station for their disciplines: ISS Research—A Decade of Progress and a Decade of Promise. As part of a wide-ranging discussion, Professor Urade from Japan shared an amazing video summarizing tests for a new treatment for Duschenne’s muscular dystrophy, which were developed using information from space station research. The crowd collectively caught their breath at the possibility and potential impacts on human lives.

 

One of the first questions from the audience inspired my title for this post: Who will be the Carl Sagan for the International Space Station? It is a great question—how do we get the message about this amazing research platform out to the world?

 

I grew up with Carl Sagan and Cosmos—everyone understood his simple message: with “billions upon billions” of stars, other life is out there and astronomy is the key to our future in the universe. He made astronomy popular and respected. His work is one of the reasons we are so moved by the deep-space images from Hubble. Carl prepared us to understand them.

 

It is a tall order to do the same for a platform with the potential to touch dozens, even hundreds of research disciplines.

 

As scientists, we are taught that good experiments control each variable in turn. Centuries of scientific research, however, have never controlled gravity as such a variable. How many errors in scientific theory trace back to our assumptions about gravity? What breakthrough will result from completing one of these ultimate experiments in orbit—with the effects of gravity removed? Buckle up, because we are about to find out!

 

This is the first entry of an ongoing blog on space station research and results. We will have no single spokesperson and no single catchphrase, because the potential for discovery on the station is much larger than that. Working with my team of scientists, our research community, and our international colleagues, we will bring you the stories of the people and the discoveries as they unfold.

 

Please join us on our journey into uncharted territory by following our blog: A Lab Aloft.

 

Julie A. Robinson, Ph.D.

International Space Station Program Scientist