ISS Science Updates

On 30 August we published the first in a series of reports on science activity at the ISS, bringing the weekly summaries up to 15 August. Below are the subsequent science activities and principle experiments up to an including the week of 26 September.

Highlights: Week of Sept. 26, 2016) – NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) astronaut Takuya Onishi installed an investigation on the International Space Station to study ways to design more efficient rocket and jet engines.

JAXA’s investigation into liquid fuel, called the Elucidation of Flame Spread and Group Combustion Excitation Mechanism of Randomly distributed Droplet Clouds (Group Combustion), tests a theory that fuel sprays change from partial to group combustion as flames spread across clouds of droplets. On the space station, the position of flames and positions of liquid fuel droplets are measured along with temperature distribution as the flame spreads along a test lattice. Microgravity eliminates convection, which allows scientists to gather data points before the droplets and combustion products disperse.

Rocket engines use spray combustion of liquid propellants, but the high speeds of the fuel and oxidizer as they move through the combustion chamber makes it virtually impossible to analyze the flames. Group Combustion will help improve simulations used to predict the combustion behavior to assist in the development of advanced rocket engines. This information could also help develop cleaner, more energy-efficient engines for vehicles on Earth.

Ground teams completed a second run of the Advanced Colloids Experiment-Temperature Control (ACE-T1) study this week. For decades, astronauts and scientists have studied complex structures with unique properties in space. The station’s microgravity environment allows for the study of microscopic structures in three-dimensions without the potentially distorting properties of gravity. The ACE-T1 investigation examines tiny suspended particles which have been designed by scientists to connect themselves in a specific way to form organized structures in water.

Images were taken of three different capillary sets at different magnifications using the station’s Light Microscopy Module (LMM). The microgravity environment provides researchers insight into the fundamental physics of micro-particle self-assembly and the kinds of colloidal structures that are possible to fabricate in orbit. Very small-scale, self-assembly of materials can be an efficient method to build new materials and equipment in space. This knowledge is crucial for developing self-assembling, self-moving, and self-replicating technologies for use on Earth, including photonics, diagnostics and drug-delivery.

Ground teams also worked on a study involving the mixing of two liquids in microgravity as the JAXA investigation called Dynamic Surf-3 completed runs 25 and 26 of the study into heat transfer through liquid fuels. Scientists are observing how a silicone-oil mixture changes when heated in microgravity to learn how heat is transferred in the station’s low-gravity environment.

Dynamic Surf is part of a series of JAXA studies into a specific type of heat transfer called Marangoni convection, the tendency for heat and mass to travel in areas of higher surface tension within a liquid. In the experiment, a silicone oil bridge is suspended between two small, solid discs. One of the discs is heated and another is cooled to create a difference in temperature across the liquid. The difference gradually increases to cause the convective force known as Marangoni flow, becoming more complicated and turbulent. Understanding the physics of this convection could improve the growth of high-quality crystals, such as crystals for semiconductors and optics, and in various micro-fluid applications, such as DNA examination on the space station and on Earth. Space is a particularly good place to study Marangoni flow, because on Earth gravity overwhelms the Marangoni affect, making it difficult to observe.

Progress was made on other investigations and facilities this week, including Eli Lilly-Hard to Wet Surfaces, Meteor, MSL Batch 2b, SODI-DCMIX, BEAM, OPALS, Personal CO2 Monitors, Japanese Experiment Module Airlock, and Manufacturing Device.

Other human research investigations conducted this week include Dose Tracker, ENERGY, Fine Motor Skills, Habitability, Multi-Omics, Neuromapping, and Space Headaches.



(Highlights: Week of Sept. 19, 2016) – NASA astronaut Kate Rubins checked for microbes in the water supply on the International Space Station to test a new monitoring system.

Rubins configured the hardware for the Microbial Monitoring System as part of the Water Monitoring Suite experiment. This new technology can quickly detect and identify potentially harmful microorganisms in the station’s water supply. If successful, it will ensure that crew members can perform real time tests and monitor the safety of their water on future missions.

An additional benefit with this technology is the speed at which it can analyze the samples. Using current technology, it can take a week to search for harmful bacteria. With the new Microbial Monitoring System, it could take less than an hour. This would be invaluable to travelers in space where water is a very limited and precious commodity, and would also help millions of people on Earth without access to clean water. Equipment that is fast and simple to use can improve water quality monitoring in remote areas.

Rubins worked on another water-based investigation this week, this time to help make better pharmaceuticals. In chemistry, wetting refers to spreading of a liquid over a solid material’s surface, and is a key aspect of the material’s ability to dissolve. The Hard to Wet Surfaces (Eli Lilly-Hard to Wet Surfaces) investigation studies how certain materials used in the pharmaceutical industry dissolve in water while in microgravity.

Rubins set up six sample vials and injected a different solution in each. She also set up a camera and took a set of base photographs before setting it for automatic photography to watch how the solutions dissolved. Results from this investigation could help improve the design of tablets that dissolve in the body to deliver drugs, thereby improving drug design for medicines used in space and on Earth.

This investigation is also a great example of companies working with the Center for the Advancement of Science In Space (CASIS) to take advantage of the U.S. National Lab in orbit.

Rubins configured four Personal CO2 Monitors before wearing them for several hours to test their viability as a safety device. Humans produce carbon dioxide through the natural breathing process, but too much CO2 in the air can cause headaches, dizziness, increased blood pressure and more severe symptoms. All human spacecraft must be designed with environmental control systems that remove this gas from the air supply. But the space environment can still lead to pockets of CO2 that are difficult to detect and remove. Much like the proverbial canary in a coalmine, the Personal CO2 Monitor demonstrates a new capability of wearable technology to continuously monitor astronauts’ immediate surroundings on the space station.

Many industries on Earth require workers to enter enclosed spaces – such as mines, construction tunnels and pipes, or on submarines — where environmental monitoring is critical to safety. This technology could prove to be useful. With the addition of an alarm system, the Personal CO2 Monitor could serve as a warning device for hazardous conditions. The focus of the technology is to create a small and durable device that can be comfortably attached to clothing, making the it well-suited for continuous wear.

Progress was made on other investigations and facilities this week, including Plant RNA Regulation, Meteor, Story Time From Space, MAGVECTOR, MSL Batch 2b, NanoRack CubeSat Deployer, Cell Biology Experiment Facility, Electromagnetic Levatator, Multipurpose Small Payload Rack, Manufacturing Device, ELF.

Other human research investigations conducted this week include Body Measures, Dose Tracker, Fine Motor Skills, Habitability, Multi-Omics, and Space Headaches.



(Highlights: Week of Sept. 12, 2016) – The week began with moving day and ended with a handful of satellite deployments on the International Space Station.

On Sept. 12, NASA astronaut Kate Rubins disassembled and removed the hardware for the Effects of Microgravity on Stem Cell-Derived Cardiomyocytes (Heart Cells) investigation from the Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG). Spaceflight can cause a variety of health issues with astronauts, which may become problematic the longer crew members stay in microgravity. The study looked at how human heart muscle tissue contracts, grows and changes genetically in microgravity and how those changes vary between subjects. Understanding how heart muscle cells, or cardiomyocytes, change in space can improve efforts to study disease, screen drugs and conduct cell replacement therapy for future space missions.

Extended stays aboard the station are becoming more common, and future crews will stay in space for even longer periods as they travel on deep-space missions or a journey to Mars. Living without gravity’s influence for long periods can cause negative health effects such as muscle atrophy, including potential atrophy of heart muscle. The Heart Cells investigation cultured heart cells on the station for a month to determine how those muscle cells changed on a cellular and molecular level in space. Scientists hope the results will improve understanding of microgravity’s negative effects. Understanding changes to heart muscle cells could benefit cardiovascular research on Earth, where heart disease is a leading cause of death in many countries.

Rubins cleared out the Heart Cells investigation to make way for an ESA (European Space Agency) study into how molecules in liquid mixtures move in space where buoyancy-driven convection does not mask the more subtle molecular motions. The Selective Optical Diagnostics Instrument (SODI-DCMIX) will observe and measure the diffusion coefficient of liquid mixtures after a temperature gradient is established. Diffusion occurs at the molecular level as opposed to convection which occurs at the bulk level with entire masses, fronts, or regions of a gas or liquid moving somewhat as a unit.

With convection eliminated in the weightlessness of space, the diffusion coefficient can be more accurately measured. Fluids and gases are never at rest, even if they appear to be when viewed by the naked eye. Molecules are constantly moving and colliding, even though there is no microscope powerful enough to see the phenomenon. SODI-DCMIX will study the Soret effect — the movement of heat and mass that is caused by a difference in temperature. This is different from convection, where hotter, less dense matter rises upward compared to cooler, denser material.

Creating accurate models of how fluids heat is difficult. Measuring liquid mixtures at rest is not always possible on Earth, because heavier elements in a mixture will follow gravity and sink to the bottom. A mixture on the space station is free from the constraints of gravity, and will not separate. SODI-DCMIX exploits this fact to record temperatures of mixtures in space, using optical techniques to understand how molecules move in liquids. Understanding the fundamentals of thermodiffusion could help oil companies that use computer simulations to model and monitor underground oil reservoirs.

JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) astronaut Takuya Onishi installed a series of eight Planet Lab-Dove satellites in the NanoRack CubeSat Deployer (NRCSD) using a special airlock in the Japanese Experiment Module (JEM). The NRCSD is a self-contained deployment system on the end of a robotic arm, called the JEM Remote Manipulating System (JRMS), mounted to the exterior of the station. It is a rectangular compartment that “ejects” very small satellites to place them into orbit. It provides a low-cost and frequent flight opportunity for industry and academia to put research satellites into space.

The eight Dove satellites — each about the size of a shoebox — were “launched” from the station by ground controllers to capture images of Earth from space. The images have several humanitarian and environmental applications, from monitoring deforestation and urbanization to improving natural disaster relief and agricultural yields in developing nations. The nanosatellite program engages the space community to enhance space-based global communication networks, and to conduct research on our climate and Earth’s atmosphere.

Progress was made on other investigations and facilities this week, including Plant RNA Regulation, Asia Try-Zero G, FLEX-2, Biomolecule Sequencer, Phase Change Heat Exchanger, Manufacturing Device, ELF.

Other human research investigations conducted this week include Dose Tracker, Fine Motor Skills, Habitability, Multi-Omics, and Space Headaches.



 (Highlights: Week of Sept. 5, 2016) – NASA astronaut Jeff Williams and his Russian crewmates Alexey Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka of the Russian space agency Roscosmos departed from the International Space Station on Sept. 6, carrying with them dozens of samples that may help create temporary habitats in disaster areas or remote locations on Earth.

The day before the three crew members left the station, NASA astronaut Kate Rubins inspected the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) attached to the orbiting laboratory. Expandable habitats are designed to take up less room on a spacecraft while providing greater volume for living and working in space once expanded. It was the first checkup of BEAM since the initial inspection of the space station’s expanded node after it was deployed May 28. Rubins collected radiation monitors and sampled surfaces inside BEAM to assess the microbe environment inside the expandable node. Her inspection revealed the module appeared in good condition, and the samples and radiation detectors were packed for return to Earth for analysis. For the next two years, crew members will inspect the module every three months to check for stability.

BEAM, the first test of an expandable module, allows investigators to gauge how well the habitat performs — specifically, how well it protects against solar radiation, space debris and the temperature extremes of space. Durable, reliable and safe expandable structures have applications on Earth as well. Expandable modules can be used as pop-up habitats in disaster areas or remote locations; storm surge protection devices; pipeline or subway system plugs to prevent flooding; fluid storage containers; or hyperbaric chambers for pressurized oxygen delivery.

As Rubins completed her work on BEAM, JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) astronaut Takuya Onishi was recovering radiation detectors from another section of the station for return to Earth. He removed radiation detectors from the Japanese Pressurized Module and Japanese Experiment Logistics Module as part of JAXA’s Area Passive Dosimeter for Life-Science Experiments in Space (Area PADLES) investigation.

The dosimeters continuously monitor the radiation dose aboard the space station. Radiation exposure can have significant biological effects on living organisms, including the biological investigations being done on the space station in the Japanese Experiment Module, Kibo. Measuring radiation in space is essential to protecting crew members and for developing monitors and shielding for life sciences experiments in space and estimating wall thicknesses for future space vehicles. On Earth, the dosimetry technique measures radiation doses for people working around high-energy accelerators — used with high-speed microscopes to image cancer cells.

Station crew members also removed the seventh print from the Additive Manufacturing Facility (Manufacturing Device), installed on the station in 2015. The Manufacturing Device is a 3D printer that uses additive manufacturing to build a part layer by layer using an engineered plastic polymer as raw material. The print completed by the device is an adapter for the station’s Oxygen Generation Assembly (OGA) used to help measure air flow speed and temperature. Later in the week, the device successfully printed an air nozzle part for the OGA.

The Manufacturing Device is another step toward a permanent manufacturing capability on the space station. It will enable the production of components and tools on demand in orbit, which will provide further research into manufacturing for long-term missions. The station crew can use it to print a variety of items to perform maintenance, build tools and repair sections in case of an emergency, leading to a reduction in cost, mass, labor and production time. Further research will also help develop this advanced technology for use on Earth.

Progress was made on other investigations and facilities this week, including Plant RNA Regulation, ISS Ham, Biomolecule Sequencer, EXPRESS Rack, and the Multi-Purpose Small Payload Rack.

Other human research investigations conducted this week include Biochemical Profile, Marrow, Repository, Cardio Ox, Dose Tracker, Fine Motor Skills, Habitability, and Space Headaches.



(Highlights: Week of Aug. 29, 2016) – It was a busy week on the International Space Station with a spacewalk and the preparation for NASA astronaut Jeff Williams’ return home. Before he finished his six-month stay, Williams and other crew members performed multiple tests and sample collections on themselves as part of important research on humans that could change the way we address health issues on Earth.

Human research is an important part of the space station mission, helping determine how the body reacts to long stays in microgravity. Williams made final measurements for the investigation Defining the Relationship Between Biomarkers of Oxidative and Inflammatory Stress and the Risk for Atherosclerosis in Astronauts During and After Long-duration Spaceflight (Cardio Ox). This study will look for signs of oxidative and inflammatory stress on cardiovascular health during and after spaceflight. Williams took ultrasound images of his heart upon arrival at the station and has taken a few more just days before his scheduled departure on Sept. 6. These images will be compared to more ultrasounds taken before his flight and others that will be taken soon after his return home. The investigation will define the cardiovascular risks associated with long journeys in space, help define treatments while in space and track the health care of space travelers in the years after their return home. It could also help identify new markers for those at risk for cardiovascular disease on Earth.

NASA astronaut Kate Rubins completed her third session of the Skin-B investigation. The ESA (European Space Agency) investigation will improve understanding of skin aging, which is slow on Earth but accelerated in space. It will provide insight into the aging process in other similar bodily tissues and could help scientists identify the impacts on astronauts during future long-duration missions beyond low-Earth orbit where environmental conditions are more challenging.

Rubins measured the hydration level of her skin’s outer layer, the skin barrier function and the skin surface topography of her forearm. The data will be compared to measurements performed before she began her stay on the space station and those collected during her mission on orbit. Data gathered on the station can provide insight into the mechanisms by which all organs covered with epithelial and connective tissue adapt and age over time and under the physical stress imposed by the microgravity environment. Gaining an understanding of how biological tissue can change should allow for better diagnoses of skin problems and treatment on Earth.

The Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS) — installed on the outside of the space station — continued successful Earth observations by capturing images of dust clouds off the coast of Africa. The CATS light detection and ranging system measures the location, composition and distribution of pollution, dust, smoke, aerosols and other particulates in the atmosphere using lasers. A better understanding of cloud and aerosol coverage over a long period will help scientists create a better model of Earth’s climate system and predict climate changes more precisely.

Progress was made on other investigations and facilities this week, including Mouse Epigenetics, ISS Ham, Biomolecule Sequencer, and the Multi-Purpose Small Payload Rack.

Other human research investigations conducted this week include Biochemical Profile, Marrow, Repository, Circadian Rhythms, Dose Tracker, Fine Motor Skills, Habitability, Immuno-2, EDOS-2, Multi-Omics and Space Headaches.



 (Highlights: Week of Aug. 22, 2016) – A device that could identify deadly diseases and fit in the palm of your hand was activated this week aboard the International Space Station.

NASA astronaut Kate Rubins set up and initialized the first sample of the Biomolecule Sequencer on the station. This investigation seeks to be the first to map DNA in orbit. DNA sequencing is typically difficult and time-consuming and requires bulky and expensive equipment. This investigation tests a miniature sequencer in space to diagnose infectious diseases, identify microbes, and better understand the genetic changes experienced by astronauts while in space.

Organisms with a short life-span would not need to be returned to a lab on Earth for analysis. Those samples can be examined on the station immediately after being collected, saving valuable research time. The sequencer could greatly improve scientific research in orbit with the real-time collection of genomic data. The size of the Biomolecule Sequencer could also help doctors save lives in remote countries with minimal resources.

Crew members also took some time to prepare a study of the genetic make-up of plants with the Transcriptional and Post Transcriptional Regulation of Seedline Development in Microgravity (Plant RNA Regulation) investigation. Crew members installed the first set of plants for the ground team to initiate germination and observation during Expedition 49 — the next three month increment on the space station — which officially begins in September. Scientists expect to find new molecules that play a role in how plants adapt to the microgravity environment.

Plants are a crucial source for food and oxygen on Earth and may also provide much-needed supplies on long-duration space missions. Learning how plants adapt to microgravity and space-based radiation can help improve strategies for growing them in space, including designing strains that are better able to withstand microgravity and other adverse environmental conditions. The Plant RNA Regulation study also could provide new insight into the molecular mechanisms plants use to detect and cope with changes in their environments, benefiting plant research on Earth and improve ways to grow plants in drought and extreme temperature conditions.

NASA astronaut Jeff Williams, who is about to complete his six-month stay at the station, drew his own blood sample for the Canadian Space Agency’s (CSA) Bone Marrow Adipose Reaction: Red Or White (MARROW) investigation into the effect of microgravity on human bone marrow. Fat cells and blood-producing cells share the same space in bone marrow. During prolonged bed rest on Earth, the fat cells grow at the expense of blood-producing cells. Scientists want to learn if changes in bone marrow fat in space can help explain abnormalities detected in blood cells in microgravity.

MARROW measures fat changes in the bone marrow before and after exposure to microgravity. This research is producing the first data on bone marrow fat changes in microgravity, a vital organ responsible for the production of all red and white blood cells. In addition, this investigation measures specific changes of red and white blood cell functions. Bone marrow fat is measured using magnetic resonance. Red blood cell function is measured with a breath sample analyzed with a gas chromatograph, which separates the components of the sample. White blood cell function is studied through the cells’ genetic expression. Williams completed his air (breath and ambient air) and blood sampling sessions. Data from this study may lead to treatments that would enable safer human space exploration and better recovery from prolonged bed rest on Earth.

Rubins and JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) astronaut Takuya Onishi completed another round of the Space Headaches study. Headaches are a common complaint during spaceflight and can influence crew performance during a mission. The ESA (European Space Agency) investigation searches for ways to improve the condition and help develop methods to alleviate symptoms and improve the health and safety of crew members. Data from the investigation could provide insight to the condition on Earth and help millions who suffer from headaches.

Progress was made on other investigations and facilities this week, including Mouse Epigenetics, Meteor, SPHERES, Combustion Integrated Rack, SABL, ISS Ham, Payload Card Multilab and NanoRacks Module 9.

Human research investigations conducted this week include Biological Rhythms-48, Biochemical Profile, Cardio Ox, Marrow, Repository, Dose Tracker, Fine Motor Skills, and Habitability.

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