You know that colorful crystal garden you grew as a kid?
Yeah, we do that in space now.
Chemical Gardens, a new investigation aboard the International Space Station takes a classic science experiment to space with the hope of improving our understanding of gravity’s impact on their structural formation.
Here on Earth, chemical gardens are most often used to teach students about things like chemical reactions.
Chemical gardens form when dissolvable metal salts are placed in an aqueous solution containing anions such as silicate, borate, phosphate, or carbonate.
With the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) habitat, we
complete studies to prepare us for exploration to asteroids, Mars, and the Moon…
here on Earth! The studies are called analogs, and
they simulate space missions to study how different aspects of deep space
affect humans. During a HERA mission, the crew (i.e., the research participants)
live and work very much as astronauts do, with minimal contact with anyone
other than Mission Control for 45 days.
The most recent study, Mission XVII, just “returned
to Earth” on June 18. (i.e., the participants egressed, or exited the
habitat at our Johnson Space Center in Houston after their 45-day study.) We
talked with the crew, Ellie, Will, Chi, and Michael, about the experience. Here
are some highlights!
Why did you decide to participate in
HERA Mission XVII?
Mission VXII participants (from left to right) Ellie, Will, Chi, and Michael.
“My master’s is in human factors,” said Chi, who studies the
interaction between humans and other systems at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical
University. “I figured this would be a cool way to study the other side of the
table and actually participate in an analog.” For Michael, who holds a PhD in
aerospace engineering and researches immunology and radio biology, it was an
opportunity to experience life as an astronaut doing science in space. “I’ve
flown [experiments] on the space station and shuttle,” he said. “Now I wanted
to see the other side.” For Will, a geosciences PhD, it provided an opportunity
to contribute to space exploration and neuroscience, which he considers two of
the biggest fields with the most potential in science. “Here, we have this
project that is the perfect intersection of those two things,” he said. And
Ellie, a pilot in the Air Force, learned about HERA while working on her
master’s thesis on Earth and space analogs and how to improve them for deep-space
studies. “A lot of my interests are similar to Chi’s,” she said. “Human factors
and physiological aspects are things that I find very fascinating.”
NASA missions all have patches, and
HERA Mission XVII is no different. Did you get to design your patch?
Mission VXII patch, which reads “May the Force be with you” in Latin and features
Star Wars iconography. It’s a reference to the mission’s start date, May 4th
aka Star Wars Day!
“We did!” They said …with a little the help from Michael’s brother, who is a designer. He drew
several different designs based on the crew’s ideas. They picked one and worked
together on tweaks. “We knew we were going [inside the habitat] on May Fourth,”
Michael said. “We knew it would be Star Wars Day. So we did a Star Wars theme.”
The patch had to come together fairly quickly though, since a Star Wars Day “launch”
wasn’t the initial plan. “We were supposed to start two weeks earlier,” Ellie
said. “It just so happened the new start date was May the Fourth!” Along with
the Star Wars imagery, the patch includes a hurricane symbol, to pay tribute to
hurricane Harvey which caused a previous crew to end their mission early, and
an image of the HERA habitat. Will joked that designing the patch
was “our first team task.”
How much free time did you have and
what did you do with it?
Mission XVII crew looking down the ladders inside the habitat.
“It was a decent amount,” Michael said. “I could have used
more on the harder days, but in a way it’s good we didn’t have more because
it’s harder to stay awake when you have nothing to do.” (The mission included a
sleep reduction study, which meant the crew only got five hours of sleep a
night five days a week.) “With the time I did have, I read a lot,” he said. He
also drew, kept a journal, and “wrote bad haikus.” Because of the sleep study, Ellie
didn’t read as much. “For me, had I tried to read or sit and do anything not
interactive, I would have fallen asleep,” she said.
crew’s art gallery, where they hung drawing and haikus they wrote.
Journaling and drawing were popular ways to pass the time. “We
developed a crew art gallery on one of the walls,” Will said. They also played
board games—in particular a game where you score points by making words with
lettered tiles on a 15×15 grid. (Yes that
one!) “Playing [that game] with two scientists wasn’t always fun though,” Ellie
joked, referencing some of the more obscure vocabulary words Will and Michael
had at the ready. “I was like, ‘What does that word mean?’ ‘Well that word
means lava flow,” she said laughing.
(The rest of the crew assured us she fared just fine.)
Chi tried reading, but found it difficult due to the dimmed
lights that were part of an onboard light study. She took on a side project
instead: 1000 paper cranes. “There is a story in Japan—I’m half Japanese—that
if you make a 1000 cranes, it’s supposed to grant you a wish,” she said. She
gave hers to her grandmother.
whole crew having dinner together on “Sophisticated Saturdays!” From left to
right: Will, Ellie, Chi, and Michael. They’re wearing their Saturday best,
which includes the usual research equipment.
On weekends, the crew got eight hours of sleep, which they
celebrated with “Sophisticated Saturdays!” “Coming in, we all brought an outfit
that was a little fancy,” Ellie said. (Like a tie, a vest, an athletic
dress—that kind of thing.) “We would only put it on Saturday evenings, and we’d
have dinner on the first level at the one and only table we could all sit at
and face each other,” she said. “We would pretend it was a different fancy
restaurant every week.”
table set for a “civilized” Saturday dinner. Once the crew’s hydroponics grew,
they were able to add some greenery to the table.
“It was a way to feel more civilized,” Will said, who then
offered another great use of their free time: establishing good habits. “I
would use the free time to journal, for example. I’d just keep it up every day.
That and stretching. Hydrating. Flossing.”
Like real astronauts, you were in
contact with Mission Control and further monitored by HERA personnel. Was it
weird being on camera all the time?
personnel and the monitors they use for a typical HERA mission.
“I was always aware of it,” Michael said, “but I don’t think
it changed my behavior. It’s not like I forgot about it. It was always there. I
just wasn’t willing to live paranoid for 45 days.” Ellie agreed. “It was always
in the back of my mind,” she said, further adding that they wore microphones
and various other sensors. “We were wired all the time,” she said.
After the study, the crew met up with the people
facilitating the experiments, sometimes for the first time. “It was really fun
to meet Mission Control afterwards,” Will said. “They had just been this voice
coming from the little boxes. It was great getting to meet them and put faces
to the voices,” he said. “Of course, they knew us well. Very well.”
A new batch of science is headed to the International Space Station aboard the SpaceX Dragon on the company’s 15th mission for commercial resupply services. The spacecraft will deliver science that studies the use of artificial intelligence, plant water use all over the planet, gut health in space, more efficient drug development and the formation of inorganic structures without the influence of Earth’s gravity.
Take a look at five investigations headed to space on the latest SpaceX resupply:
As we travel farther into space, the need for artificial intelligence (AI) within a spacecraft increases.
Mobile Companion, a European Space Agency (ESA) investigation, explores the use of AI as a way to mitigate crew stress and workload during long-term spaceflight.
Plants regulate their temperature by releasing water through tiny pores on their leaves. If they have sufficient water they can maintain their temperature, but if water is insufficient their temperatures rise. This temperature rise can be measured with a sensor in space.
ECOSTRESS measures the temperature of plants and uses that information to better understand how much water plants need and how they respond to stress.
Credits: Northwestern University
Spaceflight has an on impact many bodily systems. Rodent Research-7 takes a look at how the microgravity environment of space affects the community of microoganisms in the gastrointestinal tract, or microbiota.
The study also evaluates relationships between system changes, such as sleep-wake cycle disruption, and imbalance of microbial populations, to identify contributing factors and supporting development of countermeasures to protect astronaut health during long-term missions, as well as to improve the treatment of gastrointestinal, immune, metabolic and sleep disorders on Earth.
Cardiovascular diseases and cancer are the leading causes of death in developed countries. Angiex Cancer Therapy examines whether microgravity-cultured endothelial cells represent a valid in vitro model to test effects of vascular-targeted agents on normal blood vessels.
Results may create a model system for designing safer drugs, targeting the vasculature of cancer tumors and helping pharmaceutical companies design safer vascular-targeted drugs.
Credits: Oliver Steinbock chemistry group at Florida State University
Chemical Gardens are structures that grow during the interaction of metal salt solutions with silicates, carbonates or other selected anions. Their growth characteristics and attractive final shapes form from a complex interplay between reaction-diffusion processes and self-organization.
Credits: Oliver Steinbock chemistry group at Florida State University
On Earth, gravity-induced flow due to buoyancy differences between the reactants complicates our understanding of the physics behind these chemical gardens. Conducting this experiment in a microgravity environment ensures diffusion-controlled growth and allows researchers a better assessment of initiation and evolution of these structures.
These investigations join hundreds of others currently happening aboard the orbiting laboratory.
A sextant is a tool for measuring the angular altitude of a star above the horizon and has helped guide sailors across oceans for centuries. It is now being tested aboard the International Space Station as a potential emergency navigation tool for guiding future spacecraft across the cosmos. The Sextant Navigation investigation will test the use of a hand-held sextant that utilizes star sighting in microgravity.
This 45 day mission – which began May 5, 2018 and ends today, June 18 – will help our researchers learn how isolation and close quarters affect individual and group behavior. This study at our Johnson Space Center prepares us for long duration space missions, like a trip to an asteroid or even to Mars.
The Human Research Exploration Analog (HERA) that the crew members will be living in is one compact, science-making house. But unlike in a normal house, these inhabitants won’t go outside for 45 days. Their communication with the rest of planet Earth will also be very limited, and they won’t have any access to internet. So no checking social media, kids!
The only people they will talk with regularly are mission control and each other.
The HERA XVII crew is made up of 2 men and 2 women, selected from the Johnson Space Center Test Subject Screening (TSS) pool. The crew member selection process is based on a number of criteria, including criteria similar to what is used for astronaut selection. The four would-be astronauts are:
What will they be doing?
The crew are going on a simulated journey to an asteroid, a 715-day journey that we compress into 45 days. They will fly their simulated exploration vehicle around the asteroid once they arrive, conducting several site surveys before 2 of the crew members will participate in a series of virtual reality spacewalks.
They will also be participating in a suite of research investigations and will also engage in a wide range of operational and science activities, such as growing and analyzing plants and brine shrimp, maintaining and “operating” an important life support system, exercising on a stationary bicycle or using free weights, and sharpening their skills with a robotic arm simulation.
They work 16 hours a day, Monday through Friday. This includes time for daily planning, conferences, meals and exercise.
Mission: May 5 – June 18, 2018
But beware! While we do all we can to avoid crises during missions, crews need to be able to respond in the event of an emergency. The HERA crew will conduct a couple of emergency scenario simulations, including one that will require them to respond to a decrease in cabin pressure, potentially finding and repairing a leak in their spacecraft.
Throughout the mission, researchers will gather information about living in confinement, teamwork, team cohesion, mood, performance and overall well-being. The crew members will be tracked by numerous devices that each capture different types of data.
Some of the earliest human explorers used mechanical tools called sextants to navigate vast oceans and discover new lands. Today, high-tech tools navigate microscopic DNA to discover previously unidentified organisms. Scientists aboard the International Space Station soon will have both types of tools at their disposal.
Our Gemini missions conducted the first sextant sightings from a spacecraft, and designers built a sextant into Apollo vehicles as a lost-communications navigation backup. The Sextant Navigation investigation tests use of a hand-held sextant for emergency navigation on missions in deep space as humans begin to travel farther from Earth.
Jim Lovell (far left) demonstrated on Apollo 8 that sextant navigation could return a space vehicle home.
The remoteness and constrained resources of living in space require simple but effective processes and procedures to monitor the presence of microbial life, some of which might be harmful. Biomolecule Extraction and Sequencing Technology (BEST) advances the use of sequencing processes to identify microbes aboard the space station that current methods cannot detect and to assess mutations in the microbial genome that may be due to spaceflight.
Genes in Space 3 performed in-flight identification of bacteria on the station for the first time. BEST takes that one step farther, identifying unknown microbial organisms using a process that sequences directly from a sample with minimal preparation, rather than with the traditional technique that requires growing a culture from the sample.
Adding these new processes to the proven technology opens new avenues for inflight research, such as how microorganisms on the station change or adapt to spaceflight.
The investigation’s sequencing components provide important information on the station’s microbial occupants, including which organisms are present and how they respond to the spaceflight environment – insight that could help protect humans during future space exploration. Knowledge gained from BEST could also provide new ways to monitor the presence of microbes in remote locations on Earth.
Moving on to science at a scale even smaller than a microbe, the new Cold Atom Lab (CAL) facility could help answer some big questions in modern physics.
CAL creates a temperature ten billion (Yup. BILLION) times colder than the vacuum of space, then uses lasers and magnetic forces to slow down atoms until they are almost motionless. CAL makes it possible to observe these ultra-cold atoms for much longer in the microgravity environment on the space station than would be possible on the ground.
Results of this research could potentially lead to a number of improved technologies, including sensors, quantum computers and atomic clocks used in spacecraft navigation.
The Experiment Cubes are easy to install and remove, come in different sizes and can be built with commercial off-the-shelf components, significantly reducing the cost and time to develop experiments.
ICE Cubes removes barriers that limit access to space, providing more people access to flight opportunities. Potential fields of research range from pharmaceutical development to experiments on stem cells, radiation, and microbiology, fluid sciences, and more.
Join scientists and researchers as they discuss some of the investigations that will be delivered to the station on Saturday, May 19 at 1 p.m. EDT at nasa.gov/live. Have questions? Use #askNASA
CubeSat Facebook Live
The International Space Station is often used to deploy small satellites, a low-cost way to test technology and science techniques in space. On board this time, for deployment later this summer, are three CubeSats that will help us monitor rain and snow, study weather and detect and filter radio frequency interference (RFI).
Join us on Facebook Live on Saturday, May 19 at 3:30 p.m. EDT on the NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility page to hear from experts and ask them your questions about these small satellites.
Tune in live at nasa.gov/live as mission managers provide an overview and status of launch operations at 11 a.m. EDT on Sunday, May 20. Have questions? Use #askNASA
To find the perfect perch for Earth observation research, just look up – about 240 miles up. The International Space Station serves as an optimal platform for studying our dynamic planet, where spectacular views support science.
The space station’s 90-minute orbit allows it to cover 90% of the Earth’s populated surfaces. That means we are able to study A LOT of that big blue marble.
Let’s talk a little about how the space station serves as a platform for Earth observation:
Each day, as the space station passes over regions of the Earth, crew members photograph the area below as a part of the Crew Earth Observations Facility investigation, one of the longest-running experiments on the orbiting laboratory. Crew members are able to photograph large-scale weather events like the recent Hurricane Harvey from the space station’s Cupola. These little science postcards from space can be used by researchers and the public to learn more about our home planet.
The High Definition Earth Viewing (HDEV) experiment streams live video of Earth for online viewing. This investigation not only provides hours and hours of footage of the Earth below, but also demonstrates how the technology holds up against the harsh environment of space. High school students helped design some of the cameras’ components, through the High Schools United with NASA to Create Hardware (HUNCH) program, and student teams perform most of the HDEV operation. (Whoa! Check out HUNCH and STEM on Station for more opportunities for student involvement!)
Useful for weather forecasting, hurricane monitoring, and observations of large-scale climate phenomena such as El Niño, RapidScat used radar pulses reflected off the ocean to measure wind speed and direction over the ocean.
RapidScat completed its successful two-year mission, outlasting its original decommission date before suffering a power loss. Although RapidScat is no longer transmitting data back to Earth, the station hosts many other Earth-observation tools the Cyclone Intensity Measurements from the ISS (CyMISS) an experiment that seeks to develop detailed information on tropical storm structure to better estimate storm intensity, which will help government agencies to better prepare communities for impending natural disasters; and the Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS), a previously-flown lidar instrument which measured atmospheric profiles of aerosols and clouds to better understand their properties and interactions, as well as provided data useful to improving climate change models.
Learn more about RapidScat’s mission conclusion HERE! Take a look at CATS mission data HERE!
Watch more inspiring videos and learn about how we’re capturing the beauty of Earth HERE.
Crew members are able to photograph large-scale weather events like the recent Hurricane Harvey from the space station’s Cupola. These little science postcards from space can be used by researchers and the public to learn more about our home planet.
Plants in space!
Future long-duration missions into the solar system will require a fresh food supply to supplement crew diets, which means growing crops in space. Growing food in such a harsh environment also teaches us a little bit about growing in harsh environments here on Earth.
Here are a few plant-based investigations currently happening aboard the orbiting laboratory:
Veggie is a chamber on the space station that helps scientists grow, harvest and study different space crops. This experiment is called VEG-03D and they’ve been able to grow six rounds of crops so far.
The Advanced Plant Habitat is a large chamber that supports commercial and fundamental plant research for at least one year of continuous use. A great feature to this habitat is that the astronauts can view the plant’s progress through a window on the door.
Whether astronauts are taking pictures of the planet or growing crops in space, all science aboard the space station plants seeds for a better life on Earth. Biology investigations directly grow our knowledge of agricultural techniques for harsh environments and imagery from space can give us a clearer idea of our planet’s health and emerging weather patterns.
Studying DNA Aboard the International Space Station
What do astronauts, microbes and plants all have in common? Each relies on DNA – essentially a computer code for living things – to grow and thrive. The microscopic size of DNA, however, can create some big challenges for studying it aboard the International Space Station.
The real question about DNA in space: but why, tho?
Studying DNA in space could lead to a better understanding of
microgravity’s impact on living organisms and could also offer ways to identify
unknown microbes in spacecraft, humans and the deep space locations we hope to
visit one day.
molecular research equipment is large and requires significant amounts of power
to run. Those are two characteristics that can be difficult to support aboard
the station, so previous research samples requiring DNA amplification and sequencing had to be stored in space until they
could be sent back to Earth aboard a cargo spacecraft, adding to the time
required to get results.
Fun science pro tip:
amplification means to make lots and lots of copies of a specific section of
However, all of
that has changed in a few short years as we’ve worked to find new solutions
for rapid in-flight molecular testing aboard the space station.
“We need[ed] to
get machines to be compact, portable, robust, and independent of much power
generation to allow for more agile testing in space,” NASA astronaut and molecular biologist Kate
Rubins said in a 2016 downlink with the National Institutes of Health.
The result? An advanced
suite of tabletop and palm-sized tools including MinION, miniPCR, and Wet-Lab-2, and more tools and processes on the
the MinION sequencer and a Surface Pro 3 tablet for analysis, the
tool was used to sequence DNA in space for the first time with Rubins at the helm.
In 2017, that tool was used again for Genes in Space-3, as NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson
collected and tested samples of microbial growth from around the station.
astronauts also tested miniPCR, a thermal cycler used to perform the polymerase
chain reaction that had been downsized to fit workbenches aboard the space
station. Together these platforms provided the identification of unknown
station microbes for the first time EVER from space.
This year, those testing capabilities translated
into an even stronger portfolio of DNA-focused research for the orbiting
laboratory’s fast-paced science schedule. For example, miniPCR is being used to
test weakened immune systems and DNA alterations as part of a student-designed
investigation known as Genes in Space-5.
The study hopes
to reveal more about astronaut health and potential stress-related changes to
DNA created by spaceflight. Additionally, WetLab-2 facility is a suite of tools aboard the station
designed to process biological samples for real-time gene expression analysis.
More tools for filling out the complete
molecular studies opportunities on the orbiting laboratory are heading to space
revolution has begun,” said Sarah Wallace, our principal investigator for
the upcoming Biomolecule Extraction and Sequencing Technology (BEST) investigation. “These are very small, efficient tools. We
have a nicely equipped molecular lab on station and devices ideally sized for
scheduled to launch to the station later this spring and will compare
swab-to-sequencer testing of unknown microbes aboard the space station against current
sequencing and identification processes could keep explorers safer on missions
into deep space. On Earth, these technologies may make genetic research more
accessible, affordable and mobile.
To learn more
about the science happening aboard the space station, follow @ISS_Research for daily updates. For opportunities to
see the space station pass over your town, check out Spot
How does a microgravity garden grow when there’s no up or down? An advanced chamber, about the size of a mini-fridge, is giving us a clearer perspective of plant growth habits. Without gravity and the addition of a wide variety of light and humidity settings, the plants cultivated on the International Space Station provide a world of opportunity to study space-based agricultural cycles.
When we talk about exploration in far-flung places, you might think of space telescopes taking images of planets outside our solar system, or astronauts floating on the International Space Station.
But did you know our researchers travel to some of Earth’s most inaccessible and dangerous places, too?
Two scientists working with the ICESat-2 mission just finished a trek from the South Pole to latitude 88 south, a journey of about 450 miles. They had to travel during the Antarctic summer – the region’s warmest time, with near-constant sunshine – but the trek was still over solid ice and snow.
The trip lasted 14 days, and was an important part of a process known as calibration and validation. ICESat-2 will launch this fall, and the team was taking extremely precise elevation measurements that will be used to validate those taken by the satellite.
Sometimes our research in Earth’s remote regions helps us understand even farther-flung locations…like other planets.
Geologic features on Mars look very similar to islands and landforms created by volcanoes here on our home planet.
As hot jets of magma make their way to Earth’s surface, they create new rocks and land – a process that may have taken place on Mars and the Moon.
In 2015, our researchers walked on newly cooled lava on the Holuhraun volcano in Iceland to take measurements of the landscape, in order to understand similar processes on other rocky bodies in our solar system.
There may not be flowing lava in the mangrove forests in Gabon, but our researchers have to brave mosquitoes and tree roots that reach up to 15-foot high as they study carbon storage in the vegetation there.
The scientists take some measurements from airplanes, but they also have to gather data from the ground in one our of planet’s most pristine rainforests, climbing over and around roots that can grow taller than people. They use these measurements to create a 3-D map of the ecosystem, which helps them understand how much carbon in stored in the plants.