Category: space

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In August 2018, our Parker Solar Probe mission launched to space, soon becoming the closest-ever spacecraft from the Sun. Now, scientists have announced their first discoveries from this exploration of our star!

The Sun may look calm to us here on Earth, but it’s an active star, unleashing powerful bursts of light, deluges of particles moving near the speed of light and billion-ton clouds of magnetized material. All of this activity can affect our technology here on Earth and in space.

Parker Solar Probe’s main science goals are to understand the physics that drive this activity — and its up-close look has given us a brand-new perspective. Here are a few highlights from what we’ve learned so far.

1. Surprising events in the solar wind

The Sun releases a continual outflow of magnetized material called the solar wind, which shapes space weather near Earth. Observed near Earth, the solar wind is a relatively uniform flow of plasma, with occasional turbulent tumbles. Closer to the solar wind’s source, Parker Solar Probe saw a much different picture: a complicated, active system. 

One type of event in particular drew the eye of the science teams: flips in the direction of the magnetic field, which flows out from the Sun, embedded in the solar wind. These reversals — dubbed “switchbacks” — last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes as they flow over Parker Solar Probe. During a switchback, the magnetic field whips back on itself until it is pointed almost directly back at the Sun.

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The exact source of the switchbacks isn’t yet understood, but Parker Solar Probe’s measurements have allowed scientists to narrow down the possibilities — and observations from the mission’s 21 remaining solar flybys should help scientists better understand these events. 

2. Seeing tiny particle events

The Sun can accelerate tiny electrons and ions into storms of energetic particles that rocket through the solar system at nearly the speed of light. These particles carry a lot of energy, so they can damage spacecraft electronics and even endanger astronauts, especially those in deep space, outside the protection of Earth’s magnetic field — and the short warning time for such particles makes them difficult to avoid.

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Energetic particles from the Sun impact a detector on ESA & NASA’s SOHO satellite.

Parker Solar Probe’s energetic particle instruments have measured several never-before-seen events so small that all trace of them is lost before they reach Earth. These instruments have also measured a rare type of particle burst with a particularly high number of heavier elements — suggesting that both types of events may be more common than scientists previously thought.

3. Rotation of the solar wind

Near Earth, we see the solar wind flowing almost straight out from the Sun in all directions. But the Sun rotates as it releases the solar wind, and before it breaks free, the wind spins along in sync with the Sun’s surface. For the first time, Parker was able to observe the solar wind while it was still rotating – starting more than 20 million miles from the Sun.

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The strength of the circulation was stronger than many scientists had predicted, but it also transitioned more quickly than predicted to an outward flow, which helps mask the effects of that fast rotation from the vantage point where we usually see them from, near Earth, about 93 million miles away. Understanding this transition point in the solar wind is key to helping us understand how the Sun sheds energy, with implications for the lifecycles of stars and the formation of protoplanetary disks.

4. Hints of a dust-free zone

Parker also saw the first direct evidence of dust starting to thin out near the Sun – an effect that has been theorized for nearly a century, but has been impossible to measure until now. Space is awash in dust, the cosmic crumbs of collisions that formed planets, asteroids, comets and other celestial bodies billions of years ago. Scientists have long suspected that, close to the Sun, this dust would be heated to high temperatures by powerful sunlight, turning it into a gas and creating a dust-free region around the Sun.

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For the first time, Parker’s imagers saw the cosmic dust begin to thin out a little over 7 million miles from the Sun. This decrease in dust continues steadily to the current limits of Parker Solar Probe’s instruments, measurements at a little over 4 million miles from the Sun. At that rate of thinning, scientists expect to see a truly dust-free zone starting a little more than 2-3 million miles from the Sun — meaning the spacecraft could observe the dust-free zone as early as 2020, when its sixth flyby of the Sun will carry it closer to our star than ever before.

These are just a few of Parker Solar Probe’s first discoveries, and there’s plenty more science to come throughout the mission! For the latest on our Sun, follow @NASASun on Twitter and NASA Sun Science on Facebook.

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Are you throwing all your money into a black hole today?

Forget Black Friday — celebrate #BlackHoleFriday with us and get sucked into this recent discovery of a black hole that may have sparked star births across multiple galaxies.

If confirmed, this discovery would represent the widest reach ever seen for a black hole acting as a stellar kick-starter — enhancing star formation more than one million light-years away. (One light year is equal to 6 trillion miles.)

A black hole is an extremely dense object from which no light can escape. The black hole’s immense gravity pulls in surrounding gas and dust. Sometimes, black holes hinder star birth. Sometimes — like perhaps in this case — they increase star birth.

Telescopes like our Chandra X-ray Observatory help us detect the X-rays produced by hot gas swirling around the black hole. Have more questions about black holes? Click here to learn more.

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The Island Named After a Satellite

It is so small that you cannot see it on Google maps. It measures 25 by 45 meters (27 by 49 yards), about half the size of a football field. This barren bit of rock off the coast of Canada also has an unusual namesake: the Landsat 1 satellite. The small size is actually what made the island notable in 1973, when it was initially discovered. Well, that, and the polar bear trying to eat one of the surveyors.

Betty Fleming, a researcher with the Topographic Survey of Canada, was hunting for uncharted islands and rocks amidst data from the new Landsat 1 satellite. She was particularly interested in the new satellite’s ability to find small features. Working with the Canadian Hydrographic Service, Fleming scanned images of the Labrador coast, an area that was poorly charted. About 20 kilometers (12 miles) offshore, the satellite detected a tiny, rocky island. Surveyors were sent to verify the existence of the island and encountered a hungry polar bear on the island. The surveyor quickly retreated. Eventually, the island became known as “Landsat Island,” after the satellite that discovered it. Watch the video to learn more about Betty Fleming and how Landsat Island was discovered by satellite and ground surveyors.

For more details about Landsat Island, read the full stories here:

The Island Named After a Satellite

The Unsung Woman Who Discovered an Unknown Island

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If you need to fix something on Earth, you could go to a store, buy the tools you need, and get started. In space, it’s not that easy.

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Aside from the obvious challenges associated with space (like it being cold and there being no gravity), developing the right tools requires a great deal of creativity because every task is different, especially when the tools need to be designed from scratch. From the time an engineer dreams up the right tools to the time they are used in space, it can be quite a process.

On Nov. 15, astronauts Luca Parmitano and Drew Morgan began a series of spacewalks to repair an instrument called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS-2) on the exterior of the International Space Station. The first of four spacewalk focused on using specialized tools to remove shields and covers, to gain access to the heart of AMS to perform the repairs, and install a new cooling system.

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The debris shield that covered Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer floats away toward Earth as astronaut Drew Morgan successfully releases it.

Once repaired, AMS will continue to help us understand more about the formation of the universe and search for evidence of dark matter and antimatter.

These spacewalks, or extravehicular activities (EVAs), are the most complex of their kind since the servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope. AMS is particularly challenging to repair not only because of the instrument’s complexity and sensitivity, but also because it was never designed to be fixed. Because of this design, it does not have the kinds of interfaces that make spacewalks easier, or the ability to be operated on with traditional multi-purpose tools. These operations are so complex, their design and planning has taken four years. Let’s take a look at how we got ready to repair AMS.

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Thinking Outside of the (Tool) Box

When designing the tools, our engineers need to keep in mind various complications that would not come into play when fixing something on Earth. For example, if you put a screw down while you’re on Earth, gravity will keep it there — in space, you have to consistently make sure each part is secure or it will float away. You also have to add a pressurized space suit with limited dexterity to the equation, which further complicates the tool design.

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In addition to regular space complications, the AMS instrument itself presents many challenges — with over 300,000 data channels, it was considered too complex to service and therefore was not designed to one day be repaired or updated if needed. Additionally, astronauts have never before cut and reconnected micro-fluid lines (4 millimeters wide, less than the width of the average pencil) during a spacewalk, which is necessary to repair AMS, so our engineers had to develop the tools for this big first. 

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With all of this necessary out-of-the-box thinking, who better to go to for help than the teams that worked on the most well-known repair missions — the Hubble servicing missions and the space station tool teams? Building on the legacy of these missions, some of our same engineers that developed tools for the Hubble servicing missions and space station maintenance got to work designing the necessary tools for the AMS repair, some reworked from Hubble, and some from scratch. In total, the teams from Goddard Space Flight Center’s Satellite Servicing Projects Division, Johnson Space Center, and AMS Project Office developed 21 tools for the mission.

Designing and Building

Like many great inventions, it all starts with a sketch. Engineers figure out what steps need to be taken to accomplish the task, and imagine the necessary tools to get the job done.

From there, engineers develop a computer-aided design (CAD) model, and get to building a prototype. Tools will then undergo multiple iterations and testing with the AMS repair team and astronauts to get the design just right, until eventually, they are finalized, ready to undergo vibration and thermal vacuum testing to make sure they can withstand the harsh conditions of launch and use in the space environment. 

Hex Head Capture Tool Progression:

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Hex Head Capture Tool Used in Space: 

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Practice Makes Perfect

One of the reasons the AMS spacewalks have been four years in the making is because the complexity of the repairs required the astronauts to take extra time to practice. Over many months, astronauts tasked with performing the spacewalks practiced the AMS repair procedures in numerous ways to make sure they were ready for action. They practiced in:  

Virtual reality simulations:

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The Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory:

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The Active Response Gravity Offload System (ARGOS):

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Astronauts use this testing to develop and practice procedures in space-like conditions, but also to figure out what works and doesn’t work, and what changes need to be made. A great example is a part of the repair that involves cutting and reconnecting fluid lines. When astronauts practiced cutting the fluid lines during testing here on Earth, they found it was difficult to identify which was the right one to cut based on sight alone. 

The tubes on the AMS essentially look the same.

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After discussing the concern with the team monitoring the EVAs, the engineers once again got to work to fix the problem.

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And thus, the Tube Cutting Guide tool was born! Necessity is the mother of invention and the team could not have anticipated the astronauts would need such a tool until they actually began practicing. The Tube Cutting Guide provides alignment guides, fiducials and visual access to enable astronauts to differentiate between the tubes. After each of eight tubes is cut, a newly designed protective numbered cap is installed to cover the sharp tubing.

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Off to Space

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With the tools and repair procedures tested and ready to go, they launched to the International Space Station earlier this year. Now they’re in the middle of the main event – Luca and Drew completed the first spacewalk last Friday, taking things apart to access the interior of the AMS instrument. Currently, there are three other spacewalks scheduled over the course of a month. The next spacewalk will happen on Nov. 22 and will put the Tube Cutting Guide to use when astronauts reconnect the tubes to a new cooling system.

With the ingenuity of our tool designers and engineers, and our astronauts’ vigorous practice, AMS will be in good hands.

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Check out the full video for the first spacewalk. Below you can check out each of the Goddard tools above in action in space!

Debris Shield Worksite:
2:29:16 – Debris Shield Handling Aid
2:35:25 – Hex Head Capture Tool (first)
2:53:31 – #10 Allen Bit
2:54:59 – Capture Cages
3:16:35 – #10 Allen Bit (diagonal side)
3:20:58 – Socket Head Capture Tool
3:33:35 – Hex Head Capture Tool (last)
3:39:35 – Fastener Capture Block
3:40:55 – Debris Shield removal
3:46:46 – Debris Shield jettison

Vertical Support Beam (VSB) Worksite:
5:15:27 – VSB Cover Handling Aid
5:18:05 – #10 Allen Bit
5:24:34 – Socket Head Capture Tool
5:41:54 – VSB Cover breaking
5:45:22 – VSB Cover jettison
5:58:20 – Top Spacer Tool & M4 Allen Bit
6:08:25 – Top Spacer removal
7:42:05 – Astronaut shoutout to the tools team

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Launched less than four months after Apollo 11 put the first astronauts on the Moon, Apollo 12 was more than a simple encore. After being struck by lightning on launch – to no lasting damage, fortunately – Apollo 12 headed for a rendezvous with a spacecraft that was already on the Moon. The mission would expand the techniques used to explore the Moon and show the coordination between robotic and human exploration, both of which continue today as we get return to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024

Launch Day

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Apollo 12 lifted off at 11:22 a.m. EST, Nov. 14, 1969, from our Kennedy Space Center. Aboard the Apollo 12 spacecraft were astronauts Charles Conrad Jr., commander; Richard F. Gordon Jr., command module pilot; and Alan L. Bean, lunar module pilot.

Barely 40 seconds after liftoff, lightning struck the spacecraft. Conrad alerted Houston that the crew had lost telemetry and other data from the mission computers. As the Saturn V engines continued to push the capsule to orbit, ground controllers worked out a solution, restarting some electrical systems, and Apollo 12 headed toward the Moon.

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Cameras at the Kennedy Space Center captured this image of the same lightning bolt that struck Apollo 12 striking the mobile platform used for the launch.

On the Moon

Apollo 12 landed on the Moon on Nov. 19, and on the second moonwalk Conrad and Bean walked approximately 200 yards to the Surveyor 3 spacecraft. One of seven Surveyor spacecraft sent to land on the Moon and to gather data on the best way to land humans there, Surveyor 3 had been on the Moon for more than two years, exposed to cosmic radiation and the vacuum of space. Scientists on the ground wanted to recover parts of the spacecraft to see what effects the environment had had on it.

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Apollo 12 commander Pete Conrad examines the Surveyor 3 spacecraft before removing its camera and other pieces for return to Earth. In the background is the lunar module that landed Conrad and lunar module pilot Alan Bean on the Moon.

Splashdown

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Apollo 12 splashed down on Nov. 24. When Artemis returns astronauts to the Moon in 2024, it will be building on Apollo 12 as much as any of the other missions. Just as Apollo 12 had to maneuver off the standard “free return” trajectory to reach its landing site near Surveyor, Artemis missions will take advantage of the Gateway to visit a variety of lunar locations. The complementary work of Surveyor and Apollo – a robotic mission preparing the way for a crewed mission; that crewed mission going back to the robotic mission to learn more from it – prefigures how Artemis will take advantage of commercial lunar landers and other programs to make lunar exploration sustainable over the long term.

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Watch Mercury Transit the Sun on Nov. 11

On Nov. 11, Earthlings will be treated to a rare cosmic event — a Mercury transit.

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For about five and a half hours on Monday, Nov. 11 — from about 7:35 a.m. EST to 1:04 p.m. EST — Mercury will be visible from Earth as a tiny black dot crawling across the face of the Sun. This is a transit and it happens when Mercury lines up just right between the Sun and Earth.

Mercury transits happen about 13 times a century. Though it takes Mercury only about 88 days to zip around the Sun, its orbit is tilted, so it’s relatively rare for the Sun, Mercury and Earth to line up perfectly. The next Mercury transit isn’t until 2032 — and in the U.S., the next opportunity to catch a Mercury transit is in 2049!

How to watch

Our Solar Dynamics Observatory satellite, or SDO, will provide near-real time views of the transit. SDO keeps a constant eye on the Sun from its position in orbit around Earth to monitor and study the Sun’s changes, putting it in the front row for many eclipses and transits.

Visit mercurytransit.gsfc.nasa.gov to tune in!

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Our Solar Dynamics Observatory also saw Mercury transit the Sun in 2016.

If you’re thinking of watching the transit from the ground, keep in mind that it is never safe to look directly at the Sun. Even with solar viewing glasses, Mercury is too small to be easily seen with the unaided eye. Your local astronomy club may have an opportunity to see the transit using specialized, properly-filtered solar telescopes — but remember that you cannot use a regular telescope or binoculars in conjunction with solar viewing glasses.

Transits in other star systems

Transiting planets outside our solar system are a key part of how we look for exoplanets.

Our Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, is NASA’s latest planet-hunter, observing the sky for new worlds in our cosmic neighborhood. TESS searches for these exoplanets, planets orbiting other stars, by using its four cameras to scan nearly the whole sky one section at a time. It monitors the brightness of stars for periodic dips caused by planets transiting those stars.

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This is similar to Mercury’s transit across the Sun, but light-years away in other solar systems! So far, TESS has discovered 29 confirmed exoplanets using transits — with over 1,000 more candidates being studied by scientists!

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Discover more transit and eclipse science at nasa.gov/transit, and tune in on Monday, Nov. 11, at mercurytransit.gsfc.nasa.gov.

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Not all galaxies are lonely. Some have galaxy squads. ⁣

NGC 1706, captured in this image by our Hubble Space Telescope, belongs to something known as a galaxy group, which is just as the name suggests — a group of up to 50 galaxies which are gravitationally bound and relatively close to each other. ⁣

Our home galaxy, the Milky Way, has its own squad — known as the Local Group, which also contains the Andromeda galaxy, the Large and Small Magellanic clouds and the Triangulum galaxy.

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We’ve made some amazingly advanced software for our space missions, from launching rockets to the International Space Station to landing rovers on Mars. But a lot of that software can be applied to other situations here on the ground. We’ve got hundreds of downloadable programs in the NASA Software Catalog available for public use—and they’re all free.

We’ve rounded up five interesting software programs to get your search started.

1. Take a walk on Mars from your living room

Want to walk around Mars from the comfort of your living room? OnSight can help with that. Our engineers and scientists created this mixed reality software to immerse themselves in a visualization of the terrain around the Curiosity rover, so users feel like they are really walking on the Red Planet. The software can be adapted to visualize other locations, which means it could also help us explore places on Earth, like caves and lava fields. No wonder it was awarded NASA’s 2018 Software of the Year

2. Enhancing images from space and the doctor’s office

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It’s hard to take a perfect picture from space. That’s why our scientists created the Hierarchical Image Segmentation software program – to help us enhance and analyze images taken of Earth from space by the Landsat and Terra missions. But, that isn’t all it can do. Doctors have used the software to analyze medical images, such as X-rays, ultrasounds and mammography images, to reveal important details previously unseen by the human eye.

3. Video game tech helps our engineers build spaceflight hardware

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Installing sensitive spaceflight hardware is hardly a time for fun and games. Except when it comes to the Distributed Observer Network, or DON 3.1. This software combines innovative NASA tools with commercial video game technology to train our employees for stressful tasks – like maneuvering important, delicate tools through tight spots when building instruments or spacecraft. DON can be used in many other industries, particularly for overcoming the challenges that face virtual teams collaborating on complex problems.

4. Software helps protect Earth from space junk

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Those of us on the ground may imagine space as a peaceful place to float among the stars, but in reality, Earth’s atmosphere is filled with junk. This space debris can cause damage to spacecraft and satellites, including the International Space Station. That’s where the Orbital Debris Engineering Model software program comes in. Thanks to this NASA software, we can study the risks of debris impact to help us protect our orbiting equipment and – more importantly – our planet. Communication companies could use this software to prevent debris damage when launching satellites, saving them a lot of time and money.

5. From exploration missions to your office, this software keeps projects on track

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Do you manage complex projects at work? There are a lot of steps and moving pieces in play when it comes to getting a spacecraft from the launchpad into space. Used during the space shuttle missions, the Schedule Test and Assessment Tool 5.0 add-on works with Microsoft Project to automate project data to help us stay on track. It’s one of the more popular programs in our software catalog because it provides quick, clear assessment info that can help with decision making.

These are just a few examples of the software NASA has free and available for the public. To browse the new 2019-2020 catalog online, visit www.software.nasa.gov.

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Just like people here on Earth, astronauts get shipments too! But not in the typical sense. 8,200 pounds of cargo, including supplies and scientific experiments, is on its way to the International Space Station thanks to Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus cargo spacecraft. This ‘package’ launched out of Wallops Flight Facility on Nov. 2, 2019 at 9:59 a.m. EDT. The investigations aboard the rocket range from research into human control of robotics in space to reprocessing fibers for 3D printing. Get ready, because these new and exciting experiments are arriving soon!

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THE SEARCH FOR DARK MATTER

Stars, planets and their molecules only make up 15% of our universe. The rest is dark matter. However, no one has actually ever been able to see or study it. The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer -02 (AMS-02) has been searching for this substance since 2011. Northrop Grumman’s CRS-12 mission carries new parts for AMS-02 that will be added during a series of upcoming spacewalks so that the instrument can continue to help us shed light on this mystery.

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THE REMOTE EXPLORATION OF EARTH

Rovers operated by astronauts on the International Space Station will attempt to collect geological samples on Earth as part of an investigation called ANALOG-1. The samples, however, are not the important part of the study. Humans experience degraded sensorimotor functions in microgravity that could affect their operation of a robot. This study is designed to learn more about these issues, so that one day astronauts could use robots to perform research on planets they hope to walk on.

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WOAH, THAT’S RAD

The AstroRad Vest is pretty rad. So rad, in fact, that it was sent up on the launch of Northrop Grumman’s CRS-12 mission. This vest intends to protect astronauts from harmful radiation in space. While going about normal activity on the space station, astronauts will wear AstroRad and make note of things like comfort over long periods of time. This will help researchers on Earth finalize the best design for future long duration missions.

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EVEN ASTRONAUTS RECYCLE

The Made in Space Recycler (MIS) looks at how different materials on the International Space Station can be turned into filament used for 3D printing. This 3D printing is done right there in space, in the Additive Manufacturing Facility. Similar studies will be conducted on Earth so that comparisons can be made.  

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FASTER, CHEAPER ACCESS TO SPACE

A collaboration between Automobili Lamborghini and the Houston Methodist Research Institute will be using NanoRacks-Craig-X FTP  to test the performance of 3D-printed carbon fiber composites in the extreme environment of space. The study could lead to materials used both in space and on Earth. For example, the study may help improve the design of implantable devices for therapeutic drug delivery.

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DESSERT, FRESH FROM THE OVEN

Everyone enjoys the aroma of fresh-baked cookies, even astronauts. On future long-duration space missions, fresh-baked food could have psychological and physiological benefits for crew members, providing them with a greater variety of more nutritious meals. The Zero-G Oven experiment examines heat transfer properties and the process of baking food in microgravity.

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Want to learn about more investigations heading to the space station (or even ones currently under way)? Make sure to follow @ISS_Research on Twitter and Space Station Research and Technology News on Facebook. 

If you want to see the International Space Station with your own eyes, check out Spot the Station to see it pass over your town.

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In a dark conference room, a pumpkin gently landed on the Moon, its retrorockets smoldering, while across the room, a flying saucer pumpkin hovered above Area 51 as a pumpkin alien wreaked havoc.

Suffice to say that when the scientists and engineers at our Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, compete in a pumpkin-carving contest, the solar system’s the limit. Now in its ninth year, the contest gives teams only one hour to carve (off the clock, on their lunch break), though they can prepare non-pumpkin materials — like backgrounds, sound effects and motorized parts — ahead of time. 

Enjoy! 

Looking for more pumpkin fun? Check out the full gallery, here

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