Space mice and robotic avatars headed for the International Space Station


  • Science
  • Saturday, 07 Dec 2019

Nasa astronauts Christina Koch and Andrew Morgan stow biological research samples into a science freezer located inside the US Destiny laboratory module. — Nasa/TNS

Space mice, radiation vests, robotic avatars and recycling polymers for 3D printers were among the science experiments bound for the International Space Station (ISS) on the latest commercial resupply mission from Virginia, the United States.

Northrop Grumman’s 12th robotic mission – and its first under a new Nasa contract – launched on Nov 2, from the state-owned Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island.

Antares rocket launches were visible from Hampton Roads and throughout the mid-Atlantic.

This latest cargo run of an uncrewed Cygnus spacecraft had Nasa scientists turning nostalgic.

“We’re a little over a year away from a big milestone for us: 20 years of continuous human presence aboard the International Space Station, ” said Bryan Dansberry, assistant programme scientist for the ISS.

“Over 19 years ago, the station started out as an orbiting outpost that has really evolved into a robust and surprisingly versatile laboratory.”

To date, Dansberry said, more than 2,900 investigations have been conducted by nearly 4,000 investigators representing 108 countries. In September, astronauts set a record: one week of 127 hours of astronaut time devoted to research, besting the record set in May.

And this year, said Michael Roberts, interim chief scientist for the ISS US National Laboratory, “is the most prolific year of research on the space station by a wide margin”.

When the Cygnus spacecraft arrived, station crew unloaded groceries, hardware and about 2,090kg of science payload (the carrying capacity of a launch vehicle). They’d have found the latest in a Budweiser investigation into how germinated barley seeds can be processed in a microgravity environment, and an alliance of Italian auto-maker Lamborghini and Houston Methodist Research Institute to test the strength of 3D-printed carbon fibres in space.

Other experiments included: Rodent Research-14, the first time a life sciences mission using rodents launched on a Cygnus. The goal was to document the effect of microgravity on the biological circadian rhythm, specifically the 12-hour “circatidal” clock that’s believed to control stress levels and protein responses and co-ordinate metabolism.

“Part of the goal there is to understand how persons in space respond to these stresses in the absence of gravity, ” said principal investigator Brian York of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “Understanding these mechanisms will hopefully identify pathways that can be pharmacologically targeted in order to manipulate them on station or during travel for long space flight.”

Here on Earth, the study could lead to new therapies for metabolic diseases that contribute to insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and cancer.

According to Nasa, the mice will eventually be “sacrificed” by the station crew, dissected and their blood and tissue frozen for return to Earth.

In a joint effort by Nasa and the Israel Space Agency, the AstroRad vest is being developed to shield astronauts from the threat of deep space radiation. On this mission, a prototype would be used to gather ergonomic feedback from astronauts on its fit, form and function.

This particular vest is tailored for a female crew member, said Kathleen Coderre, principal investigator with Lockheed Martin in Denver, which built the vest of high-density polyethylene, a thermoplastic polymer. Vests for females will be thicker around sensitive organs, she said, which will make it slightly bulkier.

“Also, females do have a greater sensitivity to the space radiation environment. So it is a goal to make a comfortable vest to protect both male and female, but the female use case, from an ergonomics perspective, actually will give us a little bit better data, ” Coderre said.

The human/robot interface will get a test run in a European Space Agency initiative to see how well an orbiting astronaut can control a robot on the surface of the moon or another planet.

“Simply spoken, we want to pick up a rock. So the astronaut will have a robotic avatar on the surface of the moon and can command the robot with an advanced user interface, ” said Thomas Krueger, team lead of ESA’s Human-Robot Interaction Lab.

In this case, though, the rock will be on some Earth terrain filling in for the lunar surface. The experiment is considered an analog scenario for future lunar or Martian exploration, Nasa said.

The Made In Space Recycler that headed for the space station was built to break down used polymer parts and materials into feedstock filament. Astronauts can then use that filament to print out new items using the Made In Space 3D printer already operating on the station.

“We’re trying to improve the sustainability of manufacturing capabilities on the station, so that way we don’t have to continue to launch polymer in the form of filament, ” said Michael Snyder, principal investigator at Made in Space Inc in Jacksonville, Florida. “This is significant because of the implication for future exploration missions, as well as the commercialisation of low-Earth orbit.”

Recycled filament as well as items made from it will be returned to Earth for testing. Snyder said in-space manufacturing is essential for future exploration missions to the moon or Mars, while the technology also has applications for recycling and conserving resources here on Earth. – Tribune News Service / Daily Press (Newport News, VA) / Tamara Dietrich


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