Spacewalk Preps, Science, and Robonaut Keep Expedition 42 Busy Ahead of Christmas Holiday

NASA Astronaut Terry Virts with Robonaut-2. Photo: NASA
NASA Astronaut Terry Virts with Robonaut-2. Photo: NASA

The International Space Station Expedition 42 crew were hard at work last week on a variety of robotics and research tasks, along with preparation for a rescheduled cargo delivery and future spacewalks. Work on scientific studies about fruit fly immune systems, microbial growth, and cyclone intensity was also conducted.

Prior to the rescheduling of SpaceX’s Falcon-9 rocket launch to deliver the Dragon CRS-5 capsule to the ISS, crew members were busy preparing for its arrival. NASA astronaut Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti were inside the Cupola last week for training in robotics in advance of the scheduled approach and capture of the capsule. It was planned that Wilmore would take control of the Canadarm2 to take hold of Dragon, with Cristoforetti assisting. NASA astronaut Terry Virts also helped with preparations for Dragon’s intended arrival, installing a centerline berthing camera for support while attaching Dragon to the Harmony node on the station.

ESA Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti inside the Cupola training for Dragon's CRS-5 arrival in early January. Photo Credit: Twitter @AstroSamantha
ESA Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti inside the Cupola training for Dragon’s CRS-5 arrival in early January. Photo Credit: Twitter @AstroSamantha

Astronauts aboard station also prepared for a series of three planned U.S. spacewalks, set for early next year. Wilmore and Virts worked on getting spacesuits and spacewalk tools ready, with Wilmore changing out secondary oxygen packs on two of the spacesuits, and Virts made sure the torque on a pistol grip tool was functional.

Also this week, Virts worked on removing three microplates that were residing in the Minus Eighty-Degree Laboratory Freezer for the International Space Station (MELFI). For work on the Comparison of the Growth Rate and DNA Characterization of Microgravity Exposed Microbial Community Samples (NanoRacks-Project MERCCURI) study, he scanned the microplates into the NanoRacks Plate Reader—a laboratory instrument created for the detection of biological, chemical, or physical events of samples in microtiter plates.

The differences in microbial communities among people, buildings, cities, countries, and even the ISS can drastically affect human health. The goal of Project MERCCURI is to get members of the public involved in gathering samples from frequently touched surfaces around the United States. Locations include anything from stairs at sports venues to railings in schools. The samples are delivered to the ISS to examine the difference in the way these different communities of microbes grow in microgravity compared to on Earth.

The microbial growth experiments will also include DNA sequencing in order to study the characteristics of the microbes that exist on different surfaces on the ISS. The goal for researchers is to show the public that microbes exist all around us and they can have both positive and negative effects on human health. The study offers the future of advanced biology and pharmaceutical research in microgravity which may possibly lead to new treatments for diseases. It also raises awareness about microbial communities, microbiology, and the space program by encouraging public participation.

The fruit fly—Drosophila melanogaster—is helping researchers understand how spaceflight affects the immune system’s response to infection. Image Credit: NASA / Dominic Hart
The fruit fly—Drosophila melanogaster—is helping researchers understand how spaceflight affects the immune system’s response to infection. Photo Credit: NASA / Dominic Hart

Work was also done last week to adjust the Nanoracks BioRack Centrifuge to prepare for the upcoming Drosophila Experiment (Fruit Fly Lab-01). Virts assisted the ground team with this task. On the now rescheduled fifth SpaceX cargo resupply mission (CRS-5), the station will receive a batch of fruit flies.

Drosophila melanogaster—otherwise known as the common fruit fly—is a helpful model for researchers to use when studying the biological effects of spaceflight due to its high value as an animal model for the human immune system. Due to the effects of spaceflight on the human immune system, humans participating in it may be more prone to disease since microbes can turn into a stronger and more virulent version of themselves when in space.

The Fruit Fly Lab, an experiment handled by NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, will help researchers gain knowledge on the combined effect of changed host immunity with changes to microbes in space. Since there is such a strong similarity in the immune systems of the fruit fly and mammals, scientists will better understand how the body’s first line of defense works against pathogens. A better understanding of how the immune system works and how patients bearing weakened immune systems get sick will lead to better treatments for sick patients on Earth.

Members aboard the station also planned to image Typhoon Hagupit—a Category-4 cyclone in the western Pacific Ocean—this week for the Cyclone Intensity Measurements from the International Space Station (CyMISS) project. The CyMISS project’s purpose is to use passive instrumentation from low-Earth orbit to show off new techniques to gain real-time measurements with higher accuracy the intensities of different strong tropical cyclones.

An image from NASA's Terra Satellite of Typhoon Hagupit as it approached the Philippines in the western Pacific Ocean. Image Credit: NASA
An image from NASA’s Terra Satellite of Typhoon Hagupit as it approached the Philippines in the western Pacific Ocean. Image Credit: NASA

For this method to be successful, it needs temperature readings from the top of the eye wall clouds and their height above sea level. Researches will combine this data with other information learned about sea-level surface temperatures and air pressure to make better predictions on wind speed, strength, and intensity of cyclones before they make landfall. This will help emergency responders and coastal residents make better preparations in advance of the arrival of these powerful and destructive storms.

Work was also done last week by Cristoforetti and cosmonaut Elena Serova on the Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) aboard the ISS, as they started work on Wednesday on a practice run of the operation of the satellites.

SPHERES are sphere-shaped satellites about the size of a bowling ball. Their purpose is for use inside the station to test sets of well-defined instructions for spacecraft that will perform autonomous rendezvous and docking maneuvers in the future. The three free-flying satellites are self-contained with their own power, propulsion, computers, and navigation equipment. They will perform flight formations inside the cabin of the ISS. The results are valuable to the improvement of satellite servicing, vehicle assembly, and formation flying spacecraft configurations.

Robonaut 2, the space station’s humanoid robot, got to “stretch its legs” in the Destiny module this week when Virts unpacked it. Payload controllers from the Marshall Flight Center in Alabama powered up its new legs, which came to the ISS on a prior SpaceX Dragon delivery, for the first time. The robot’s legs were previously installed in August.

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