NASA personnel, together with investigators and student scientists, gathered for a media teleconference earlier today (Wednesday, 8 February), to discuss the research payloads heading uphill aboard SpaceX’s next Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) Dragon mission to the International Space Station (ISS). Launch of the CRS-10 mission—the tenth dedicated Dragon cargo flight since October 2012—is currently targeted to fly no earlier than Saturday, 18 February, atop SpaceX’s Upgraded Falcon 9 booster, embarking on a month-long voyage to the orbiting outpost. All told, CRS-10 will transport 5,500 pounds (2,500 kg) of hardware and supplies uphill and will return approximately 5,000 pounds (2,270 kg) back to Earth. Significantly, it will become the first mission to launch from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida since the end of the Space Shuttle era in July 2011.
Against this historic backdrop, SpaceX is gearing up for an ambitious return to ISS cargo delivery operations. Loaded aboard Dragon’s pressurized module for CRS-10 will be equipment and supplies for the station’s incumbent Expedition 50 increment of Commander Shane Kimbrough and his crewmates Sergei Ryzhikov, Andrei Borisenko and Oleg Novitsky of Russia, veteran NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson and Frenchman Thomas Pesquet.
A pair of 17-year-old students from Craft Academy at Morehead State University in Moorhead, Ky., opened today’s briefing by outlining an experiment to use and evaluate smooth muscle cells to test theories about muscle contraction in the microgravity environment. Danielle Gibson and Will Castro noted the “significant physiological differences” observed upon muscle behavior in space and that their research carries major implications for treatment of blood pressure conditions.
Dr. Paul Reichert discussed the Microgravity Growth of Crystalline Monoclonal Antibodies for Pharmaceutical Applications, an experiment provided by Merck Research Laboratories of Kenilworth, N.J., to test the growth of “monoclonal” antibodies which may play a key role in combating many human diseases, including cancer, asthma, infections and high levels of cholesterol. To date, crystalline suspensions of these antibodies have not reached sufficiently high quality in ground-based laboratories and it is expected that the unique conditions aboard the ISS will meet this requirement.
The Microgravity Expanded Stem Cells investigation, sponsored by NASA and provided by BioServe Space Technologies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, will cultivate human stem cells aboard the ISS for use in clinical trials to evaluate their effectiveness in disease treatment. The experiment will run through the remainder of Expedition 50, as well as the next two ISS increments, through September 2017. It is possible that stem cells grown in microgravity may expand at an accelerated rate, leading to future applications which may offer better treatment for stroke patients. Long-term aims of the experiment are to develop a safe and reliable clinical-grade stem cell bioreactor in space, in order to understand stem cell biology and the progression of cancer stem cells. “The hypothesis of the investigation,” NASA has noted, “is that stem cells proliferate faster in microgravity, with the goal of generating preliminary data that will be used to design a larger clinical study.”
Dr. Michael Freilich, head of NASA’s Earth Science Division, provided a briefing on the Stratospheric Aerosol Gas Experiment (SAGE)-III and the Lightning Imaging Sensor (LIS), both of which will provide continuity for ongoing climate observations and data records. SAGE is actually the latest member in a four-decade effort to assess the effects of human and natural activities on the Home Planet’ radiation balance. A proof-of-concept was performed during the U.S. half of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) in July 1975, before SAGE-I launched aboard the Explorer-60 satellite and SAGE-II aboard the Earth Radiation Budget Satellite (ERBS). Another instrument was launched aboard Russia’s Meteor-3M satellite in December 2001, allowing for the establishment of trends in global ozone levels.
Key foci for SAGE-III include ongoing aerosol research, together with mid- and high-level cloud monitoring, the presence and distribution of water vapor—which plays a crucial role in regulating the global climate—and measurements of atmospheric temperature and pressure changes and the role of nitrogen dioxide, nitrogen trioxide and chloride dioxide in the destruction of stratospheric ozone. SAGE-III’s nitrogen dioxide measurements are considered particularly important, because the processes responsible for the much-publicized “ozone hole” over Antarctica effectively convert nitrogen dioxide to nitric acid. As a result, the co-ordinated study of nitrogen dioxide concentrations will offer a significant insight into understanding the bigger picture of ozone-hole chemistry.
Destined for emplacement onto ExPRESS Logistics Carrier (ELC)-4 on the space station’s starboard-side S-3 truss, the 168-pound (76 kg) SAGE-III is equipped with an Instrument Payload (IP) and Nadir Viewing Platform (NVP). The need for this arrangement came about following the requirement to package SAGE-III in order to meet its science objectives, within the restricted payload envelope of ELC-4. “The concept uses the NVP as a separate ExPRESS pallet payload to translate the ExPRESS pallet interface by 90 degrees,” NASA previously explained, “fully replicating the mechanical and electrical interfaces and providing the required nadir orientation.”
Shortly after arrival at the ISS, the instrument and its ExPRESS Payload Adapter (ExPA) will be removed from Dragon’s unpressurized trunk, via the 57.7-foot-long (17.6-meter) Canadarm2 and Dextre robotic “hand”. The ensuing robotics operation will see the IP and NVP “temp-stowed” on Dextre’s Enhanced Orbital Replacement Unit (ORU) Temporary Platform (EOTP). Following its move to ELC-4, the NVP will be installed directly onto the carrier, after which the IP will be installed onto the NVP.
This outboard position on the Integrated Truss Structure (ITS) will afford SAGE-III a continuous and unobstructed view of Earth’s atmospheric limb as it seeks to undertake long-term measurements of ozone, aerosols, water vapor and associated gases. “Extensive trade studies were conducted to find the ideal mounting location for the SAGE-III payload,” noted NASA documentation. “Because the science measurements require unobstructed views of the limb of the Earth through solar beta angles of ±60 degrees, efforts were focused on identifying a nadir viewing ExPRESS Logistics Carrier site, with minimal obstructions from other ISS components.”
Dr. Frielich also outlined the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program (STP)-H5 payload, which hosts the LIS instrument for 24-hour global lightning measurements. Specific objectives will be to monitor the amount, rate and energy output of lightning events around the world. Every 45 seconds, a lightning event occurs somewhere in the world and LIS carries the potential to observe from 56 degrees North to 56 degrees South, allowing for measurements at mid-latitudes, as well as the tropics. Its work will benefit global climate and atmospheric chemistry models, as well as offering improved coverage from higher latitudes, which are particularly sensitive to climatic changes.
LIS follows in the footsteps of a near-identical instrument, which operated aboard the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) from 1997 through 2015. After its arrival at the ISS, the new LIS will be robotically installed onto the ELC-1 payload site on the station’s port-side P-3 truss and will remain operational for around two years. It will work in tandem with the Geostationary Lightning Mapper aboard the recently-launched Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-16. Whereas GOES-16 operates at a 22,240-mile (35,800 km) geostationary altitude—enabling it to view a seemingly “fixed” geographical region, centered on the Americas—LIS will function at approximately 250 miles (400 km), across a much broader latitudinal range. Examining similar regions at the same time from these differing altitudes will allow for cross-calibration and links with data-sets from previous missions.
Also on Wednesday’s panel was Ben Reed, deputy division director of the Satellite Servicing Projects Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, Md. One of Dragon’s notable payloads is “Raven”, a technology demonstrator for future autonomous rendezvous capability on the ISS. Developed by the Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office (SSCO), which was also responsible for the Robotic Refueling Mission (RRM) hardware currently on-board the space station, Raven provides a real-time navigation system with the eyes and intelligence to “see” a rendezvous target and steer safely toward it to accomplish an automated docking.
Equipped with visible-light, infrared and Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) sensors, together with a high-performance, reprogrammable avionics suite, Raven is expected to validate a key technology for NASA’s Restore-L satellite servicing mission in mid-2020. Over its projected two-year mission at the ISS, the Raven hardware will estimate in real-time the relative navigational state of various Visiting Vehicles (VVs)—including Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicles (HTVs), SpaceX’s Dragon and Orbital ATK’s Cygnus, as well as Russian Soyuz-MS and Progress-MS—and convert imagery into relative navigation solutions. It will be installed onto ELC-1, on the Earth-facing (or “nadir”) face of the P-3 truss, which will provide excellent visibility of all VVs approaching or departing the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS). Collected data will be downlinked to Earth for evaluation and adjustment.
The final member of today’s panel, Dr. Anita Goel, chairman and scientific director for Nanobiosym, provided insight into an experiment whose hardware might someday be employed to identify bacterial mutations in space. The investigation will utilize the hospital-acquired superbug Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which is renowned for its resistance to antibodies. “Microgravity may accelerate the rate of bacterial mutations,” NASA has explained, “and this pilot investigation analyzes the process in two strains aboard the International Space Station, which may provide insight into how deadly bacteria become drug-resistant.” In the United States alone, MRSA kills more Americans in a single year than the combined total of emphysema, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s disease and homicide.
Following Dragon’s launch next week, the spacecraft will be captured by Canadarm2 about two days into its mission and robotically berthed at the nadir interface of the station’s Harmony node. Prime operator of the Canadian-built mechanical arm will be European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Thomas Pesquet, backed up by Expedition 50 Commander Shane Kimbrough. Current plans call for CRS-10 to remain attached to the ISS for four weeks, producing an unberthing and departure in the mid-March timeframe.