5 science experiments headed to space station on SpaceX Dragon

Research includes study of sprites, barley and human cells

The SpaceX CRS-13 Dragon cargo spacecraft is pictured attached to the International Space Station's Harmony module after it arrived on Dec. 17. 2017. Photo credit: NASA
The SpaceX CRS-13 Dragon cargo spacecraft is pictured attached to the International Space Station's Harmony module after it arrived on Dec. 17. 2017. Photo credit: NASA

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – At any given time, the International Space Station plays host to more than 250 scientific research programs and experiments. On Monday, SpaceX launched its Dragon spacecraft from Cape Canaveral, carrying a whole new round of science that will benefit people on Earth and astronauts.

The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space manages the selection of experiments destined for the orbiting laboratory. See the launch story here.

Here's a look at five experiments headed to the International Space Station.

Materials tough it out in extreme space environment

Alpha Space Test and Research Alliance plans to test materials on a platform known as MISSE on the International Space Station.

MISSE stands for the Material International Space Station Experiments, and said experiments can be serviced from Earth via robotic arms on the ISS.

“When scientists want to test their material in a harsh environment, the MISSE platform really offers the harshest environment available for testing today,” Alpha Space founder Stephanie Murphy said.

The low-Earth orbit environment allows scientists to test their material in conditions that include extreme hot and cold temperatures and exposure to radiation from gamma rays.

The Dragon capsule is carrying 138 different types of materials that will be mounted to MISSE for testing.

There is nothing on Earth that can replicate those conditions to test materials, Murphy said.

Science will continue on MISSE for 10 years.

Budweiser's barley experiment continues

Beer company Budweiser continues to investigate how the main ingredient in beer, barley, grows in a microgravity environment.

Ten barley seedlings will grow on the International Space Station inside two CubeLabs, and those plants will be assessed for any genetic effects. The barley plants will return to Earth on another supply capsule.

Anheuser-Busch officials spoke to News 6 in December ahead of the December launch of the first round of the experiment. Read that interview here.

The experiment will help scientists develop barley better suited for microgravity and here on Earth, which will benefit farmers and eventually help future Martians maintain a "good, healthy lifestyle," Dr. Gary Hanning, director of global barley research at Anheuser-Busch, said.

European Space Agency studies sprites

An Earth observation facility will monitor the Earth for severe thunderstorms, specifically looking for high-altitude lightning. From the ground, the lightning phenomena are known as “sprites.”

ASIM principal investigator Torsten Neubert described sprites as gigantic lightning bolts shooting up from thunderstorm clouds to the edge of space.

The European Space Agency’s Atmosphere-Space Interactions Monitor will conduct observations from the Columbus module of the Space Station.

"The things we are looking for are really new, relatively newly discovered, so ASIM will be the first time we launch a specially designed instrument to look for these things in space," Neubert said.

ASIM will observes sprites through automatic detection and some planned observation events to help determine how the atmospheric events relate to lightning.

The research will also help our understanding the "effect of dust storms, urban pollutants, forest fires and volcanoes on cloud formation, as well as electrification and intensification of hurricanes and their relation to eye-wall lightning activity," according to NASA officials.

The research will improve meteorology, climate predictions and what we know about Earth’s atmosphere.

Human cells that talk

Another experiment uses glowing human cells to test their response to drug samples in microgravity.

The autobioluminescent technology allows the cells to "talk" to researchers and show how healthy they are using light as an indicator, 490 BioTech Chief Scientific Officer Dan Close said.

“Instead of intermittent snapshots of data acquisition we can con monitor any living cell, so healthy, happy cells grow very brightly. As the cells become sick, they become dim, and if they die, the light goes out,” Close said.

On Earth, researchers have to go to extremes to encourage cells to grow in 3D structures, but on the Space Station, there are no additional steps necessary.

The goal of the 490 BioTech experiment is to provide pharmaceutical companies a way to do research on new drugs at a low cost in low Earth orbit and get better information about the new drugs.

Seven new ways of growing plants in space

Dragon is also carrying a new system that uses Tupperware to deliver nutrients to plants in NASA's Veggie experiment, currently growing on the International Space Station.

The Veggie PONDS experiment replaces how plants currently grown on the Space Station are fed with nutrients. The new setup will eventually allow for larger vegetable and fruit crops, including tomatoes.

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center-developed Veggie PONDS use technology by Tupperware and Techshot. Six PONDS setups can be grown at one time, and they can be refurbished and re-flown after use.

Seven PONDS modules will launch on the SpaceX resupply mission to the Space Station, each one slightly different from the rest. Another Veggie PONDS experiment will launch in May from Virginia.

Astronauts are growing two types of mixed greens in the Veggie facilities now.

Watch the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch live at ClickOrlando.com/space.

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