Science Launching to Space Station Looks Forward and Back

Includes Cold Atom Lab
from JPL

Some of the
earliest human explorers used mechanical tools
called sextants to navigate vast
oceans and discover new
lands. Today, high-tech tools navigate microscopic DNA
to
discover previously unidentified organisms. Scientists aboard
the
International Space Station
soon will have both types of
tools at
their disposal.

Orbital ATK’s
Cygnus spacecraft is scheduled to launch its
ninth contracted cargo resupply
mission to the space station
no earlier than May 20. Science and research delivered
by the
spacecraft include a test of centuries-old sextant navigation
and
forward-thinking work advancing the orbiting lab’s ability
to support
cutting-edge molecular research and its commercial
capabilities.

Sextant navigation

For centuries,
sailors navigated with sextants, which have an
optical sight to take precise
angle measurements from land or
sea. NASA’s Gemini missions conducted the first
sextant
sightings from a spacecraft, and designers built a sextant into
Apollo
vehicles as a lost-communications navigation backup.
Jim Lovell demonstrated on
Apollo 8 that sextant navigation
could return a space vehicle home.

The
Sextant Navigation
investigation tests use of a hand-held
sextant for emergency navigation on missions in deep space as
humans begin to
travel farther from Earth. The ability to
sight angles between the moon or
planets and stars offers
crews another option to find their way home if
communications
and main computers are compromised.

“No need to
reinvent the wheel when it comes to celestial
navigation,” says Principal Investigator
Greg Holt. “We want a
robust, mechanical back-up with as few parts and as
little
need for power as possible to get you back home safely.”

Gene sequencing

The remoteness
and constrained resources of living in space
require simple but effective
processes and procedures to
monitor the presence of microbial life, some of
which might be
harmful.

Biomolecule
Extraction and Sequencing Technology (BEST)
advances the use of sequencing processes to identify
microbes
aboard the space station that current methods cannot detect and
to
assess mutations in the microbial genome that may be due to
spaceflight.


Genes in Space 3
performed in-flight identification of
bacteria on the station for the first time. BEST takes that one
step farther,
says Principal iInvestigator Sarah Wallace,
identifying unknown microbial
organisms using a process that
sequences directly from a sample with minimal
preparation,
rather than with the traditional technique that requires
growing a
culture from the sample. “That way, we can identify
microbes that cannot be
detected using traditional culturing
methods, and we aren’t increasing the
number of potential
pathogens that might be present on the station,” Wallace
explains.

Adding these
new processes to the proven technology opens new
avenues for inflight research,
such as how microorganisms on
the space station change or adapt to spaceflight.

“With small
modifications to our process, you can pretty much
do any type of sequencing on
the station,” says Wallace.
“Until now, we had to bring samples back to the
ground to see
these changes. We know gene expression changes, but freezing a
sample and bringing it back to the ground could result in
alterations that are not
caused by the spaceflight
environment. If we could look at it while on the
station, it
might look very different. There is so much to be gained from
that
real-time snapshot of gene expression. I think it will be
key to a lot of
research.”

The
investigation’s sequencing components provide important
information on the
station’s microbial occupants, including
which organisms are present and how
they respond to the
spaceflight environment — insight that could help protect
humans during future space exploration. Knowledge gained from
BEST could also
provide new ways to monitor the presence of
microbes in remote locations on
Earth.

Keeping cool

Moving on to
science at a scale even smaller than a microbe,
the new Cold Atom Lab (CAL)
facility could help answer some big questions in modern
physics. CAL creates a temperature 10 billion times colder than
the vacuum of
space, then uses lasers and magnetic forces to
slow down atoms until they are
almost motionless. CAL makes it
possible to observe these ultra-cold atoms for
much longer in
the microgravity environment on the space station than would
be
possible on the ground. Results of this research could
potentially lead to a
number of improved technologies,
including sensors, quantum computers and
atomic clocks used in
spacecraft navigation. The Cold Atom Laboratory was
designed
and built at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena,
California.
It is sponsored by the International Space Station
Program at NASA’s Johnson
Space Center in Houston, and the
Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and
Applications
(SLPSRA) Division of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations
Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

ICE cubes

The
International Commercial Experiment, or ICE
Cubes Service
,
tests
and commissions the first European commercial system to
increase access to this
unique lab. A partnership between the
European Space Agency (ESA) and Space Application
Services
(SpaceAps), ICE Cubes uses a sliding framework
permanently installed in the
Columbus module and
“plug-and-play” Experiment Cubes. The Experiment Cubes are
easy to install and remove, come in different sizes and can be
built with
commercial off-the-shelf components, significantly
reducing the cost and time
to develop experiments.

“The idea is to
provide fast, direct and affordable access to
space for research, technology
and education for any
organization or customer,” says Hilde Stenuit of
SpaceAps,
which designed and developed the facility and made it
flight-ready.

ICE Cubes
removes barriers that limit access to space,
providing more people access to
flight opportunities.
Potential fields of research range from pharmaceutical
development to experiments on stem cells, radiation, and
microbiology, fluid
sciences, and more.

For daily
updates on the science happening aboard the space
station, follow @ISS_Research, Space
Station
Research and Technology News
,
or Facebook. For opportunities
to see the
International Space Station pass over your town,
check out Spot
the
Station
.

News Media Contact

Calla Cofield
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-393-1821
Calla.e.cofield@jpl.nasa.gov

Melissa Gaskill
International Space Station Program Science Office
Johnson Space Center, Houston
281-483-5111

2018-103

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