Published: 
Feb 20, 2020

Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications SpaceX-20 Experiments and Payloads

Research on physical science and life sciences in space allows humans to both expand their knowledge of space and enhance their economic vitality on Earth. A series of physical science experiments testing micro gravity properties in space are driving global advances in science and technology. Through a number of innovative biological experiments, NASA is also finding new ways to help plants, animals and humans survive and thrive in spaceflight conditions. Investigations launching to the International Space Station on SpaceX’s 20th contracted commercial resupply services mission include the following:

Physical Sciences

Combustion Research From Fuel Efficiency to Flammability

Several experiments will study combustion focusing on three primary goals: How can we improve fuel efficiency? How can we reduce combustion pollutants? How can we better prevent a fire inside a spacecraft? The Advanced Combustion via Microgravity Experiments (ACME) project is a series of six independent studies of gaseous flames that will be conducted in the Combustion Integrated Rack on board the orbiting laboratory.

This is a photo of a flame under microgravity conditions. It is bulbous, compared to a long, tapered flame that would be found on Earth.
This is a photo of a flame under microgravity conditions. It is bulbous, compared to a long, tapered flame that would be found on Earth.

Five of the experiments are focused on improving how we use fuel on Earth. By developing computational models, scientists hope to improve the efficiency and reduce the pollutant emission in combustion machines. In addition, the computational simulation capability resulting from ACME could lead to reductions in the time and cost to design the next generation of combustion engines. Other ACME goals are to improve our understanding of combustion during limited fuel conditions where both optimum performance and low emissions can be achieved, as well as soot control and reduction – that is, oxygen-enriched combustion which would capture carbons before they were released into the air, and flame stability and extinction limits, as well as the use of electric fields for combustion control.

The objective of the sixth experiment is focused on spacecraft fire prevention. Scientists want to improve their fundamental understanding of materials flammability such as extinction behavior and the microgravity conditions needed for sustained combustion. It will also help them assess the relevance of existing flammability test methods as they screen and select materials for future spacecraft.

Principal Investigators:
Richard Axelbaum, Ph.D. Washington University in St. Louis,
Derek Dunn-Rankin, Ph.D. University of California, Irvine, Irvine,
Chung (Ed) Law, Ph.D. Princeton University,
Marshall Long, Ph.D. Yale University,
James Quintiere, Ph.D. University of Maryland

Developers:
NASA Glenn Research Center
ZIN Technologies Incorporated

 

Turning up the Temperature on Materials Science with Liquid Metal

For thousands of years, humans have produced glass, metal alloys, and other materials by placing a mixture of raw materials in a container - called a crucible – and heating them to a high temperature. But, as melting begins, a chemical reaction can occur between the materials and the crucible, causing imperfections and contaminations. So what if you could avoid using the crucible? You can – in space.

NASA Flight Engineer monitors a Japanese resupply ship.
Flight Engineer Serena Auñón-Chancellor of NASA monitors the arrival of the H-II Transfer Vehicle-7. The Japanese resupply ship delivered a new sample holder for the Electrostatic Levitation Furnace.

Aboard the International Space Station, NASA will use the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Electrostatic Levitation Furnace (ELF) handles materials using a containerless processing technique. This allows researchers to reduce imperfections, provide enhanced fidelity of results, and investigate the behavior of high-temperature manufactured materials including oxides, semiconductors, insulators and alloys which are only possible in the microgravity environment of space.

The ELF will soon perform two new experiments: The Thermophysical Property Measurement investigation will study small (~2mm) spheres of metal to provide a better understanding of how to measure liquid metal properties. The knowledge gained will help researchers better understand how to maximize the levitators of each. NASA is part of an international team of researchers for the Origin Of Fragility In High-Temperature Oxide Liquids experiment that will, on the other hand, investigate what happens when high temperatures are applied to those same small spheres of various metal oxides. Oxides are a class of chemical compounds in which oxygen is combined with another element, in this case a metal. The spheres are heated by multiple laser beams to a high temperature, where the metal becomes a liquid. Metal oxides are developed for products such as thermal conductors and electrical insulators, and these liquids formed from these materials are expected to serve as precursors to products that are useful in advanced sensors, benefiting manufacturers and scientists designing new materials and manufacturing techniques that can be used both on Earth and in Space.

ELF Thermophysical Property Measurement Experiment

Principal Investigator:
Douglas M. Matson, Ph.D., Tufts University

Co-Investigator:
Mikhail Krivilev, Ph.D., Udmurt State University, Russia


High-Temperature Oxide Liquids Experiment

Principal Investigator:
Shinji Kohara, Ph.D., National Institute for Materials Science, Japan

Co-Investigator:
Richard Weber, Ph.D., Materials Development Inc.

Developer:
Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Space Environment Utilization Center

 

A Closer Look at Complex Nanostructures for Future New Materials

Take a close look at an object – any object – through an electron microscope, and you’ll see how it’s composed of micron-scale particles. How do those particles form and blend with each other to become that object? Welcome to the world of colloids and nanostructures. In chemistry, a colloid is a mixture in which one substance of microscopically dispersed insoluble or soluble particles is suspended throughout another substance, much like tapioca pudding.  Scientists know temperature is a factor in determining how these microscopic particles bond with their surfaces and with each other. But another factor that’s been difficult to measure is the effect gravity has on these particles – until now.  

A photo of NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg conducting a session with the Advanced Colloids Experiment (ACE)-1 sample preparation at the Light Microscopy Module in the Fluids Integrated Rack / Fluids Combustion Facility.
NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg, Expedition 36 flight engineer, as she conducts a session with the Advanced Colloids Experiment (ACE)-1 sample preparation at the Light Microscopy Module in the Fluids Integrated Rack / Fluids Combustion Facility.

The Advanced Colloids Experiment Temperature-2 (ACE-T-2) experiment will look at the complex structures of these micron-scale colloidal particles, and how they assemble in micro gravity conditions. Using the electron microscope on board the station, scientists will observe these particle interactions when different temperatures are applied to them. 

The experimental work emanates from an increasing demand for ever more complex, specifically designed micro and nano-scale structures for photonic and electric devices. Controlling how these complex 3D structures are assembled, however, is highly challenging. Through these experiments, and assisted by complex algorithms, scientists hope to gain a basic understanding of the assembly process to better grow complex nanostructured materials.

These Colloidal and nano-particles are good candidates to become the building blocks of some of tomorrow’s new materials. Applications of nano and micro materials are rapidly growing: this new particulate matter finds increasing applications in all parts of modern life ranging from food and drug industry to coating and painting to everyday electronic devices.

Principal Investigator:
Peter Schall, Ph.D

Co-Investigators:
Gerard Wegdam, Ph.D., University of Amsterdam, Institute of Physics
Simon Stuij, University of Amsterdam, Institute of Physics
Piet Swinkels, University of Amsterdam, Institute of Physics
Marco A. C. Potenza, Ph.D., University of Milan

Developers:
NASA Glenn Research Center
Zin Technologies Incorporated

There’s a relatively new technique that allows scientists to design and assemble complex three-dimensional structures from colloids. Those are particles of different sizes that are suspended in a fluid, similar in concept to how microbeads are suspended  in liquid soap. The technique is known as nanoparticle haloing (NPH) which uses highly charged nanoparticles to stabilize much larger, non charged particles. It is thought that the nanoparticles create a charge layer by forming a cage, or Halo, around the larger particles.

A photo of ACE Modules taken during the ACE-T12 Module Configuration onboard the International Space Station.
Onboard the International Space Station of the ACE Modules taken during the ACE-T12 Module Configuration.

On Earth, gravity plays a role in how well particles are suspended in a fluid. But, by allowing these structures to form in the microgravity on board the International Space Station for the Advanced Colloids Experiment-Nanoparticle Haloing (ACE-T-12) experiment, scientists hope to gain new insights into the relationship between the shape surface charge and concentrations of particles and the particle interactions.

Microgravity allows for the monitoring of particle behavior for longer time periods than on Earth, and this experiment will allow the first observation of 3D aggregations formed by NPH. The resulting structure and its stability address fundamental issues in the science of condensed matter.

Since self-assembled colloidal structures are vital to the design of advanced materials, this investigation will contribute to a fundamental understanding of nanoparticle haloing and the colloidal structures it creates. That lays the foundation for applying this technique to creating the next generation colloidal materials, including optically-based energy platforms and sensors, for use on Earth.

Principal Investigators:
Stuart J. Williams, Ph.D. University of Louisville
Suzanne Smith, Ph.D. University of Kentucky

Co-Investigator:
Gerold Willing, Ph.D. University of Louisville

Developers:
NASA Glenn Research Center
Zin Technologies Incorporated

 

Space Biology

Understanding Plant Defenses in Space

Crews on future long-term space missions need to be able to grow their own food, and studies of how plants respond to microgravity are an important step toward developing that capability. The Biological Research in Canisters-Light Emitting Diode-002 (BRIC-LED)-002 investigation tests whether spaceflight affects the ability of plants to defend themselves against pathogens. Arabidopsis thaliana is a weed commonly found abutting the pavement on the back roads of Africa or Eurasia, popularly known as thale cress or mouse-ear cress. Arabidopsis is a model organism, commonly used by biologists due to its relatively small genome, making it ideal for research. Even though it has a complex multicellular frame, this particular weed is well-understood by scientists.

A photo of NASA astronaut Jack Fischer installing the Biological Research In Canisters (BRIC) Light Emitting Diode (LED) box for future BRIC-LED experiments.
NASA astronaut Jack Fischer installing the Biological Research In Canisters (BRIC) Light Emitting Diode (LED) for future BRIC-LED experiments.

While this particular plant does well in defending itself against pathogens on Earth, the results of this investigation could have important implications for any plant grown on board as part of a crew’s life support system. Specifically, researchers will grow the Arabidopsis plants in orbit grown for a period of up to 14 days. Then, crew members will apply a bacterial compound that triggers the plant’s defense responses. After one hour, they preserve the plant samples, and after a period of 12-24 hours, they freeze the samples using the ultra-cold freezer on the station. The plants are stored there until they return to Earth for analysis.

Research on plant function in microgravity also contributes to a better understanding of basic plant processes, which could support development of better agricultural practices on Earth.

Principal Investigator:
Simon Gilroy, Ph.D. University of Wisconsin-Madison

 

Testing Hardware for Space Gardens

Future long-duration space missions will require crew members to grow their own food. Before they do, they’ll need to better understand how plants respond to microgravity and other challenges not found on Earth, and also refine the systems and procedures to support plant growth.

A photo of Howard Levine, Ph.D., a research scientist at NASA's Kennedy Space Center reviewing the growth of several tomato plants growing in the Veggie Passive Orbital Nutrient Delivery System (PONDS).
Howard Levine, Ph.D., a research scientist at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, reviews the growth of several tomato plants in a laboratory in the Space Station Processing Facility. The tomato plants are growing in the Veggie Passive Orbital Nutrient Delivery System (PONDS).

VEG-PONDS-03 will evaluate how plants - in this case lettuce - grow in a newly developed plant growth system known as PONDS, or Passive Orbital Nutrient Delivery System. On Earth, gravity naturally forces rainwater down into the ground to nourish a plant’s roots. The PONDS units have features that are designed to bypass the lack of gravity in order to distribute water. They are also able to increase the plant’s oxygen exchange and provide sufficient room for root growth. 

Red romaine lettuce was chosen for the testing because it has a baseline for its growth from several previous experiments in the Vegetable Production System (Veggie) where crew members grew and ate it in space. The plants are grown in mixtures of arcillite, a porous material. Prior to launch, the PONDS units are packed with arcilite and time-release fertilizer, just like you use in potting soil at home. In space, the PONDS units are placed in the Veggie facility and supplied with water to initiate plant growth. Observations on plant tissue samples will provide insight regarding any growth differences when compared with control plants grown on Earth. Additional tests aim to monitor the microbial changes that are present in space grown crops, providing baseline data for future food production efforts.

VEG-PONDS-03 is a direct follow-on to the VEG-PONDS-01 and VEG-PONDS-02 hardware and plant growth validation tests. VEG-PONDS-01 tested growth of a single organism: Mizuna mustard. VEG-PONDS-03 now includes Dragoon Lettuce, Red Russian Kale, Extra Dwarf Pak Choi, Wasabi Mustard, and Red Romaine Lettuce. By demonstrating plant growth in this newly developed system, crew members may soon be able to grow even more crops, from new leafy greens to dwarf fruit plants in space.

Back on Earth, scientists are already exploring how the technology used in the Veggie plant growth facility could be adapted for use in roof top gardens in densely populated areas where there is little room for growing plants.

Principal Investigators:
Howard G. Levine, Ph.D. NASA Kennedy Space Center
Ye Zhang, Ph.D. NASA Kennedy Space Center

Developer:
NASA Kennedy Space Center

Researching Cellular Response to Radiation

Of all the risks associated with long term space travel, one of the most hazardous is exposure to radiation – these invisible particles have sufficient energy to change or break DNA, which can damage or kill a cell. Too much exposure can lead to health problems ranging from short to long term effects. Radiation particles emanate from galactic cosmic rays originating outside our solar system, and by the Sun during solar flares. Crew members aboard the space station receive some protection from Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field, but radiation will become are much bigger challenge when they travel to the Moon or Mars

This illustration depicts the two main types of radiation and how the magnetic field around Earth affects the radiation in space near Earth.  This life science and physical science research was funded by, or in collaboration with, the Space Life and Physical Science Research and Applications division at NASA headquarters.
This illustration depicts the two main types of radiation and how the magnetic field around Earth affects the radiation in space near Earth.

To better understand the biological impact of space radiation on cells, NASA launched a long-term radiation exposure experiment called Evaluation of ISS Environmental Radiation Damage on Cryopreserved Mammalian Cells (Rad-Dorm) to the space station in late 2018 and will return aboard Dragon in April. Prior to launch, cryopreserved cells were placed into biological canisters. On board the space station, the canisters containing the frozen cells were placed in the Minus Eighty Degree Laboratory Freezer (MELFI) and then transferred to another even colder freezer at minus 160C.  Scientists will analyze DNA damage and other cellular features to better understand how different cells respond to long duration exposure to space radiation.

This data will provide valuable information for evaluating the biological impact of true space radiation and assisting in radiation risk assessments. Also, it potentially will benefit other radiation research on Earth, giving researchers a better understanding of how cells respond to exposure of different radiation sources.

Principal Investigator:
Ye Zhang, Ph.D. NASA Kennedy Space Center

Co-Investigators:
Abba C. Zubair, Ph.D. Mayo Clinic Jacksonville
Honglu Wu, Ph.D. NASA Johnson Space Center

Hardware Developer:
NASA Kennedy Space Center
Jacobs (Test and Operations Support Contract)

Payload Developer:
Jacobs (Test and Operations Support Contract)
MEI Technologies

This life science and physical science research was funded by, or in collaboration with, the Space Life and Physical Science Research and Applications division at NASA headquarters.

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