Three Experiments Heading to Space Station Aim to Support Deep-Space Missions
Research on dwarf tomatoes, gut bacterium, and amorphous metals could help astronauts go farther, stay longer in space
Maintaining astronaut health, having a continuous fresh food source, and developing stronger spacecraft materials, are three challenges NASA’s Biological and Physical Sciences Division is about to undertake.
When SpaceX’s 26th commercial resupply mission for NASA launches to the International Space Station, the cargo Dragon spacecraft will be carrying two important space biology investigations and one physical sciences investigation which will further understanding of how crew can live and thrive in the deep space environment.
A Safe Space
The health and safety of astronauts remains a top priority as scientists further their knowledge of how to make the confined environments within spacecrafts safe during long-distance missions. Linked to the importance of microbes maintaining the health of astronauts in space, the Alteration of Bacillus Subtilis DNA Architecture in Space: Global Effects on DNA Supercoiling, Methylation, and the Transcriptome (BRIC-26) investigation will study the response of microbial cells to the spaceflight environment.
Bacillus subtilis (B. substilis), a common probiotic gut bacterium, is often used in food products to help prevent foodborne disease. This bacterium is also used in treating gastrointestinal disorders, skin health, and joint lubrication. It has already proven to withstand extreme environmental conditions both on Earth and in space primarily due to its ability to produce a tough, protective structure called an endospore.
BRIC-26 will evaluate changes in the DNA structure of B. substilis after growth in space. This research will provide greater understanding of how the spaceflight environment affects cellular outcomes, which would in turn, influence the health of those aboard a spacecraft as well as their ecosystem. The results of this investigation will pioneer discovery in the field of microbiology and support the ability for the crew to thrive in deep space.
A healthy, nutritious diet is essential for long-duration exploration missions. The Pick-and-Eat Salad-Crop Productivity, Nutritional Value, and Acceptability to Supplement the International Space Station Food System (VEG-05) investigation is the next step in efforts to address the need for a continuous fresh-food production system for working astronauts in space.
Astronauts’ diets consist mostly of pre-packaged foods which is frequently replenished by periodic resupply missions. Pre-packaged foods, however, will degrade during multi-year missions to Mars and beyond, and astronauts will not have easy access to replenish supplies. As humans go farther and stay longer in space, crews will need sustainable sources of food.
The Vegetable Production System (Veggie) currently supports tests aboard the space station to meet this need. To date, this space garden has successfully grown leafy greens in spaceflight. The research of VEG-05, which is jointly funded by NASA’s Biological and Physical Sciences Division and the Human Research Program, will expand crop variety to include dwarf tomatoes. This investigation will focus on the impact of light quality and fertilizer on fruit production, microbial food safety, nutritional value, behavioral health benefits, and a crew taste test.
Developing innovative materials is essential to expanding and creating future Earth-based and space technologies. The Fabrication of Amorphous Metallic glass In Space (FAMIS) investigation aims to do just that by studying the microstructure of composites of bulk metallic glass (BMG) and tungsten spheres processed in microgravity.
BMGs, also known as amorphous metals, are already known to have excellent mechanical properties such as wear resistance. Tungsten, the strongest naturally occurring metal on Earth, is exceptionally durable and is stronger than titanium and steel. Forming composites with BMGs and tungsten could create a new class of high-performance alloys and coatings which could ultimately increase the life of spacecrafts and improve wear resistance in harsh environments, like the Moon.
For FAMIS, researchers will also look at new methods for making tungsten-heavy alloys for use in planetary exploration vehicles. However, due to the extensive density difference between the two, combining them is challenging in Earth’s gravity, making the microgravity environment aboard the space station an ideal setting for this research.
NASA’s Biological and Physical Sciences Division pioneers scientific discovery and enables exploration by using space environments to conduct investigations not possible on Earth. Studying biological and physical phenomenon under extreme conditions allows researchers to advance the fundamental scientific knowledge required to go farther and stay longer in space, while also benefitting life on Earth.