Published: 
Feb 16, 2022

Three Experiments That Just Might Change Your Life.

When Northrop Grumman’s 17th Commercial Resupply Mission to the International Space Station launches in mid-February, it will carry three investigations of particular interest to NASA’s Biological and Physical Sciences Division.  “It’s not often we get the opportunity to launch experiments with such potential to assist future space travel as well as benefit those of us on Earth,” noted Division Director Craig Kundrot. “We’re all very excited about the possible results.”

Two rows atop one another with the top row showing a blue crescent growing larger into a bright orange ball in six stages, and the bottom row showing the reverse – a large glowing orange orb fades into a very thin blue crescent also in six stages.
Pictured is growth and extinction of a flame in microgravity conditions. Flow velocity, oxygen percentage, and pressure are measured to determine the growth and extinction characteristics in this environment.  

Improving a Spacecraft’s (and Your Home’s) Safety

As sailors learned centuries ago, fire is a ship’s worst enemy. But a fire aboard a space vessel would be different, since the flames would be subject to microgravity conditions. And that difference can occur in unexpected ways.

How? That’s the purpose of the Solid Fuel Ignition and Extinction (SoFIE) facility. While there’s some evidence that fires can be more dangerous in microgravity conditions, much more needs to be studied.

Contained in the space station’s existing Combustion Integrated Rack, SoFIE will allow researchers to observe the ignition and flammability of solid spacecraft materials. Investigators will use these data to evaluate NASA’s 1-G materials flammability selection protocols for materials to be used in spacecraft or planetary habitats. SoFIE will also allow investigators to test microgravity flame suppression techniques.

This same data from the SoFIE experiments can also be applied to advancing fire safety on Earth. For example, to help determine how fire-safe a new material might be for use in your home, office – or even on a new ship.

Winning the Microbial Battle

Yes, even in space, you’ll find fungus – those tiny, replicating cells of mold that can form a thin and slimy coating, called biofilm, on different surfaces. What can be done to prevent their spread inside space habitats?

Enter this investigation with the long name: The Characterization of Biofilm Formation, Growth, and Gene Expression on Different Materials and Environmental Conditions in Microgravity. At its outset, this investigation will characterize the mass, thickness, morphology, and the associated gene expression of this space biofilm.

Next, researchers will look at the biomechanical and RNA mechanisms involved in the biofilm’s formation in space. Last, they’ll review the role of current material surfaces on biofilm formation, as well as introduce a novel material to test the surface’s resistance to the sticky substance.

Space Biology Program Scientist Sharmila Bhattacharya notes the significance of these experiments: “If we can better control the spread of space biofilms, it will help protect the health of crew on long-duration space missions. It will also protect any planets that we visit from these microbial life forms.” Back on Earth, getting new information on how to better fight molds also would be welcome to millions.

Bon Appétit – Part 2

In 2014, the first plants were introduced to the Space Station via Veggie – a plant growth chamber that uses LED lights and fans to circulate the station’s air. This system is small and uses water and nutrient delivery systems, so scaling in a space environment is a challenge due to mass, containment, maintenance, and sanitation issues. 

Now, a new phase of experimentation is about to take place: The eXposed Root On-Orbit Test System (XROOTS) investigation will use hydroponic and aeroponic techniques to grow plants without soil. Integrated with the existing Veggie hardware, and using video, photographs and crew observations, the XROOTS investigation will evaluate nutrient delivery and recovery techniques such as aeroponics from a plant’s germination to its maturity.

The system features multiple independent growth chambers to evaluate alternative methods and configurations. And, once optimum growth conditions are found, this information will be helpful to Earth growers who could enhance the cultivation of plants in settings such as greenhouses, which, in turn, may contribute to better food security. Bon Appétit indeed – with a new twist.

About BPS 

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.