Tag Archives: International Space Station

First private mission to the ISS gets green light from NASA

The crew of Ax-1 kicked off training for their paradigm-shifting mission in May, getting a series of brief experiences of microgravity conditions aboard a Zero G parabolic flight. Credit: Axiom Space.

In the 24 years since it’s been in operation, the International Space Station (ISS) has welcomed over 244 astronauts, which have made 403 individual flights. With the exception of a few tourists, these were all astronauts on publicly-funded missions from NASA and its partners, such as Russia, Japan, Canada, or the European Space Agency. But in only two months, the first-ever private mission to the ISS is scheduled to commence.

The mission, called Axiom-1, is operated by the private space company Axiom Space, a Houston-based company founded in 2016 that aims to build and operate its own space station in low Earth orbit (LEO) in the coming years. In the meantime, Axiom Space wants to launch three missions to the ISS, for which it has signed a deal with SpaceX to send its own astronauts to space aboard the Dragon 2 capsule. SpaceX’s spacecraft has already flown three crewed missions to the ISS, all carrying NASA government astronauts and cargo. This time, however, will mark the first time a private space crew sets foot on the station.

Axiom-1 is set to launch on March 31, after a series of delays pushed back the initial launch originally planned for late 2021. Originally, movie star Tom Cruise and acclaimed director and producer Doug Liman were interested in joining the mission to film in space. However, the final lineup of Axiom-1 now includes Michael López-Alegría as the Spacecraft commander and Larry Connor as the Pilot, as well as Mark Pathy and Eytan Stibbe as Mission Specialists.

López-Alegría is an experienced astronaut who completed four previous spaceflights and a former NASA pilot. He is also the vice president of Axiom Space. Connor, Pathy, and Stibbe are all investors in the company and philanthropists.

Although Axiom-1 is expected to last no more than 10 days, the team has set out to complete an ambitious number of scientific experiments meant to improve our understanding of space and its impact on the human body. These include experiments on senescent cells, cells that stop multiplying but don’t die off when they should, which have been linked to age-related disorders; research into holoportation, a mixed reality technology that allows high-quality 3D models of people to be reconstructed, compressed, and transmitted anywhere; research on Spaceflight-Associated Neuro-Ocular Syndrome, which negatively affects visual sharpness in many astronauts; observations of Earth; and online education activities with students back on Earth.

“The goal for the Ax-1 crew is to set a standard for all future private astronaut missions in terms of our preparation and professionalism,” López-Alegría said. “As the commander, I am proud of the work these crew members have put in to be ready to conduct meaningful work on the International Space Station and glad to see them meet the standards required of all astronauts flying to station since Expedition 1. Ax-1 is focused on a huge amount of science and outreach activities, and we look forward now to finalizing that flight program.”

López-Alegría and the rest of the crew have been training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, as well as other NASA facilities, since August 2021. During this time, they were trained on how to use station systems, scientific facilities, and emergency procedures.

NASA is welcoming this partnership with open arms. It’s in the space agency’s best interest to support a growing low-orbit economy. As more trusted partners come aboard, commercial spaceflight will become less and less expensive, benefiting all stakeholders. NASA can then focus on more ambitious missions like Artemis — a manned mission to the Moon in preparation for crewed trips to Mars.

Although there’s no official date yet, Axiom Space already announced the crew for Axiom-2, commanded by Peggy Whitson, a veteran astronaut with three trips to the ISS under her belt and the record-holder for the longest-serving American in space. Whitson will be joined by pilot John Shoffner, an American racing driver and investor. Axiom-2 will research single-cell genomics, the study of the individuality of cells using omics approaches.

“To experience astronaut training teamed with Peggy is an honour. I am also excited about our upcoming work with 10x Genomics in this first step towards making their single-cell technologies available to researchers in a microgravity environment.” said Shoffner.

“I look forward to the process of testing and validating this technology for future groundbreaking work in low-Earth orbit.”

Tom Cruise’s plans for space haven’t been scrapped either. In fact, they’ve only become grander. Axiom has signed a deal with Space Entertainment Enterprise, co-founded by producers Elena and Dmitry Lesnevsky, to build and attach a module to the ISS, which would be “the world’s first content and entertainment studios and multipurpose arena in space.” Called SEE-1, the module is scheduled to launch in December 2024, where Tom Cruise is expected to film a future space movie in actual microgravity.

An animation of the inflatable, round SEE-1 module attached to Axiom’s space station on the ISS. Image: Axiom/S.E.E.

Axiom previously won a $140 million NASA contract to attach a habitable module to the ISS. This module will, at some point, detach before the ISS retires in 2030, to lay the foundation for the free-flying Axiom Station, pictured below.

Credit: Axiom Space.

The International Space Station was briefly knocked out of position by a Russian module

On Thursday, Russia’s new science lab module docked with the International Space Station. One accidental firing of its thrusters later, however, and the station was knocked out of position.

Image credits NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

The ISS’s brief escapade lasted a total of 47 minutes, during which the crew lost control of the craft’s orientation. Since the ISS needs to maintain a certain orientation to keep its solar panels well illuminated and its antennas in contact with Earth, ground control further reports that communications with the station were completely cut off twice, for a few minutes each time, during the whole adventure.

A space odyssey

“We haven’t noticed any damage,” space station program manager Joel Montalbano said in a late afternoon press conference. “There was no immediate danger at any time to the crew.”

The ISS moved 45 degrees out of attitude, which is one-eighth of a complete circle, and never entered a spinning pattern. The crew themselves didn’t feel any movement or shaking of the ship, according to NASA. Flight controllers eventually re-positioned the station using the thrusters on other Russian components docked to the ISS, the agency explains, which ties this whole story arc up in a neat little bow.

The perpetrator of this whole story is Russia’s long-delayed 22-ton (20-metric-ton) lab module Nauka. It arrived at the station on Thursday, eight days after being launched from a facility in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. Nakua is meant to give the crew more space to live and carry out experiments in, and has been scheduled to reach the station in 2007. However, technical issues have repeatedly delayed its launch. While these issues were addressed, various modernizations and structural repairs were also carried out.

Still, Nakua has the distinction of being the first Russian element of the ISS to be added since 2010. The Pirs spacewalking compartment, an older Russian element, was undocked from the ISS to make room for Nakua. The lab is 43 feet (13 meters) long. Multiple spacewalks and work hours will be needed to have it fully up and running, as is the case with most such modules.

“Spaceflight is hard, and when we bring on new capabilities there can be glitches, which is why we prepare and train for these contingencies,” said Kathy Lueders, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

Amateur astronomers records space station cruising across day-lit moon

Credit: Andrew McCarthy.

Amateur astrophotographer Andrew McCarthy made the shot of a lifetime: the International Space Station zipping across the moon during daylight.

The sunbeam hitting the camera in broad daylight made observations difficult, but in the end, it was well worth it.

“This was a transit captured from my backyard this morning, and a difficult shot to capture since the moon was practically invisible against the glare of the sun,” McCarthy wrote in an Instagram post.

McCarthy also posted a video of the ISS transiting the moon. The space station flies at an average altitude of 248 miles (400 kilometers) above Earth. It circles the globe every 90 minutes at a speed of about 17,500 mph (28,000 km/h).

That’s almost ten times faster than a bullet. Even from Earth’s surface, the space station can be seen zipping past, exiting the picture’s frame in a matter of seconds. In fact, the footage you see on Instagram was actually slowed down so we can actually make sense of the transit.

“The transit against the lit portion of the moon lasted just a few hundredths of a second, shown here in a video slowed down roughly 6x,” McCarthy explained.

Researchers find four strains of bacteria on the ISS — three are completely new to science

Life finds a way, the old saying goes. According to a new paper, that includes ‘living on a spaceship’.

Transmission electron micrograph of strain S2R03-9T Methylobacterium jeotgali, a relative of the new strains. Image via Wikimedia.

A team of researchers from India and the US working in collaboration with NASA report discovering four bacterial strains living on the International Space Station (ISS). Three of these were completely unknown to science until now. Three of these strains were isolated in 2015 and 2016 — one in an overhead panel in a research lab, the second in the station’s Cupola, and the third on the surface of the crew’s dining table. The fourth strain was isolated from an old HEPA filter that was brought back to Earth in 2011.

All of these strains belong to a ‘good’ family of bacteria found in soil and freshwater here on Earth. They’re involved in nitrogen fixation processes, plant growth, and in fighting plant pathogens.

Out of this world

These bacteria likely made their way onto the ISS when the crew first started growing a small number of plants aboard to supplement their diets. Plants don’t develop and live on their own, but generally rely on bacterial communities for several essential services; as such, finding plant-related microbes in their environment (the space station) isn’t very surprising.

However, only one of these was previously identified by researchers: the one from the used HEPA filter. This strain was identified as belonging to the species Methylorubrum rhodesianum. The other three were genetically sequenced and found to all belong to the same, new species. They were temporarily christened IF7SW-B2T, IIF1SW-B5, and IIF4SW-B5.

The team, led by University of Southern California geneticist Swati Bijlani, proposes the name Methylobacterium ajmalii for the species, after Indian biodiversity scientist Ajmal Khan. The new species is closely related to the already-known M. indicum bacteria. The genetic sequencing of these bacteria was meant to help us better determine how they relate to other bacteria, but also to help us determine the genetic elements that make them suited to life in the unusual conditions aboard the ISS.

“To grow plants in extreme places where resources are minimal, isolation of novel microbes that help to promote plant growth under stressful conditions is essential,” Kasthuri Venkateswaran and Nitin Kumar Singh from NASA’s JPL, two members of the team, explained in a press statement.

“The whole-genome sequence assembly of these three ISS strains reported here will enable the comparative genomic characterization of ISS isolates with Earth counterparts in future studies,” the team explains in their study. “This will further aid in the identification of genetic determinants that might potentially be responsible for promoting plant growth under microgravity conditions and contribute to the development of self-sustainable plant crops for long-term space missions in future.”

At least one of the strains, IF7SW-B2T, shows promise in our search for genes involved in plant growth, they add. Still, we’re only just beginning to understand the wealth of bacteria living aboard the ISS. Collecting samples isn’t hard, but taking them to Earth for proper examination is. The crew has taken over 1,000 samples so far, but they’re all still awaiting transport back to Earth.

The paper “Methylobacterium ajmalii sp. nov., Isolated From the International Space Station” has been published in Frontiers in Microbiology.

A broken toilet and faulty oxygen supply ruined the night on the International Space Station

Some of the modules and tech on the International Space Station (ISS) are 21 years old — and it sometimes shows. The crew regularly has to deal with minor malfunctions, non-critical issues that are not life-threatening but which can become annoying since they happen so often. But last night was really something even by ISS maintenance standards. It involved a broken toilet, a malfunctioning oxygen system, and an air leak plugged with the help of a teabag.

One crappy night

The first problem that occurred over the night of 19-20 October was a malfunctioning toilet on the Russian segment of the ISS which, luckily, was solved quite fast. According to veteran Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, who holds the world record for most days spent in space, the Russian equipment on the ISS is well past its use-by date.

“All modules of the Russian segment are exhausted,” the Russian cosmonaut told the RIA Novosti news agency last week, adding that the 20-year-old technology was built to operate for 15 years.

What would have happened if the toilet wasn’t fixed in due to time…. for an emergency? Like anything on the ISS, there’s a backup and there’s a backup for the backup. Writing for Gizmodo, journalist George Dvorsky says there’s another toiler on the Soyuz-MS-16 spacecraft, which is currently docked to the ISS. A third option is the $23-million Universal Waste Management System, the fanciest high-tech toilet in the universe, which arrived at the ISS last month. If all three toilets happen to be clogged at the same time, astronauts can use special diapers they normally have to wear during spacewalks.

Later the same evening, a much more serious problem came to the crew’s attention. Yet again the Russian segment had a malfunction — this time with its oxygen system. It’s the same system that broke down last week, but the astronauts quickly fixed the issue. The problem seems to have been that the water used to generate oxygen had run out.

“All the systems of the station are working well and there is no danger to the crew or the ISS,” Russia’s space agency Roscosmos said in a statement.

Luckily, there’s an extra oxygen supply system, the Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) found in a NASA module. Had things gone south with this oxygen system too, astronauts have spare oxygen tanks at their disposal.

Finally, the ISS astronauts announced that they have fixed a pesky air leak that had been giving them headaches since August. Although this might sound scary, a bit of air leakage is always expected, so this wasn’t a critical issue. The way this particular leak was fixed though was quite ingenious.

After they employed a variety of measuring instruments, the crew narrowed down their search for the leak to the Russian module. Leaves from a teabag were then released into the microgravity environment, which naturally drifted toward the leak due to the pressure difference.

“We believe that we have really identified the probable leakage area,” Cosmonaut Anatoly Ivanishin told Russia’s flight control. “We have distributed a tea bag [in the Zvezda module] before closing the transfer chamber.”

“We have several photos and videos of the direction of the tea bag’s flight or where it intended to fly and this precisely shows the direction the air is blowing from the possible air leak,” he added.

On Monday, the Russian space agency announced that the leak was temporarily plugged using scotch tape. Yup, even in space tape is an engineer’s best friend!

Small air leak identified aboard the International Space Station — astronauts are not in danger

NASA reports that crewmen aboard the International Space Station were woken up on Monday by ground crew — to fix an air leak.

The International Space Station. Image via Pixabay.

The leak has been under investigation for several weeks now, the agency notes, but the rate of air loss seemed to increase on Monday, causing ground control to intervene. Despite this, the leak is in no way an immediate danger to the lives of the crew and has since been tracked to the Zvezda (“Star”), a module on the Russian side of the ISS that houses life support equipment and quarters for two crewmembers.

Airloss

“Late Monday night, the Expedition 63 crew was awakened by flight controllers to continue troubleshooting a small leak on the International Space Station that appeared to grow in size,” NASA explained in a statement on Tuesday.

“Ground analysis of the modules tested overnight have isolated the leak location to the main work area of the Zvezda Service Module.”

The crew collected readings from various locations inside the station using an ultrasonic leak detector, closing hatches between modules one by one as they went. In the end, they managed to narrow the search down to the Zvezda module.

Throughout the night on Monday, the module was kept isolated and pressure measurements were performed remotely to identify the leak’s location. By morning, the checks were complete, and the crew re-opened the hatches between the US and Russian segments of the ISS and went back to their regular, space-faring lives.

This isn’t the first time astronauts aboard the ISS needed to contend with a leak. Back in 2018, a 2mm drill hole was discovered in the Russian Soyuz craft while it was docked to the station. This hole was patched with epoxy resin and tape. The cause, and whether this hole was caused by accident or with intent, has yet to be determined.

The current leak was likely caused by a mechanical or manufacturing defect.

“The size of the leak identified overnight has since been attributed to a temporary temperature change aboard the station with the overall rate of leak remaining unchanged,” NASA explains.

Bacteria can survive interplanetary travel between Earth and Mars

The bacterial exposure experiment took place from 2015 to 2018 using the Exposed Facility located on the exterior of Kibo, the Japanese Experimental Module of the International Space Station. Credit: JAXA/NASA.

Some scientists are of the opinion that life might have not originated on this planet. Instead, it could be that microscopic organisms hitched rides on asteroids and meteorites, traveled through the cosmos, and eventually slammed into Earth, germinating life as we know it. This theory, called “panspermia”, has one obvious flaw: how could life survive in outer space long enough for it to reach a safe harbor?

Although definitely controversial, panspermia isn’t as wacky as it may sound at first glance. Japanese researchers, for instance, recently showed that some bacterial species can survive exposure to outer space, incredible as that may sound. What’s more, they may be able to do so for decades and even much more.

For Dr. Akihiko Yamagishi, a Professor at Tokyo University of Pharmacy and Life Sciences and lead author of the new study, these findings raise enticing possibilities. They suggest that panspermia may indeed be possible, which would make life much more common in the universe than previously thought.

Yamagishi’s inquiries were inspired by previous studies from 2018 when his team detected microbes floating at an altitude of up to 35 kilometers above Earth’s surface. That was pretty surprising, and the researchers naturally wondered just how high these microbes could migrate.

“If the microbes can go up to space, there may be a possibility that the microbes can be transferred from a planet to another,” Prof. Yamagishi told ZME Science.

In order to test this hypothesis, the Japanese researchers placed dried Deinococcal bacteria aggregates in exposure panels outside the International Space Station. Deinococcus are known to form relatively large colonies and be resistant to ultraviolet radiation. They were also the most abundant species found in the highest layers of Earth’s atmosphere.

This experiment wasn’t as straightforward as it sounds, though. But Yamagishi and colleagues were fortunate enough to find a solution.

“We were announced that our space experiment cannot be done because extravehicular activity is not available because of the retirement of the shuttle, while our experiment relied on extravehicular activity. But, JAXA has developed the system to expose samples to ExHAM without extravehicular activity, using robotic arms,” the researcher told me.

Japanese astronaut Kimiya Yui set up the exposure experiment module ExHAM on the International Space Station. Credit: JAXA/NASA>

The bacterial samples, which had varying thicknesses, were exposed to the same environment outside the space station for one, two, or three years.

Even after three years of exposure to space, the bacteria still survived, although those at the surface of the aggregate died. On the upside, the dead surface bacteria acts like a protective layer shielding the surviving bacteria beneath.

By extrapolating survival data for aggregates larger than 0.5 millimeters in thickness, the Japanese researchers concluded that Deinococcal colonies could survive for between 15 and 45 years in a state of stasis right outside the space station.

That’s ample time for the bacteria to hitch a ride during interplanetary travel from Earth to Mars, or from Earth to Pluto for that matter.

Of course, conditions on the ISS are not the same as interplanetary space, which is why the researchers plan to conduct more experiments.

“The experiments were done at the low Earth orbit, which is about 400 km above the surface of Earth, but within the van Allen radiation belt which protects against ionization radiation. Though the ionization radiation is not expected to be harmful to our radioresistant microbe, the survival outside the van Allen radiation belt should be tested by an exposure experiment with the spacecraft or on Deep Space Gateway. We are also looking for the opportunity to search for life on Mars, building the automatic microscope to search for bacteria on Mars’ surface,” Yamagashi said.

This isn’t the first study to show that bacteria may survive in outer space — however, it provides the first bit of evidence that bacteria can survive in space as aggregates, without shielding from rock or other materials. And that’s a pretty big deal for what’s possibly one of the most important scientific inquiries out there: how did life first appear and are we alone out there?

“The origin of life is the biggest mystery of human beings. Recently, researches have revealed the scenario of an RNA world, where the RNA has appeared in nature and started replication of genetic information. However, there are a lot of arguments and missing pieces in the scenario. Especially the probability of the origin of life is totally different between scientists: Some think the origin is very rare and happened only once in the Universe, while others think the origin is very easy and can happen on every planet that is suitable for life. If panspermia is possible, life must exist much more often, in either case,” Yamagashi said.

The findings appeared in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology.

A fungus from Chernobyl could protect astronauts from radiation

A fungus found on the ruins of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant could protect astronauts from cosmic radiation, the greatest hazard for humans on deep-space exploration missions.

The International Space Station. Credit Wikipedia Commons

Scientists have long been trying to find solutions to the radiation caused by long-duration deep-space missions. Several options have been on the table including a Star Trek-like deflector shield and manufacturing radiation-shielding bricks made from the Martian regolith (soil).

The problem is starting to become urgent, as space agencies are getting serious about sending humans to the Moon by 2024 under the Artemis program and promises of crewed missions to Mars in the near future. A 360-day round trip to the red planet would expose unprotected astronauts to the equivalent of two-thirds of their allowable lifetime radiation exposure — simply put, it would be too much radiation for a safe journey.

But this could be prevented thanks to an extremophile fungus known as Cladosporium sphaerospermum. The organism was first discovered in 1886 and now it has been found growing in radioactive environments, including the cooling pools of the Chernobyl nuclear plant.

The fungus, melanized and radiothropic, is capable of converting radioactive energy into chemical energy, which it does using melanin pigments inside its cell walls. It is analogous to photosynthesis, in which plants convert energy from visible light to useful energy.

Considering the fungus’ appetite for radiation, Nils Averesch, a co-author of the study and a scientist at NASA Ames Research Center, created an experiment to establish how much radiation this organism might absorb while in space. He and his team also wanted to evaluate its suitability as a medium for a radiation shield.

Researchers grew Cladosporium sphaerospermum mold on the left sides of petri dishes

The venue for the experiment was the International Space Station (ISS), which features a unique radiation environment not unlike the surface of Mars. The astronauts aboard the ISS divided a petri dish in half, one side with the fungus and the other one empty as he negative control. The fungi grew for 30 days, as the astronauts constantly monitored the radiation levels.

The results showed that the fungi were capable of adapting to the microgravity environment of low Earth orbit quickly and were able live off of the incoming radiation. The researchers found a 1.7-millimeter-thick layer of growth blocking radiation somewhere between 1.82% to 5.04% compared to the negative control group. Not only did the fungi survive — it thrived.

“In the experiment, we were able to prove that the fungus does not only thrive on ionizing radiation on Earth but also in space,” Averesch said in a press release. “In addition to not being destroyed by the radiation… the fungus does, in fact, reduce radiation of the measured spectrum.”

The researchers agree that a fungal lawn measuring 8.2 inches (21 centimeters) thick could “could largely negate the annual dose-equivalent of the radiation environment on the surface of Mars,” as they wrote in the study. The fungus is ranked as “among the most effective radiation attenuators.” The fungus is a self-sustaining, self-replicative substrate capable of living off even the smallest doses of radiation and biomass, the researchers found. It can also be grown on many different carbon sources, such as organic waste.

It’s a promising solution for astronauts in space, but more tests will be needed to confirm these results.

The study was published in the journal bioRxiv.

Motors developed for space station drive self-charging prosthetic leg

Credit: University of Michigan.

Mechanical engineers at the University of Michigan have repurposed small motors originally designed for the International Space Station (ISS) into a high-tech prosthetic leg that mimics natural biomechanics. The bionic limb offers a more natural gait and is quiter than previous prosthetics.

When using a conventional leg prosthetic, amputees have to raise their hips in order to lift the artificial limb from the ground and swing it forward. Such a movement is unnatural and expends more energy than conventional walking. In time, this puts extra stress on the hips and lower back and can eventually turn into joint damage or, at the very least, is unpleasant for the wearer.

Custom 3D printing techniques, such as those promoted by organizations like Tej Kohli’s charity and Open Bionics, can produce prosthetics that mold to the amputees’ residual limbs in a more natural fashion. But even so, they’re still limited in terms of providing more natural movements.

This is where robotic legs come in, which provide a more comfortable gait. However, their main drawback has always been joint stiffness.

“We designed our joints to be as compliant, or flexible, as possible,” said Toby Elery of the University of Michigan and first author of the study. “Our robotic leg can perform and even react like a human joint would, enabling a naturally free-swinging knee and shock absorption when contacting the ground.”

Elery and colleagues employed small but powerful motors originally designed for a robotic arm on the ISS in a streamlined prosthetic limb design that offers a free-swinging knee and regenerative braking.

The motor uses fewer gears than conventional designs. Credit: University of Michigan.

Like electric vehicles, the prosthetic limb charges the battery every time the it ‘hits the breaks’ — in this case, energy is captured every time the foot hits the ground. This enables users to almost double their walking time on a single charge per day.

“Our prosthetic leg consumes approximately half the battery power of state-of-art robotic legs, yet can produce more force,” said Robert Gregg, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Michigan.

“If the joints are stiff or rigid, the force is transferred to the residual limb, and that can be painful,” Gregg said. “Instead, we use that force to charge the battery.”

One of the space station motors powers the knee while another powers the ankle. Unlike previous robotic prosthethics, this arrangement uses fewer gears, thereby greatly reducing the noise from the scale of a vacuum cleaner to a refrigerator.

Amputees who have tested the prosthethic claim that they can genuinely feel the artificial leg helping them push off the ground as they walk.

“In some cases, they have observed that they feel like muscles in their hips and back are working less with our leg, compared to their conventional leg,” Gregg said. “We’re able to reduce compensations at the hips.”

In the future, the researchers plan on improving the control algorithms so that the prosthetic can adapt to different terrains, changes in pace, and physical activities.

The findings were reported in the journal IEEE Transactions on Robotics.

Lettuce grown in space is just as nutritious as that grown on Earth

Space-grown lettuce. Credit: NASA.

Between 2014 and 2016, astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) planted the first open-air garden in space. The crew planted and harvested red romaine lettuce, which subsequent tests revealed it was safe for human consumption. A new study now found that the microgravity-grown lettuce is not only as delicious as it’s Earth-grown counterpart but also just as nutritious.

A step closer to colonizing the extra-terrestrial

Researchers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center studied the effects of space conditions on the vegetables by comparing red romaine lettuce (Lactuca sativa) planted in growth chambers on the ISS to that harvested from ground-grown plants.

To determine food safety, the researchers analyzed the species and number of bacteria and fungi found on the surface of each type of lettuce. The ISS vegetables had more microorganisms but none of them were harmful to humans.

The vegetables’ leaves were also analyzed for elemental composition, with researchers finding that flight and ground tissue were largely the same in terms of nutritional value. In fact, some plants were even richer in elements such as potassium, sodium, phosphorus, sulfur, and zinc.

The findings, which were published in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science, have great implications for deep space travel.

At the moment, astronauts stationed on the ISS have access to enough food and water and are regularly re-supplied. A trip to Mars and back, however, could last years, time in which the crew would have to rely on a diet of nutrients in a tube. There would be no resupply missions either.

Growing food in a spaceship could supplement the crew’s diet with fresh produce. Additionally, fresh food would help fight menu fatigue and provide psychological comfort. To top things off, having plants in a spaceship or Martian outpost can also help life support systems by generating oxygen and removing carbon dioxide.

Of course, humans can’t live on lettuce alone, which is why NASA has run similar experiments with kale and cabbage. Other vegetables will soon follow later this year, such as pak choi, dragoon lettuce, wasabi mustard, and red Russian kale

DNA of “opportunistic bacteria” in ISS water dispenser

The bacteria strains are remarkably similar to those on Earth, DNA analysis revealed.

Flight Engineer Christina Koch of NASA playfully demonstrates how fluids behave in the weightless environment of microgravity aboard the International Space Station. Image credits: NASA.

Some bacteria species are remarkably tenacious. They can survive in the unlikeliest of conditions, from freezing ice caps to scorching volcanoes. They live underground, above ground, in the water, in the air, and anywhere the mankind has set foot. Wherever we go, we take bacteria with us, whether we like it or not — and the International Space Station is no exception.

Of course, when you’re isolated 400 km above the ground, you can’t afford to allow bacteria to run rampant. Aboard the ISS, bacterial checks are routinely carried out.

So researchers have known for quite a while that the opportunistic pathogens, Burkholderia cepacia and Burkholderia contaminans, have made their way to the potable water dispenser (PWD) of the ISS.

These bacteria are part of a group called Burkholderia cepacia complex — a group of sturdy, but not particularly virulent bacteria. These species love moist environments and plastic surfaces — and the water dispenser. Adapting to microgravity was not a problem to them.

To learn more about these bacteria and how they manage the environment of the ISS, researchers sequenced the genomes of 24 strains collected from 2010 to 2014.

The analysis showed that all the strains were highly similar, and almost certainly descended from the bacteria present in the water dispenser when it was still on Earth — they didn’t come from the astronauts, they were there to begin with.

They don’t seem any more or less virulent than the strains on Earth. It seems that the lack of gravity has not affected them in any major way. Furthermore, they seem vulnerable to the same antibiotics as their cousins on Earth, further emphasizing their lack of change.

“Within each species, the 19 B. cepacia and 5 B. contaminans recovered from the ISS were highly similar on a whole genome scale, suggesting each population may have stemmed from two distinct founding strains,” the study reads.

That’s good news. It means that, at the very least, microgravity isn’t breeding a generation of superbugs (at least, not with these bacteria). The astronauts aren’t in any major risk from this.

Nevertheless, the water system is set to be replaced with a new system once it fails and will undergo a different decontamination method after installation.

Getting rid of all the bacteria has proven to be extremely challenging. It’s still not clear what would be the best way to go about this for the ISS. Several disinfectants have been suggested. This study supports the idea that silver might be useful, as could iodine.

“Experimental designs testing the effects of the iodine disinfection process, and possibly how silver treatments may compare, would be of value moving forward,” the study concludes.

The study has been published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE

The International Space Station will soon have a ‘space hotel’ for the wealthy

Artist impression of the “Axiom Segment”. Credit: Axiom Space.

It’s finally happening.

NASA has selected Axiom Space, a Houston-based company, as the provider for the International Space Station’s first habitable commercial module. NASA sees this as a first step towards fostering the growth of a “low-Earth orbit economy” and “the development of independent commercial destinations”.

In other words, NASA is keen on building a space hotel — but whoever wants a trip to the space station will have to fetch a lot of cash.

Companies like SpaceX or Boeing have made tremendous advances to the commercial space industry in the past decade, especially when it comes to reducing costs. There are now reliable reusable launch systems that have slashed costs several-fold and, soon enough, we’ll have manned crewed capsules capable of sending astronauts into space. However, these developments are geared towards the enterprise segment. There’s a huge untapped potential market in the business to consumer segment of commercial space flight — and a Texas startup called Axiom Space is poised to be one of the first to exploit it.

On Monday, Axiom signed a deal with NASA that will oversee the development of a new commercial module, which will attach to the space station’s Node 2 forward port.

Artist impression of the Axiom “space hotel” docked with the ISS. Credit: Axiom Space.

“Congratulations to Axiom Space! This is not only a win for Texas, Johnson Space Center, and the International Space Station, it is also a great step forward for NASA as we move towards an increased commercial presence in low-Earth orbit,” said Rep. Brian Babin of Texas. “I am proud to see this work coming to Space City – Houston, Texas – as the Lone Star State continues to lead in space exploration well into the future.”

“NASA has once again recognized the hard work, talent, and experience of Houstonians as we expand the International Space Station and promote commercial opportunities in space,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas. “I’m proud Axiom will continue to build upon Texas’ legacy of leading the nation in human space exploration.”

According to NASA, the federal space agency will soon enter negotiations with Axiom to set the terms and price of services under a contract with a five-year base performance period and a two-year option.

View from the Axiom module. Credit: Axiom Space.

A “space hotel” is one of five important targets in NASA’s plan to open up the International Space Station to commercial opportunities. The other elements include opening up the station’s crew and resources for commercial use, enabling private astronaut missions to the station, pursuing opportunities and marketing long-term demand for these services, and quantifying long-term demand for activities in low-Earth orbit.

These plans are starting to develop as NASA focuses on its more ambitious goal of landing the first woman and the next man on the Moon by 2024, a mission where American commercial companies are also expected to play a major role.

“Axiom’s work to develop a commercial destination in space is a critical step for NASA to meet its long-term needs for astronaut training, scientific research, and technology demonstrations in low-Earth orbit,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “We are transforming the way NASA works with industry to benefit the global economy and advance space exploration. It is a similar partnership that this year will return the capability of American astronauts to launch to the space station on American rockets from American soil.”

The luxurious interior of the Axiom Segment. Credit: Axiom Space.

The “Axiom Segment” of the ISS will include a research & manufacturing facility, crew habitat, and large-windowed Earth observatory. The module is expected to dock with the station in the latter half of 2024.

Alright, now for the question on everybody’s mind: How much will it cost a civilian to visit the space station and possibly spend some nights there?

Since the partnership has just barely started, no one knows for sure how much this might cost. However, Axiom CEO Mike Suffredini told the New York Times that a vacation on the space station might cost upwards of $50 million, which he views as a “bargain”.

Axiom has also confirmed that they plan to separate the Axiom segment from the ISS once the station nears the end of its life, which is still uncertain at this point. Axiom plans to launch a “Large Power Platform” to the Axiom segment before this happens, then separate the segment from the station to act as its own individual station called “Axiom Station”.

Bordeaux wine launched to the International Space Station… for science

Almost 4 tons of scientific experiments and precious cargo headed for the International Space Station were launched aboard a Northrop Grumman rocket recently from a NASA launchpad in Virginia. Among them, astronauts unloaded a zero-gravity baking oven but also 12 bottles of Bordeaux wine. Unfortunately, the astronauts won’t be enjoying the fine French wine for their Christmas dinner. Instead, the bottles are part of a science experiment meant to assess how radiation and microgravity affect aging.

Credit: Pixabay.

The experiment is part of a broader project involving several universities and a startup called Space Cargo Unlimited. The wine will be stored in a controlled environment, known as the Complex Microbiological System (CommuBioS), aboard the space station.

The 12 bottles will be stored at exactly 18 degrees Celsius for one year before being returned to earth where their quality will be compared to a control sample that was kept at the same temperature (widely considered the optimal temperature for aging wine).

Wine is a chemically complex liquid, which contains polyphenols, crystals, and tannins. And since microgravity is known to affect sedimentation and bubble dispersion, scientists expect that the wine stored on the ISS will experience an increase in reaction surface. This might lead to the formation of secondary metabolites that will influence the colloids and polyphenols found in wine. Ultimately, these physical and chemical changes should dramatically alter the taste of the wine.

 CommuBioS Payload Enclosure. Complex Micro (μ)-Biological System (CommuBioS) studies the aging of complex multi-component liquids during long-term storage in space. Credit: NASA.

The insights gained from this study might have important applications in food science. It could, for instance, improve the long-term storage of food and drink (both on earth and in space) or offer insights into how agriculture might adapt to climate change. For example, previous studies suggest that resveratrol, a component of wine, may limit the effects of space radiation.

It’s not the first time that wine has been sent to space. Château Lynch-Bages saw its 1975 vintage launched into space aboard NASA’s Discovery shuttle in 1985, returning to earth in 2015.

NASA prepares to grow peppers on the International Space Station

Meals at the International Space Station (ISS) will soon get spicier thanks to a shift that will be crucial for the future of space travel.

The sunrise from the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

 

A group of researchers at NASA is preparing for the final steps to launch the Española chile pepper into space in November. This will be the first fruit plant grown and harvested at the ISS by the United States.

“We were looking for varieties that don’t grow too tall, and yet are very productive in the controlled environments that we would be using in space,” NASA plant physiologist Ray Wheeler said.

“The astronauts have often expressed a desire for spicier and flavorful foods, and so having a bit of hot flavor also seemed to be a good thing. Plus, many peppers are very high in vitamin C, which is important for space diets.”

The initiative will be crucial as part of NASA’s plans to send astronauts to Mars. Scientists are working on ways to give astronauts diets with freshly grown fruits and vegetables, such as the Española pepper.

The shortest trip to Mars takes two years, and pre-packed meals wouldn’t provide enough vitamins and nutrients for astronauts on the journey. With that in mind, NASA has been working on alternatives.

“Just imagine having a fresh pepper to bite into after months of eating cardboard,” Jacob Torres, a scientist at NASA, said. “We need to grow enough to supplement diet. Just like here on Earth, we can’t live on the same thing.”

The peppers were specifically chosen by NASA because they surpass the main challenges of growing crops in space: surviving in a high-carbon environment and being easily pollinated. They also grow at high altitudes and have short growing periods.

Plants have difficulty growing in space, as their root systems are complex and typically use Earth’s gravity to orientate themselves. Astronauts have already coaxed plants into growing aboard the ISS by using special types of light and using techniques to help the plants figure out which way is “up” and “down”.

NASA is now preparing to send the peppers off to the International Space Station between November and January, if all goes according to plan.

NASA wants the future of spaceflight to be commercial — including the ISS

The International Space Station (ISS) is one of the most complex structures ever developed by mankind. It’s the largest object we’ve ever sent to space and can often be seen from Earth with the naked eye. It also serves as a habitable satellite for astronauts and as a space lab to conduct numerous and varied experiments.

Now, NASA wants to open the ISS to the commercial sector.

Construction of the ISS Integrated Truss Structure over New Zealand. Image credits: NASA.

“NASA is opening the International Space Station to commercial opportunities and marketing these opportunities as we’ve never done before,” said the agency’s chief financial officer, Jeff DeWit. “The commercialization of low Earth orbit will enable NASA to focus resources to land the first woman and next man on the moon by 2024, as the first phase in creating a sustainable lunar presence to prepare for future missions to Mars.”

It’s not exactly a new idea. When the proposal for the ISS was first floated around during the Reagan administration, the potential to draw in commercial funding was very appealing. A wide array of commercial activities were expected to bring in billions of dollars, although that hasn’t really happened.

NASA spends around $3-4 billion a year operating the station and shuttling people to and from the ISS — that’s close to 50% of the agency’s entire space flight mission. NASA also isn’t the sole operator of the ISS: it’s a collaboration between NASA and four other agencies: the European Space Agency, JAXA (Japan), Roscosmos (Russia), and CSA (Canada).

All participants have pledged to maintain the station until 2024, but it will almost certainly carry on for longer than that. Simply put, too much has already been invested to abandon the ISS. Gilles Leclerc, head of space exploration at the Canadian Space Agency, says there’s no way that can happen.

“It would be a waste. We cannot ditch the International Space Station. There’s just too much invested,” says Leclerc. “It’s quite clear, it’s unanimous between the partners that we continue to need a space station in low Earth orbit.”

The experiments carried out aboard have also proven invaluable, and the ongoing scientific research is constantly creating new knowledge — it’s not something that should be canceled. So instead, the agencies are looking for alternative options to attract funding. Already, more than 50 companies are already conducting commercial research, with promising results. NASA now wants to expand that, being open to discussing commercial partnerships with all entities that fulfill one of the following 3 conditions:

  • require the unique microgravity environment to enable manufacturing, production or development of a commercial application;
  • have a connection to NASA’s mission; or
  • support the development of a sustainable low-Earth orbit economy.

NASA also is enabling private astronaut missions of up to 30 days on the International Space Station, with the first such mission being scheduled no later than 2020.

Image credits: ISS.

It seems like a great idea on paper. Bringing in private astronauts or allowing commercial enterprises to carry their own experiments could generate massive income for the ISS, allowing it to perform its activities as usual, or even expand. However, whether this interest exists and exactly how much money could be raised remain a matter of speculation. NASA themselves have stopped short of discussing actual figures.

At the same time, there is the concern that allowing commercial capital to flow in could delay scientific experiments, or even put them on hold. NASA would become just one of the many entities working on the ISS, and it’s unclear whether the agency would continue to have priority on all the equipment it wants.

In the meantime, the harsh environment of low-orbit space continues to take a toll on the ISS. The United States and Russia are legally responsible for all modules they have launched, but the bill to extend the operations of the ISS until 2030 initially failed in the US House, despite passing unanimously through the Senate (it was later approved, in December 2018).

What about after that? Even in 2030, it’s unlikely that the ISS will be decommissioned unless something unexpected happens, but in order to continue, the ISS must undergo serious maintenance work to ensure its safety. Some modules might be taken over by commercial activities but at the end of the day, it’s still the national governments who will have to rise up to the challenge. Hopefully, they will.

Rodents race around cage in NASA microgravity experiment

Humanity dreams of one-day becoming an interstellar species. But before that happens many challenges need to be addressed. Studies have shown that long-stretches of exposure to space can have important consequences for the health of astronauts. For instance, astronauts stationed aboard the International Space Station (ISS) have reported muscle and bone loss, poorer vision, DNA and brain structure alteration, and other effects. In order to better understand how space affects basic biology, NASA has performed over a dozen experiments with mice on the ISS since 2014. The most recent findings suggest that rodents are well accustomed to life in microgravity — and have even learned to do some nifty tricks.

Rodent astronauts

A small group of mice spent 37 days in microgravity — which is equivalent to a long-duration mission (18 months) given a rodent’s lifespan — inside NASA’s Rodent Hardware System, which is basically a high-tech cage. The rodent space habitat was specially designed to accommodate mice in groups, in order to reduce stress and better record the motions of the animals. Unlike previous space habitats, NASA’s most recent version also included grates on its wall which the rodents could grab onto.

NASA scientists focused on observing the behavior of the rodents, looking for anything peculiar. When compared to mice that stayed on Earth, the space mice were remarkably similar. The mice behaved as they normally would: feeding, grooming their fur, huddling together, and interacting with their peers. By the end of the study, space mice weighed about the same as their Earth counterparts and their fur was in excellent condition, both signs of good health.

NASA’s Rodent Habitat module with both access doors open.
Credits: NASA/Dominic Hart.

The rodents aboard the ISS quickly adapted to their environment, anchoring themselves to the habitat walls with their hindlimbs or tails and stretching out their bodies. The same pose is commonly employed by mice on Earth, which stand up on their back legs to explore their surroundings.

“Behavior is a remarkable representation of the biology of the whole organism,” said April Ronca, a researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Center and lead author of the study published in the journal Scientific Reports. “It informs us about overall health and brain function.”

Space mice also exhibited some remarkable, never-before-seen behavior. The experiments included both younger and older mice, and it seems like the younger mice would sometimes run laps around the cage, an activity which NASA scientists have called “race-tracking”.

Researchers aren’t sure what spurred this behavior, although some reasons may be for physical exercise, as a response to stress, or for stimulation of the body’s balance system which is thrown off by microgravity. Future experiments in space involving mice will now have to take into consideration the increased blood flow due to the extra activity.

Far from feeling threatened or stressed, these mice seem to be enjoying living in space.

“Our approach yields a useful analog for better understanding human responses to spaceflight, providing the opportunity to assess how physical movement influences responses to microgravity,” the researchers concluded in their paper.

NASA cancels all-female spacewalk — cites lack of spacesuit in the right size

Earlier this month, NASA announced that Christina Koch and Anne McClain would take part in an unprecedented all-female spacewalk, to install new batteries on the International Space Station. Turns out, there won’t be a girls-only spacewalk after all.

Image credits: NASA.

Having an all-female spacewalk was never a planned deal — it just happened to pan out that way. But given how unrepresented women are in space flight and the sciences in general, the media got understandably excited. Perhaps, however, it was too soon to get excited. NASA has often made changes to its spacewalks, and they warned us that changes may occur.

“It was not orchestrated to be this way,” NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz explained when the first news broke. “Spacewalk assignments may be adjusted if the flight operations team deems it necessary,” Schierholz wrote in the original press statement about the latest spacewalk schedule.

Turns out, it wasn’t mean to be, due to a lack of adequate space suit sizes. McLain had trained in both M and L torso costume sizes, but although she grew by 2 cm since going on the ISS (astronauts in microgravity can grow significantly taller), she concluded that an M is definitely a better fit. However, there was only one M suit, and that needs to go to Koch, so the all-female mission will have to take a raincheck.

Unfortunately, many took to social media to point the finger at NASA and blame them for this turn of events. Spacewalks are very complex and delicate missions, and they are not without danger. Being in a wrong-fit suit just adds more unnecessary risks, and NASA opted for the simplest solution: replace the astronaut, not the suit. It was a practical consideration. It’s not like NASA has the luxury of storing extra suits — they barely have enough suits as it is.

“Of the 11 remaining complete and functional spacesuits, 4 are kept on the ISS and the remaining 7 are on Earth in various stages of refurbishment and maintenance,” a 2017 audit stated.

This being said, we are still waiting for an all-female mission. It would be an important landmark and one which, at the very least, NASA is now aware of.

More than 500 people have been into space, but only 11% of them have been women. The first woman to perform a spacewalk was the Soviet cosmonaut Svetlana Savitskaya, 35 years ago. When McClain took part in a spacewalk last week, she became only the 13th woman to do so. Koch will be the 14th. Both Koch and Mclain were part of Nasa’s 2013 class, which was half female.

Florence wide lens 2.

Astronaut tweets incredible pictures of Hurricane Florence heading for the US East Coast

From the lens of Alexander Gerst, a German astronaut currently aboard the ISS, comes a dire warning: “Watch out, America!”

Grest (Twitter link), who joined the International Space Station crew back in June, tweeted some awesome and terrifying pictures of Hurricane Florence sprawled over the planet under his feet. “Watch out, America!”, the tween also warned, “this is a no-kidding nightmare coming for you”.

Eye of the storm

Hurricane Florence is currently a Category 4 storm making a beeline for the US East coast. The storm’s effects are predicted to make themselves felt throughout South and North Carolina starting Thursday, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Undeniably enormous, and frightfully powerful, the storm has captured the imagination of astronauts watching over it from orbit. Grest shot multiple pictures of the storm and posted them online for all the world to see its beauty and fury both.

Florence wide lens.

Image credits Alexander Gerst / ESA via Twitter.

Florence wide lens 2.

Image credits Alexander Gerst / ESA via Twitter.

The storm is so massive, Gerst explained in his Tweet, that he “could only capture her with a super wide-angle lens”. Hurricane Florence is currently over 500 miles (804 kilometers) in diameter.

Gerst also used a high-power telephoto lens to zoom in on the storm’s eye as the station passed overhead.

Storm eye 1.

Image credits Alexander Gerst / ESA via Twitter.

Storm eye 2.

Image credits Alexander Gerst / ESA via Twitter.

Storm eye 3.

Image credits Alexander Gerst / ESA via Twitter.

“Get prepared on the East Coast,” Gerst warned when Tweeting the photo.

NASA also recorded “stark and sobering” video footage of Florence from the space station on Wednesday:

Credit: NASA/Wikimedia Commons.

Russia: International Space Station leak might have been deliberate sabotage

Credit: NASA/Wikimedia Commons.

Credit: NASA/Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, astronauts aboard the International Space Station were alerted of oxygen escaping from somewhere. After sealing each compartment one by one, the astronauts finally found the leak in the Russian segment: a mere 2-millimeter hole, which suspiciously looked like it was drilled there. Fortunately, the leak was plugged in due time before a disaster had the chance to happen.

But the incident is still in everyone’s mind and authorities on Earth are looking for the person responsible.

Strikingly, according to a Russian investigation, the ISS leak may have been deliberate sabotage — it’s a possibility they aren’t ruling out, at least.

The minuscule pressure leak is actually a big deal. If astronauts hadn’t plugged it, the station would have run out of air in only 18 days. Initially, everyone thought some micrometeorite or space junk penetrated one of two Soyuz spacecraft docked at the station — after all, astronauts face such perils each day.

But it soon became clear that nothing hit the station because there was no impact site on the exterior of the spacecraft. What’s more, the hole — which you can see in a re-posted image below after NASA deleted it for no reason — looks like it was drilled by a human hand. There are traces of a drill sliding along the surface, Dmitry Rogozin, head of Roscosmos, told TASS.

“However it is too early to say definitely what happened. But, it seems to be done by a faltering hand… it is a technological error by a specialist,” Rogozin said.

According to RIA Novosti, a Russian news agency, an unnamed source at Energia Rocket and Space Corporation — the company that built the Soyuz in question — said that the hole was made on the ground, not in space by one of the astronauts. Apparently, it was accidentally drilled by some worker at Energia who, fearing repercussions, chose to mask the little hole with a seal and a concealing fabric. Then, the seal somehow managed to pass the Russians’ pressurization tests and a launch into space where it docked with the space station. In time, however, the seal began to leak.

The other leading hypothesis is that the leak was made by some criminal hand — an act of sabotage.

“There were several attempts at drilling,” Rogozin said late Monday in televised comments,

“What is this: a production defect or some premeditated actions?” he asked.

“We are checking the Earth version. But there is another version that we do not rule out: deliberate interference in space.”

Maxim Surayev, a former Russian cosmonaut, currently a member of parliament on behalf of President Putin’s ruling party, has a more exotic idea: he said the hole may have been made by a mentally disturbed astronaut who hoped to come home earlier.

“We’re all human, and anyone might want to go home, but this method is really low,” Maxim Surayev of President Vladimir Putin’s ruling party, told RIA Novosti state news agency,

“If a cosmonaut pulled this strange stunt—and that can’t be ruled out—it’s really bad,” said Surayev, who spent two stints on the ISS.

“I wish to God that this is a production defect, although that’s very sad, too—there’s been nothing like this in the history of Soyuz ships.”

Whatever the cause may have been, the spacecraft’s cabin pressure wasn’t the only thing that was fractured by this incident. In the aftermath of the incident, tensions rose between the Americans and the Russians.

Upon discovering the dangerous leak, the Russians wanted to immediately plug it with a special glue and insulation. Astronaut Andrew Feustel, the commander of the 56th ISS mission, however, was against the plan — not before he saw proof that the operation would be safe in a test on Earth, he demanded. The commander asked Houston flight control for 24 hours of extra time so that they could gather more data about the properties of the glue.

Moscow, however, insisted that issue had to be fixed immediately. Just one hour after uncovering the source of the loss of pressure, the Russians decided to go ahead with their proposed decision.

They patched the cracks by filling them with epoxy-based sealant and applying duct tape – both part of the standard repair kit. European astronaut Alexander Gerst reportedly plugged the hole with his finger until fellow crewmates could patch it up with tape. Soon after, the pressure was restored in the Soyuz. In the following day, on Friday, another patch was placed. The Russian cosmonauts plan to apply a third layer of sealing compound this week.

That’s right folks: an astronaut’s finger, along with duct tape and glue saved the day. But on the ISS, things are far from being truly healed.

Ricky Arnold, RemoveDEBRIS.

The International Space Station just launched a harpoon-toting satellite to keep it safe from space junk

The International Space Station (ISS) has just deployed its own robotic groundskeeper — christened RemoveDEBRIS, the small cubesat will work to clean Earth’s orbit of wreckage and debris.

Debris.

Space debris plot.
Image credits NASA.

Fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation might get flashbacks of the Borg cube upon seeing the little satellite just launched by the ISS. But fret not, fans of old-timey sci-fi; although it carries a harpoon, this craft comes in peace. RemoveDEBRIS — the result of a collaboration between Airbus, Surrey Satellite Technology, NanoRacks and a slew of other companies — will whizz about the ISS, spearing debris left and right to tidy up our orbit.

Cube-at-arms

We’re not the tidiest species around if we’re being honest. We’ve actually managed to (somewhat-impressively) litter all the way out to space. It’s already full of decommissioned satellites, rocket wreckage, shards of solar panels, and flakes of paint. And we are still blasting stuff up there, making it increasingly crowded.

Space may sound like the ultimate rug to brush your mess under — but it’s not. At the speeds involved, even the flakes of paint currently orbiting Earth are massive threats. As Einstein quoth, “E=mc2“, and although these flakes are light (small values for ‘m’), they go very very fast, meaning they act like hypersonic projectiles with a lot of force behind them (‘E’). Luckily, we’ve yet to see a catastrophic collision between one our craft and such debris.

Not ones to bet on luck for long, however, NASA sent RemoveDEBRIS to — you’ll never guess — remove some of this debris. The cube-shaped satellite was recently launched towards the ISS aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule. In its first test since arriving, the 100-kilogram (220 pounds) cubesat was just released from the station via the robotic arm Canadarm2, the agency writes. Researchers at the University of Surrey, England, have successfully established contact with the satellite after release. Surprisingly, the satellite is one of the biggest payloads the ISS ever deployed.

Ricky Arnold, RemoveDEBRIS.

Ricky Arnold of NASA prepares the RemoveDEBRIS satellite for deployment aboard the International Space Station.
Image credits NASA.

Over the next couple of months, engineers will monitor RemoveDEBRIS and run tests to ensure everything is functioning correctly. However, NASA doesn’t expect to break out the satellite’s harpoon until later this year. Beyond this sharp implement, RemoveDEBRIS also carries a net to catch junk with, and a large sail meant for braking or eventual deorbiting — and both instruments need to be tested separately. The current timetable for these tests, as listed by the University of Surrey, is:

  • A debris-catching net experiment, developed at Airbus’ site in Bremen, Germany, will be conducted in October. The main RemoveDebris spacecraft will release a small cubesat and let it drift away to a distance of about 5 to 7 m (16 to 23 feet). Then, the main spacecraft will eject the net in an attempt to capture it.
  • In December, RemoveDEBRIS will test vision-based navigation technology developed by Airbus in Toulouse, France. The technology will use a set of 2D cameras and a 3D lidar technology to track the second cubesat as it floats away from the main satellite.
  • In February 2019, the last of Airbus’ three experiments will take place. RemoveDEBRIS will fire a pen-size harpoon into a panel that will deploy from the main spacecraft attached to a boom.
  • Sometime during March 2019, RemoveDEBRIS spacecraft will deploy a drag sail, developed by the Surrey Space Centre, which will speed up the satellite’s deorbiting process.

The drag sail is especially important, according to the agency. Via its use, the cubesat will avoid becoming the irony of becoming debris itself — the sail will slow down RemoveDEBRIS enough for it to fall back to Earth.

Ideally, RemoveDEBRIS will only be the first in a series of harpoon-wielding, net-totting janitor satellites. According to the Space Surveillance Network (SSN), there are over 23,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball, and there are likely too many tiny bits for us to reliably track. It’s such a huge problem that researchers are even considering giving the ISS its own battery of laser weapons, just to keep it safe.