Tag Archives: iss

NASA plans to retire the ISS by crashing it into the ocean

NASA plans to keep operating the station until 2030, after which the ISS would be crashed into a remote part of the Pacific Ocean. Still, its next and (probably) last decade will be very important.  

Image credit: Flickr / NASA.

The space laboratory was launched in 2002 and has orbited 227 nautical miles above Earth, welcoming 200 astronauts from all around the world. From 2031 onwards, the ISS will be replaced by commercially operated space platforms – what NASA described as a venue for collaboration and scientific research with the private sector.

“The private sector is technically and financially capable of developing and operating commercial low-Earth orbit destinations, with NASA’s assistance. We look forward to sharing our lessons learned and operations experience with the private sector to help them,” Phil McAlister, director of commercial space at NASA, said in a press statement.

The news comes as part of NASA’s ISS Transition Report, which was delivered to Congress. The space agency said it plans for the ISS to fall in an area known as the South Pacific Oceanic Uninhabited Area, also known as Point Nemo – the farthest point in the ocean from land and a usual watery grave for many other spacecraft.

Point Nemo

The area is located 2,000 miles north of Antarctica and 3,000 miles of New Zealand. About 300 chunks of space debris have been sunk there since 1971, mostly of US or Russian origin, according to a study from 2019. NASA said the space station would carry out thrusting maneuvers that would ensure “safe atmospheric entry” to Earth.

The upcoming decade

While decommissioning it in less than ten years, NASA still has ambitious plans for the ISS. The most important goal is carrying out research to benefit humanity, while also leading international cooperation and helping the US private spaceflight expand and enabling deep-space exploration. The ISS would be used as an “analog for a Mars transit mission,” NASA said.

“The ISS is entering its third and most productive decade as a groundbreaking scientific platform in microgravity,” Robyn Gatens, director of the ISS, said in a statement. “This third decade is one of results, building on our successful global partnerships to verify exploration and human research technologies to support deep space exploration.”

NASA has been working on the transition for the ISS for a while now. The first phase involved agreements with Blue Origin, Nanoracks, and Northrop Grumman, three companies that want to build private space stations in Earth orbit. NASA also holds a deal with Axiom Space, which will launch modules to the ISS that will form a free flyer.

The first phase is expected to last through 2025. The second phase will be similar to the approach taken by NASA with private crew transportation services to and from the ISS, the report reads. Back in 2014, the agency awarded contracts to Boeing and SpaceX, which launched multiple missions with its Falcon 9 rocket since May 2020.

The ISS has been home to many scientific studies over the years. In 2016, astronaut Kate Rubins sequenced DNA in space for the first time. The first space-grown salad with lettuces and greens was eaten by astronauts in 2015. An item was 3D-printed on the space station for the first time in 2014. And there’s more to come soon. 

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.

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.

Meet the three people paying $55 million for a space vacation

They’re all extremely wealthy, and they have one more thing in common: they’ll be spending an eight-day orbital trip on the International Space Station sometime next year, part of the first fully-private astronaut crew to journey the ISS.

Money may not buy everything, but it can now buy you views like this. Image credits: NASA.

It’s an interesting trio: one is a former Israeli Air Force pilot, another is a Canadian investor, while the last is an American real estate tycoon. Eytan Stibbe, Mark Pathy, and Larry Connor will become the first space tourists in history, each paying a whopping $55 million for the honor, under the watchful eyes of Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut.

López-Alegría flew to space four times and spent 10 years as NASA’s ISS program manager. Now, he is a vice president and founder of Axiom Space, the company behind the project.

“This is really groundbreaking,” López-Alegría told CNBC, as “never has an entire crew been non-professional astronauts.”

There’s nothing special about the three tourists, other that they can afford the experience. They’re just guys “who want to be able to go to space”, said López-Alegría.

It’s a watershed moment for human space flight. While it’s not pushing the boundaries of what we can do, it’s pushing a different boundary: that of making space more accessible. Sure, it’s only accessible for the filthy rich right now, but it’s still a step up from ‘nobody’.

The crew’s flight to the ISS will take place at some point next year if everything goes according to plan. The four will fly 250 miles above the Earth over the course of two days, after which they’ll spend 8 days aboard the ISS, where they’ll be involved in “research and philanthropic projects”, Axiom said in a statement. They’ll be living alongside the astronauts working on the ISS.

There aren’t any bedrooms for them on the ISS, but sleeping in zero G is pretty much the same anywhere you do it, says López-Alegría — you just close your eyes.

It’s not the first time a non-astronaut was flown to the ISS. Over the years, several wealthy individuals made their way to the space station in the early 2000s. But they were brought there aboard the Russian Soyuz, and they were always accompanied by professional astronauts heading to the ISS. This is the first purely touristic flight.

This was made possible by a change in NASA policy that came in 2019, allowing private astronauts flights to the ISS, as part of the agency’s plans to diversify its operations and encourage commercial space partnerships.

If everything goes right, it’s a win-win situation. For the space tourists, it will be an amazing opportunity that comes at a fraction at their net worth. For NASA, it’s a profit-making system that can funnel additional funding for research and other projects into the agency. It costs NASA $11,250 per astronaut per day for support systems, $22,500 for food, air, and medical supplies, and $42 for energy. It’s a hefty price, but it’s still a far cry from the $55 million the space tourists will be paying. The whole mission will cost about $1.1 million for the four of them.

Space tourism is bound to boom, with all the private enterprises working on it. Virgin Galactic offers groups of four the experience of zero G for a few hundred thousand dollars, SpaceX is already heavily involved in NASA projects, and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin will also launch suborbital experiences with its vertcally launched New Shepard rocket. But being the first of its kind, this mission will likely define how future ones take place.

So, there you have it — your dream of flying into outer space is now available for non-astronauts as well. All you have to do is become very (very) rich and get a bit lucky. No biggie.

Space station mold can survive 200 times more radiation than you or me

Unlike our pinkish, frail frames, mold may be able to survive on the outside walls of our spaceships. Even when drenched in hard radiation.

Mold Cheese.

Image via Pixabay.

The International Space Station isn’t as squeaky-clean as you’d expect: in fact, it turns out that our current home in space is plagued by mold. Every week, astronauts spend several hours scrubbing and cleaning its inside walls to prevent this mold from impacting their health.

However, new research suggests that efforts to completely de-mold the ISS may be in vain. Mold spores can survive even on the outside walls of the station and can bear radiation levels thousands of times harsher than ourselves. The results also point to mold as a useful ally on space travels, which could help supply the crew with biological products such as antibiotics or vitamins.

Stowaways, cosmic rays

“We now know that [fungal spores] resist radiation much more than we thought they would, to the point where we need to take them into consideration when we are cleaning spacecraft, inside and outside,” said Marta Cortesão, a microbiologist at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Cologne, who presented the findings at the 2019 Astrobiology Science Conference.

“If we’re planning a long duration mission, we can plan on having these mold spores with us because probably they will survive the space travel.”

Mold spores can withstand extreme temperatures, ultraviolet light, chemicals and dry conditions. This resiliency makes them hard to kill. Spores of the two most common mold types on the ISS — Aspergillus and Pennicillium — can survive exposure to X-ray levels at over 200 times the deadly dose for humans, the team found. The findings show how important planetary protection protocols designed to prevent spacecraft from contaminating other planets with Earth-borne life are, and that we need to reconsider how much of a threat fungi spores are from this point of view.

The good news is that these two species aren’t generally harmful to humans. They can impact people with weakened immune systems in cases of extreme exposure (i.e. when inhaling a large quantity of these spores). However, Cortesão believes we can coax these molds to work in our favor. Fungi are more similar to us, genetically, than bacteria: they’re made up of complex cells with a structure resembling ours, and they come equipped with the biochemical machinery to synthesize polymers, food, vitamins, and other useful molecules astronauts may need on extended trips beyond Earth.

“Mold can be used to produce important things, compounds like antibiotics and vitamins. It’s not only bad, a human pathogen and a food spoiler, it also can be used to produce antibiotics or other things needed on long missions,” Cortesão said.

In the lab, Cortesão exposed fungal spores with ionizing radiation, high-frequency ultraviolet light, and heavy ions to see how they fared. Ionizing radiation kills cells by damaging their DNA and other essential cellular infrastructure but gets blocked by our planet’s magnetic field (the ISS also benefits from this shielding). Earth’s ozone layer protects us from high-energy UV down here on the surface. However, spacecraft going to the Moon or Mars would be exposed to both.

Cortesão reports that the spores survived exposure to X-rays up to 1000 gray, exposure to heavy ions at 500 gray and exposure to ultraviolet light up to 3000 joules per meter squared. Gray is a measure of absorbed dose of ionizing radiation (joules of radiation energy per kilogram of tissue). Half a gray is the threshold for radiation sickness in humans, while five gray is the lethal threshold.

A 180-day voyage (about as long as we’d need to get to Mars) is estimated to expose passengers to around 0.7 gray. In other words, it could cause some issues for the human crew, but not for the mold.

In the future, the team plans to expand its search to understand how the combination of radiation, vacuum, low temperature, and low gravity in space affects the fungi.

The findings ” Fungal Spore Resistance to Space Radiation” have been presented at the 2019 Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon 2019) on the 28th of June.

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.

Tracy Caldwell Dyson in ISS Cupola.

The International Space Station is teeming with bacteria and fungi

Where humanity goes, microorganisms boldly follow.

Tracy Caldwell Dyson in ISS Cupola.

Self-portrait of Tracy Caldwell Dyson in the Cupola module of the International Space Station observing the Earth below during Expedition 24.
Image credits NASA / Tracy Caldwell Dyson via Wikimedia.

New research is pinpointing exactly who makes up the microflora on the International Space Station. The study — the first comprehensive catalogue of the bacteria and fungi on the inside surfaces of the ISS — can be used to develop safety measures for NASA for long-term space travel or living in space.

Space bugs

“Whether these opportunistic bacteria could cause disease in astronauts on the ISS is unknown,” says Dr Checinska Sielaff, first author of the study. “This would depend on a number of factors, including the health status of each individual and how these organisms function while in the space environment. Regardless, the detection of possible disease-causing organisms highlights the importance of further studies to examine how these ISS microbes function in space.”

Microflora can have a range of impacts on human health, so it pays to know exactly what you’re up against — especially in space. Astronauts show an altered immune response during missions, which is compounded by the difficulty of giving them proper medical care. The team hopes that their catalog can give future space mission planners a better idea of which bugs accumulate in the unique environments associated with spaceflight, how long each strain survives, and their possible impact on the crew and the ship itself.

Despite the exotic setting, the team used pretty run-of-the-mill culture techniques to sample the microflora of eight different locations inside the ISS. These included the viewing window, toilet, exercise platform, dining table, and sleeping quarters. The samples were taken during three flights across 14 months’ time, so the team could get an idea of how the tiny organisms fared over time. Genetic sequencing methods were used to identify the strains in these samples.

All in all, the team reports finding mostly human-associated microbes on the ISS. The most prominent included Staphylococcus (26% of total isolates), Pantoea (23%), and Bacillus (11%). The analysis also revealed the presence of bugs considered to be opportunistic pathogens here on Earth — such as Staphylococcus aureus (10% of total isolates identified), which is commonly found on the skin and in the nasal passages, and Enterobacter, which is associated with the human gastrointestinal tract. Opportunistic pathogens are regulars in gyms, offices, and hospitals, the team explains, suggesting that the ISS’s microbiome is also shaped by human occupation, as is similar in microbiome to other built environments.

But it’s not all about the crew.

“Some of the microorganisms we identified on the ISS have also been implicated in microbial induced corrosion on Earth. However, the role they play in corrosion aboard the ISS remains to be determined,” says Dr Urbaniak, joint first author of the study.

“In addition to understanding the possible impact of microbial and fungal organisms on astronaut health, understanding their potential impact on spacecraft will be important to maintain structural stability of the crew vehicle during long term space missions when routine indoor maintenance cannot be as easily performed.”

Fungal communities were quite stable over the study’s period, but microbial communities changed over time (but not across locations). Samples taken during the second flight mission had higher microbial diversity than samples collected during the first and third missions. The authors suggest that these temporal differences may come down to which astronauts are aboard the ISS at any given time. Dr Venkateswaran hopes this data can help NASA improve on-board safety measures, and that they will pave the way to safe, deep space human habitation.

“The results can also have significant impact on our understanding of other confined built environments on the Earth such as clean rooms used in the pharmaceutical and medical industries,” he adds.

The paper “Characterization of the total and viable bacterial and fungal communities associated with the International Space Station surfaces” has been published in the journal Microbiome.

First Crew Dragon launch and docking a success for SpaceX

It’s only a matter of time before a manned launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship. The capsule made its initial test flight out of Kennedy Space Center atop a Falcon 9 rocket a success as it launched to the International Space Station (ISS) with 400 pounds of supplies. This was the first launch of a commercially-developed capsule intended to carry astronauts into space.

Image credits: SpaceX.

After a careful launch on March 2, the shuttle has now successfully docked itself to the International Space Station, latching onto the station.

Also inside the capsule was the Crew Dragon’s sole passenger, a dummy named Ripley, who will measure forces and acceleration which would be experienced by human passengers, as well as their environment, during the trip.

“We instrumented the crap out of this vehicle; it’s got data, sensors everywhere,” said Kathy Lueders, manager for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, during a news conference. “Actually having a re-entry, with Ripley in the seat, in the position, is critical.”

“The goal is to get an idea of how humans would feel in (Ripply’s) place, basically,” SpaceX vice president of Build and Flight Reliability Hans Koenigsmann said of the dummy. “I don’t expect, actually, a lot of surprises there, but it’s better to verify, make sure that it’s safe and everything’s comfortable for our astronauts going on the next flight of the capsule.”

SpaceX controlled the launch of the Falcon 9 from Kennedy’s Launch Control Center Firing Room 4, the former space shuttle control room, which SpaceX has leased as its primary launch control center. As Crew Dragon ascended into space, SpaceX commanded the Crew Dragon spacecraft from its mission control center in Hawthorne, CA. NASA teams will monitor space station operations throughout the flight from Mission Control Center at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

But the hardest part is only now beginning for SpaceX. After the successful docking, the shuttle will detach and begin its hypersonic journey back to Earth. NASA and SpaceX will be keeping a close eye on this descent, monitoring its ability to safely re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere.

After the shuttle will parachute itself into the ocean, SpaceX’s recovery ship, Go Searcher, will retrieve the capsule and transport it back to port.

The next trip for the Crew Dragon will tentatively carry astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken, who are scheduled to be the first American astronauts launched from United States soil since the shuttle program concluded eight years ago.

“I can’t begin to explain to you how exciting it is for a test pilot to be on a first flight of a vehicle,” Hurley, a shuttle veteran and former Marine Corps F/A-18 test pilot, told reporters before launch. “We’ll be ready when SpaceX and NASA are ready for us to fly it.”

For operational missions, Crew Dragon will be able to launch as many as four crew members and carry more than 220 pounds of cargo.

This is a guest contribution by Jordan Strickler. Find out how you can contribute to ZME Science.

International Space Station.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria found on the ISS — they’ve been up there for at least two years

That the ISS is laden with germs isn’t, honestly, much of a surprise. But some of them are highly resistant to antibiotics, and that’s worrying.

International Space Station.

The International Space Station as seen on May 2010.
Image credits NASA / Crew of STS-132.

The International Space Station might sound spacey-clean but it is, in fact, crawling with microbes. JPL-NASA scientists report identifying several strains of Enterobacter in samples collected from the space station’s toilet and exercise area. Enterobacter is best known for infecting patients with weakened immune systems in hospitals, and being extremely resistant to antibiotics.


Luckily, the strains identified on the ISS aren’t pathogenic to (they don’t infect) humans. And, while it’s virtually impossible to have humans without bacteria — we trail our own microbiomes around anywhere we go — just finding any strain of Enterobacter on the station is enough cause for concern.

The genus is infamous for its preying on immunocompromised patients here on Earth; it’s also renowned for its ridiculous resistance to antibiotics. Space is (pardon the quip) an environment out of this world. There’s more radiation, there’s virtually no gravity, there are humans everywhere, crammed up in a tube with a lot of their carbon dioxide. All of these constraints could alter how the microbes live and multiply — these changes, could, in turn, cause them to become pathogenic to humans.

NASA employs quite a handful of microbiologists at its Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who regularly analyze microbe samples sent down from the ISS to see whether space life alters their populations or habits. The microbiologists also keep an eye on any potential biological hazards to either equipment or the astronauts’ health. This is the first time they’ve identified antibiotic-resistant Enterobacter strains in the station.

“To show which species of the bacteria were present on the ISS, we used various methods to characterise their genomes in detail. We revealed that genomes of the five ISS Enterobacter strains were genetically most similar to three strains newly found on Earth,” explained microbiologist Kasthuri Venkateswaran.

“These three strains belonged to one species of the bacteria, called Enterobacter bugandensis, which had been found to cause disease in neonates and a compromised patient, who were admitted to three different hospitals (in east Africa, Washington state and Colorado).”

The samples were collected in 2015. Since no astronauts have been struck down since then, the bugs seem not to be an immediate threat. However, the team says this state of affairs can quickly change — and it would be bad. The space-borne Enterobacter were found to be resistant to a wide range of antibiotics, and virtually completely immune to cefazolin, cefoxitin, oxacillin, penicillin, and rifampin.

Enterobacter cloacae.

Enterobacter cloacae.
Image credits CDC Public Health Image Library (PHIL #6552).

The strains also share 112 genes with clinical strains, associated with virulence, disease, and defense. The team reports that computer models show a 79% probability that the space strains will develop a human pathogen and cause disease.

Right now, however, the astronauts are safe. The possibilities, however worrying, have yet to be tested in living organisms. So the team is working to better understand the situation and develop a response procedure (that they hope never to use) against these bacteria.

“Whether or not an opportunistic pathogen like E. bugandensis causes disease and how much of a threat it is, depends on a variety of factors, including environmental ones,” Venkateswaran said. “Further in vivo studies are needed to discern the impact that conditions on the ISS, such as microgravity, other space, and spacecraft-related factors, may have on pathogenicity and virulence.”

The paper “Multi-drug resistant Enterobacter bugandensis species isolated from the International Space Station and comparative genomic analyses with human pathogenic strains” has been published in the journal BMC Microbiology.

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.


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.


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.

All countries in the world invited to join on the China Space Station

China’s taking a lead in international space collaboration.

International Space Station.

The International Space Station.
Image credits NASA / JPL.

China has officially invited all countries in the world to join in on the China Space Station (CSS). While the move is bound to make space agencies across the world very happy, it will likely further muddy the waters between China and the current de-facto leader in space exploration, the US. The CCS could become operational as soon as 2022, reported Eric Berger for Ars Technica.

Made in China

I’m quite the space exploration idealist. I’d like nothing better than for all governments to honestly work together in this regard since I believe that our future lies, in part, among the stars. But even I have to contend with the fact that this won’t happen anytime soon. The final frontier simply represents too juicy a political, economic, and military goal — in this matter, it pays to keep your friends close and your rivals barred from admission.

This cold geopolitical reality was made starkly apparent by the US’s refusal to allow China to join aboard the ISS and to take part in its broader space programme, citing fears that its government could siphon technology and adapt it for military use.

Up until now, however, the US had the only space station around. Yes, it is the “International” space station, but NASA was the de-facto mission leader, as it provided the brunt of technology, research, know-how, and heavy-lifting — which meant it could throw its weight around and get its way. With the Trump administration announcing that they’ll withdraw funding by 2024, however, the US has lost a lot of its leverage and — perhaps more ruinous for its position in global space efforts — left the other participating space agencies scrambling to make ends meet for the ISS.

Against this backdrop, China’s invitation is both a boon for global space efforts as well as well as a move to wrestle some of the US’s influence in the space industry. Still, it’s undeniable that the CSS will be a major boost to worldwide space exploration efforts.

“CSS belongs not only to China, but also to the world,” said Shi Zhongjun, China’s Ambassador to UN and other international organizations in Vienna. “All countries, regardless of their size and level of development, can participate in the cooperation on an equal footing.”

Chinese officials also said for state-owned news service Xinhua that they are willing to help developing countries who are interested in pursuing their own space programs. Furthermore, the CSS will allow countries that are interested in space but couldn’t launch their own missions to sent and maintain a crew in orbit.

However, it’s not just developing nations that are interested — some of the US’ European collaborators have also expressed an interest in the Chinese station. The European Space Agency has already signed an agreement with China’s Space Agency send some astronauts aboard the CSS after construction is complete.

Now all that China has to do is to actually build the station — not at all an easy feat.

Sperm plants.

NASA is sending sperm to the ISS — here’s why

The last resupply shuttle sent to the ISS brought the crew over 5,000 pounds of supplies and a few samples of sperm, to boot.

Sperm plants.

Image credits Thomas Breher.

Ever dream of going to space, maybe even blast off to a new life on Mars? I sure do. What about finding that special someone to love, someone to settle down and start a family with? Well, I have some good news and some bad news: you can probably do either of the two — but currently, we don’t know if you can do both at the same time.

The birds, the bees and the Falcon 9

Put quite simply, we don’t know how to succeed at the deed in space. We don’t even know if we can actually reproduce in microgravity, if all the biological cogs function as intended outside the environmental conditions of Earth. Luckily, NASA has our back, and they’re starting from the basics: last week, the agency sent several sperm samples to the ISS, planning to observe how the cells behave in space. It may sound silly, but knowing whether or not we can make babies in space (and how to best go about it) could make the difference between a successful deep-space mission or a complete failure.

As part of the “Mission Micro-11“, astronauts aboard the ISS will receive and then test samples of human and bull semen (these will act as controls). What NASA wants to determine right now is if the sperm can move with enough freedom and speed to fuse with an egg inside the station’s Microgravity Science Glovebox — an instrument which NASA amusingly describes as “particularly suited for handling hazardous materials when the crew is present.”

Before you ask — yes; yes there are six full-grown men aboard the ISS right now, and one can’t help but observe they might have had a different method of obtaining such samples you know, handy. NASA, however, didn’t want to have them go above and beyond the call of duty, with LiveScience’ Rafi Letzter noting it’s “understandable why the space agency didn’t go that route, if for no other reason than the limits of what can be reasonably demanded in even an outer space workplace.”

[Read More] Nobody’s in a loving mood when faced with a lack of food — not even astronauts. So here’s what they used to eat, what they eat today, and a look at what they’ll eat on the treck to Mars.

Chuckling aside, the experiment should help us gain a better understanding of how these cells fare in space — especially since previous research has shown that the lack of gravity could interfere with the normal functioning of sperm. While the cells themselves might be able to function properly, we still don’t know if they can actually fuse with the egg in these conditions.

Still, don’t give up on astronaut school just yet — right now, we’re looking at how well reproductive cells would function aboard the ISS. Later research will have to determine everything else: can humans give birth in microgravity? Can we insulate newborns from space radiation, and if not, how will it affect their development? And, perhaps most excitingly, how exactly does one go about having sex in outer space?

I for one, am willing to dedicate my body to that bit of science.

Credit: NASA.

Russian cosmonauts accidentally set a new spacewalk record while repairing old radio antenna

What was supposed to be a standard six-and-a-half hour mission outside the ISS meant to replace an old electronics box, turned into a new spacewalk record, with the time in space totaling eight hours and 13 minutes. It’s the longest Russian spacewalk and the fifth-longest spacewalk in human spaceflight history.

Credit: NASA.

Credit: NASA.

On February 2,  Russian cosmonauts Alexander Misurkin and Anton Shkaplerov were tasked with upgrading sensitive tech for a high-gain antenna that communicates with Russian mission controllers. The antenna was first installed in space in 2000 and was supposed to communicate with a novel fleet of Russian satellites. The satellites in question, however, took another decade before they launched, and by that time, the electronics that were serving the antenna’s relay-link became obsolete, hence last weekend’s mission.

The plan looked simple enough, but, a lot of things can go wrong in space. This time, the antenna on the box wasn’t extending after being folded up for the upgrade. For hours more, the Russian crew, both in space and on the ground at mission control, toiled to push and rotate the antenna into the correct position.

Eventually, the antenna was finally up after a grueling eight hours and 13 minutes in space. Only one problem though: the antenna ended up 180° in the wrong direction. But at least the Russians now have a new record under their belt, beating the previous Russian record set by cosmonauts Oleg Kotov and Sergei Ryazanski on December 27, 2013, by about 6 minutes.

Despite the skewed position, Russia’s mission control reported that the antenna was “operating and in good shape.” As for the old, 27-kg electronics box, the cosmonauts took good care of it: a nice shove towards Earth’s atmosphere where it will eventually disintegrate. Check out this one-of-a-kind footage showing how the box was jettisoned.

It was the 207th spacewalk in support of International Space Station assembly and maintenance.The longest spacewalk, which lasted 8 hours and 56 minutes, was carried out by NASA astronauts James S. Voss and Susan J. Helms on March 11, 2001. The next spacewalk is scheduled for February 15.

Credit: NASA.

Russia is planning to offer tourists a trip to the ISS, spacewalks included

Russia is planning on making regular launches to the International Space Station for wealthy tourists willing to pay top dollar for a trip to space. The newly proposed package also involves spacewalks, a first for space tourism. If all that sounds very exciting, wait until you hear the price tag — as much as $100 million a pop. Yikes!

Credit: NASA.

Credit: NASA.

Vladimir Solntsev, CEO of Russian space company Energia, broke the news recently speaking to Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda. Energia’s head says that his company wants to serve a market that’s eager to travel and enjoy life in space. Tourists will be able to “go out on a spacewalk and make a film, (or) a video clip,” he said.

Energia is working on a new module called NEM-2 which will be able to carry four to six people. It’s a luxurious accommodation by astronaut’s standards or anything they’ve been used to up until now. Solntsev says the module will be fitted with comfortable cabins, two toilets, and internet access.

He gave a tentative launch date for 2019, adding that American aerospace giant Boeing expressed interest to become a partner.

The Russian CEO estimates sending five to six tourists to space a year, with each trip lasting up to 10 days at the International Space Station.

The first space tourist was Dennis A. Tito, a California multimillionaire, who shelved $20 million for a ride and spent eight days in the International Space Station with two cosmonauts in 2001. Guy Laliberte, the founder of Canada’s Cirque du Soleil, paid more than $35 million for 12 days at the ISS in 2009.

In total, 7 space tourists have made 8 space flights. This a rapidly growing sector with many private companies, particularly Western ones such as Virgin Galactic, in competition to offer the most comfortable and affordable solution.

Some of you might think there’s no chance you’ll ever get to space — not with these prices. But that’s the thing — these prices won’t stay this outrageously high forever. Not too long ago, owning an automobile was also prohibitively expensive, so was a ride on an airplane. Innovations like reusable rockets and new capsule designs mean that someday, a trip to space will be within the reach of those with more modest fortunes.


ISS astronaut Norishige Kanai (first from right) grew 9 cm taller in only 3 months in space. Credit: NASA.

Japanese astronaut didn’t actually grow 3½” taller after only three weeks in space [UPDATE]

ISS astronaut Norishige Kanai (first from right) grew 9 cm taller in only 3 months in space. Credit: NASA.

ISS astronaut Norishige Kanai (first from right) grew 9 cm taller in only 3 months in space. Credit: NASA.

Free from the pressure of gravity, the spine can relax and temporarily expand almost like an unwinded coiled spring. This is why all astronauts stationed at the International Space Station grow taller during their stint there. But the case of Japanese astronaut Norishige Kanai, who arrived at the station on Dec. 19, 2017, was extreme by all accounts, though. In the three weeks since he arrived at the ISS, Kanai claimed he had grown a staggering 3½ inches (9 centimeters) — the most he’s “grown in 3 weeks since junior high school,” the astronaut tweeted.

Typically, a normal stint at the International Space Station will see people grow about two inches taller. But every human body is different and sometimes you get these freak occurrences at the high end of the bracket.

“Good morning, everybody,” Kanai wrote on twitter. “I have a major announcement today. We had our bodies measured after reaching space, and wow, wow, wow, I had actually grown by as much as 9cm!”

“I am a little worried I won’t fit in my seat on the return trip on Soyuz,” Kanai said more jokingly than serious.

Each seat on the Russian Soyuz TMA spacecraft actually molds to the body of each astronaut to ensure a tight fit during atmospheric re-entry which can be quite the bumpy ride. You can’t be taller than 6 feet 3″ to hitch a ride, which is why anyone around that limit isn’t allowed to the ISS.

After receiving so much media coverage, Kanai’s captain questioned the astronaut about his height and the two performed a new measurement. Turns out Kanai’s initial measurement was WAY off. Apparently, the 41-year-old Japanese astronaut had stretched only 2 cm from his Earth-bound height.

Kanai tweeted: “This mis-measurement appears to have become a big deal, so I must apologize for this terrible fake news … It appears I can fit on the Soyuz, so I‘m relieved.”

Kanai didn’t explain how he arrived at this ‘mis-measurement’ but it sure is weird  After all, he is an astronaut — a person who is trained in avionics and space engineering, which should entail being able to tell an inch from three inches.

The real talk

If growing a couple inches taller might sound appealing to some of you, know that it’s only temporary since astronauts slip back to their normal height once they touch down on Earth. Actually, growing taller can only mean trouble in space where every cubic inch counts.

Growing tall on the ISS is a fleeting experience but there are really far more concerning effects zero gravity has on the human body. Scientists are only beginning to understand what long-term weightlessness is doing to human biology but already we know some things aren’t good at all. For instance, astronauts hurt their vision since the retina gets pushed forward, arteries can become clogged due to plaque buildup, and thousands of genes switch on and off. 

If humanity ever becomes a space-faring species, we shall have to confront the effects of weightlessness and conquer them. In the meantime, stints made by brave astronauts on the ISS will teach us many valuable lessons.


NASA astronauts start spacewalk — with live footage

In the first of three planned spacewalks, NASA astronauts Randy Bresnik and Mark Vande Hei will go outside the International Space Station to repair the ISS main robotic appendage.

The three spacewalks have been scheduled with the purpose of tinkering around the ISS. Bresnik will take the lead in all three of these expeditions. Repair and maintenance work is required from time to time, as is the addition of new elements. Now, efforts will focus on the robotic arm, informally known as Canadarm2.

Officially called the Space Station Remote Manipulator System (SSRMS), Canadarm2 is part of the Mobile Servicing System (MSS), and it is one of the most crucial tools on the ISS. Much like the name implies, it is a snake-like robotic arm which can extend up to nearly 60 feet (18 meters) into space. The Canadarm2 was instrumental during the early days of the ISS when large pieces of equipment had to be moved and installed. Nowadays, it is used for routine inspections outside the ISS and to latch and dock incoming cargo spacecraft.

Canadarm2 riding the Mobile Base System along the Mobile Transporter railway, running the length of the station’s main truss. Credits: NASA.

Astronauts will replace one of the two Latching End Effectors on Canadarm2, lubricate the new component and replace cameras at two locations on the station’s truss. The Latching End Effectors, or LEEs, have been steadily deteriorating. They’re complex devices, incorporating sensors, electronics, and a camera, so reparations are not an easy feat. Initially, NASA planned to repair the LEE which seemed most degraded, but the other one stopped working, which moved it to the top of the priority list. The other one is also set for repairs, but that has been postponed for January.

As I am writing this (and sneaking a peak on NASA’s livestream), the astronauts are suiting up and conducting final preparations. By the time you read this, they will probably be outside, working on Canadarm2.

Five days from now, on October 10th, Bresnik and Vande Hei will do another spacewalk to lubricate the new LEE and then replace a camera on the outside of the station. Another five days later, October 15th, Bresnik will be joined by NASA astronaut Joe Acaba for a third spacewalk on to do more lubrication and another camera replacement.

All the three spacewalks of October are slated to begin at 8:05 am EDT (8:05 pm SST), but it is possible to start earlier if the astronauts are moving ahead of schedule.


Hewlett Packard supercomputer to be delivered to the ISS next Monday

The ISS is set to get a massive PC upgrade. SpaceX and the  Enterprise are sending a supercomputer up to the station on SpaceX’s next resupply mission, set for Monday.


Image via Pixabay.

As far as opportunities go, ISS certainly does deliver. This space-borne orbital laboratory allowed government and private groups test technology and perform research in microgravity, gave us a testbed for astronaut health in-space, and gave NASA a good toehold for proving technology future deep space missions will need.

Processing power

There is one field of technology, however, that hasn’t received that much love on the ISS — computers. Currently, the station is handled by computers relying mostly on i386 processors which are, to put it mildly, absolute rubbish. It’s not much of a problem however since all of the station’s critical systems are monitored by ground control, who can work with astronauts in real time to fix any problems that might appear.

It starts to become a problem the farther away you go from the Earth, though. If we want to have any chance of sending a human crew beyond the Moon, we’ll need computers powerful enough to operate in a deep space environment without backup from ground control. For starters, because of the longer distances involved, communications will start experiencing delays in excess of half an hour at the more remote points of the mission. When that happens, the crew and its computers will have to be able to deal with any issue that arises.

We’re talking a lot more processing power than a few i386s can churn out. That’s why NASA and Hewlett-Packard Enterprise (HPE) are launching the supercomputer to the ISS — to see how it fares in the cold, zero g environment of outer space. The device will be shuttled Monday aboard SpaceX’s next supply mission to the station.

The 1 teraflop super’computer isn’t that powerful by planetside standards, but it is the most powerful computer to ever make its way into space. It’ll stay there for one year, installed inside a rack in the Destiny module of the space station. It will spend this time powering through an endless series of benchmarks designed to detect if and how the computer’s performance is degraded in space.
An identical copy of the computer will run the same tests in a lab down on Earth to serve as a control.

If everything works out fine, the supercomputer might even stay on the ISS after the experiment to help astronauts in their data-crunching needs, saving up a lot of broadband. Let’s hope the experiment works, so NASA will soon have the computers it needs to send people further into the solar system.


ISS Northern Lights.

This video ISS astronauts shot of the norther lights is just the thing to brighten up your day

Life can be stressful, busy, and nowadays way too hot. But don’t all that get you down and make you forget that life can also be tremendously beautiful. And if you already did, don’t worry — this video of the aurora borealis shot by astronauts from the ISS will help you remember.

ISS Northern Lights.

Image via Max Pixel.

The northern lights, or aurora borealis, are a dazzling light show that charged particles hitting the Earth’s magnetic field sometimes put on. Conditions have to be just right: you need a strong enough gust of solar wind slamming into the magnetosphere to pass their energy to atmospheric gases (mostly nitrogen and oxygen), ionizing them into these intricately shaped rivers of light.

Breathtaking on the ground, the northern lights are simply amazing when seen from outside the bounds of our planet. On June 25, members of ISS’ Expedition 52 had a chance to see the aurora borealis from up high, while zipping past at 17,150 mph.

Luckily for us land-locked mortals, they also had their cameras ready. So sit back, pop your earphones, take a break from worrying about that deadline and enjoy the light show for a few relaxing minutes — we’ve all earned it on a Wednesday afternoon.


Morning glory.

Morning glory seeds are hardy enough to survive in space, experiment reveals

Morning glory (family Convolvulaceae) seeds can survive through ridiculously high doses of UV radiation, a new study found, making them ideally suited for future colonies on high-UV planets such as Mars. They’re so good at it that these seeds might even survive the trip between planets unprotected — lending more confidence to the theory of panspermia.

Morning glory.

Give or take one decade ago, astronauts onboard the ISS placed about 2000 tobacco plant (genus Nicotiana) and arabidopsis (Arabidopsis thaliana) seeds on the outside of the station, then went about their business for 558 and 682 days. The plan was to see what effects long-term exposure to UV light, cosmic radiation, and the extreme temperature fluctuations out there would have on the tiny seeds. Since any of these factors on its own is lethal to most life as we know it, the general expectation was that they would die off.

Rad resistant

But at the end of the experiment in 2009, when the seeds were brought back down to Earth and planted, 20% of them germinated and grew into normal, healthy-looking plants. Which was surprising, to say the least. Now, 10 years after the experiment, an international team of researchers is trying to understand why.

“Seeds are ideally suited to storing life,” says David Tepfer, an emeritus plant biologist at the Palace of Versailles Research Center of the National Institute for Agronomic Research in France.

Together with Sydney Leach, an emeritus physicist at Paris-Meudon Observatory in France, Tepfer took a closer look at the DNA of some of these space-traveling seeds that didn’t make it to the germination trials. They were looking for a short section of genetic code which had been spliced into the seeds’ genome before their space journey. This bit of code was meant to act as an overall indicator of the exposed DNA’s level of damage, and the team found degradation both on it and the seeds’ genome. It’s possible that under the harsh conditions of space, distinct bits of the DNA were chemically fused like a stack of CDs melted together. The information stored in the DNA couldn’t be read afterward, inactivating the whole strand.

Still, one issue remained unaddressed. Given the inherent space constraints and transportation difficulties, the duo had to work with small seeds for the space tests “but small seeds are generally not capable of long-term survival in the soil,” the team writes. To see what the limitations of larger seeds were, the team performed a follow-up lab experiment with three types of seeds — tobacco and arabidopsis as a control sample and morning glory seeds “for their larger size, tougher seed coats, and longevity in the soil.” They then blasted these seeds with a huge amount of radiation — roughly 6 million times as much UV as is typically used to purge drinking water of any pathogens. The tobacco and arabidopsis seeds didn’t make it, but morning glory seeds germinated normally after the exposure.

Pack some sunscreen

The team writes that their survival likely comes down to a protective layer coating the morning glory seeds, which contains flavonoids (compounds commonly found in wine and tea that act as natural sunscreens) and insulates them from the brunt of UV radiation.

Barricaded behind these flavonoids, seeds could slumber their way from one planet to the next and, assuming they don’t burn on reentry or land on a planet where everything is toxic and awful for them, take root and jumpstart life around the Universe — a process known as panspermia. Tepfer also says it’s worth investigating if feeding animals a diet rich in flavonoids can lend them resistance to UV, potentially keeping them safe on interplanetary travels.

Feeding animals a high-flavonoid diet might confer resistance to UV light and make them better suited for interplanetary travel, Tepfer suggests. “They might become more ultraviolet-resistant,” he says. “Red wine or green tea, anyone?”

The paper “Survival and DNA Damage in Plant Seeds Exposed for 558 and 682 Days outside the International Space Station” has been published in the journal Astrobiology.