Posts Tagged ‘International Space Station’

Zinnias such as this one were among the first flowers to be grown on the International Space Station.

Researchers on the International Space Station are growing plants in systems that may one day sustain astronauts traveling far across the solar system and beyond.

Vibrant orange flowers crown a leafy green stem. The plant is surrounded by many just like it, growing in an artificially lit greenhouse about the size of a laboratory vent hood. On Earth, these zinnias, colorful members of the daisy family, probably wouldn’t seem so extraordinary. But these blooms are literally out of this world. Housed on the International Space Station (ISS), orbiting 381 kilometers above Earth, they are among the first flowers grown in space and set the stage for the cultivation of all sorts of plants even farther from humanity’s home planet.

Coaxing this little flower to bloom wasn’t easy, Gioia Massa, a plant biologist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, tells The Scientist. “Microgravity changes the way we grow plants.” With limited gravitational tug on them, plants aren’t sure which way to send their roots or shoots. They can easily dry out, too. In space, air and water don’t mix the way they do on Earth—liquid droplets glom together into large blobs that float about, instead of staying at the roots.

Massa is part of a group of scientists trying to overcome those challenges with a benchtop greenhouse called the Vegetable Production System, or Veggie. The system is a prototype for much larger greenhouses that could one day sustain astronauts on journeys to explore Mars. “As we’re looking to go deeper into space, we’re going to need ways to support astronaut crews nutritionally and cut costs financially,” says Matthew Romeyn, a long-duration food production scientist at Kennedy Space Center. “It’s a lot cheaper to send seeds than prepackaged food.”

In March 2014, Massa and colleagues developed “plant pillows”—small bags with fabric surfaces that contained a bit of soil and fertilizer in which to plant seeds. The bags sat atop a reservoir designed to wick water to the plants’ roots when needed (Open Agriculture, 2:33-41, 2017). At first, the ISS’s pillow-grown zinnias were getting too much water and turning moldy. After the crew ramped up the speed of Veggie’s fans, the flowers started drying out—an issue relayed to the scientists on the ground in 2015 by astronaut Scott Kelly, who took a special interest in the zinnias. Kelly suggested the astronauts water the plants by hand, just like a gardener would on Earth. A little injection of water into the pillows here and there, and the plants perked right up, Massa says.

With the zinnias growing happily, the astronauts began cultivating other flora, including cabbage, lettuce, and microgreens—shoots of salad vegetables—that they used to wrap their burgers and even to make imitation lobster rolls. The gardening helped to boost the astronauts’ diets, and also, anecdotally, brought them joy. “We’re just starting to study the psychological benefits of plants in space,” Massa says, noting that gardening has been shown to relieve stress. “If we’re going to have this opportunity available for longer-term missions, we have to start now.”

The team is currently working to make the greenhouses less dependent on people, as tending to plants during space missions might take astronauts away from more-critical tasks, Massa says. The researchers recently developed Veggie PONDS (Passive Orbital Nutrient Delivery System) with help from Techshot and Tupperware Brands Corporation. This system still uses absorbent mats to wick water to plants’ seeds and roots, but does so more consistently by evenly distributing the moisture. As a result, the crew shouldn’t have to keep such a close eye on the vegetation, and should be able to grow hard-to-cultivate garden plants, such as tomatoes and peppers. Time will tell. NASA sent Veggie PONDS to the ISS this past March, and astronauts are just now starting to compare the new system’s capabilities to those of Veggie.

“What they are doing on the ISS is really neat,” says astronomer Ed Guinan of the University of Pennsylvania. If astronauts are going to venture into deep space and be able to feed themselves, then they need to know how plants grow in environments other than Earth, and which grow best. The projects on the ISS will help answer those questions, he says. Guinan was so inspired by the ISS greenhouses he started his own project in 2017 studying how plants would grow in the soil of Mars—a likely future destination for manned space exploration. He ordered soil with characteristics of Martian dirt and told students in his astrobiology course, “You’re on Mars, there’s a colony there, and it’s your job to feed them.” Most of the students worked to grow nutritious plants, such as kale and other leafy greens, though one tried hops, a key ingredient in beer making. The hops, along with some of the other greens, grew well, Guinan reported at the American Astronomical Society meeting in January.

Yet, if and when astronauts go to Mars, they probably won’t be using the Red Planet’s dirt to grow food, notes Gene Giacomelli, a horticultural engineer at the University of Arizona. There are toxic chemicals called perchlorates to contend with, among other challenges, making it more probable that a Martian greenhouse will operate on hydroponics, similar to the systems being tested on the ISS. “The idea is to simplify things,” says Giacomelli, who has sought to design just such a greenhouse. “If you think about Martian dirt, we know very little about it—so do I trust it is going to be able to feed me, or do I take a system I know will feed me?”

For the past 10 years, Giacomelli has been working with others on a project, conceived by now-deceased business owner Phil Sadler, to build a self-regulating greenhouse that could support a crew of astronauts. This is not a benchtop system like you find on the space station, but a 5.5-meter-long, 2-meter-diameter cylinder that unfurls into an expansive greenhouse with tightly controlled circulation of air and water. The goal of the project, which was suspended in December due to lack of funding, was to show that the lab-size greenhouse could truly sustain astronauts. The greenhouse was only partially successful; the team calculated that a single cylinder would provide plenty of fresh drinking water, but would produce less than half the daily oxygen and calories an astronaut would need to survive a space mission. Though the project is on hold, Giacomelli says he hopes it will one day continue.

This kind of work, both here and on the ISS, is essential to someday sustaining astronauts in deep space, Giacomelli says. And, if researchers can figure out how to make such hydroponic systems efficient and waste-free, he notes, “the heck with Mars and the moon, we could bring that technology back to Earth.”


It’s a preemptive move to be sure, but when we are finally able to mine valuable resources from asteroids, rest assured that it’s fully legal to keep what you find. On Thursday, President Obama signed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act into law, which grants companies the rights to whatever they manage to pluck out of these extraterrestrial bodies. Effectively an extension of capitalism into space, the bill is one of the few during Obama’s presidency that received widespread support from the GOP, because apparently, nothing screams bipartisanship like asteroid mining.

Calling it “bipartisan, bicameral legislation,” Congressman Bill Posey of Florida called the law “a landmark for American leadership in space exploration.” A far departure from the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which banned countries from “claiming or appropriating any celestial resource such as the Moon or another planet,” the new act paves the way for what some say could eventually become a multi-trillion dollar industry. Some estimates suggest that platinum filled asteroids could be worth as much as $50 billion. Unfortunately, the technology to take advantage of these resources does not yet exist.

This certainly hasn’t stopped the praise from rolling in, however. “This is the single greatest recognition of property rights in history,” said Eric Anderson, Co-Founder and Co-Chairman, Planetary Resources, Inc. “This legislation establishes the same supportive framework that created the great economies of history, and will encourage the sustained development of space.” Of course, the law doesn’t mean that anyone can lay claim to an entire celestial body (sticking a flag in something doesn’t make it yours), but now, individuals or corporations can claim property rights to whatever is found on these bodies.

In addition to its stance on asteroid mining, the bill also reaffirms and the United States’ role in the maintenance of the International Space Station. Whereas previous agreements necessitated American involvement until 2020, this latest bill requires that U.S. astronauts play a major role in ISS “through at least 2024.”

And furthermore, to ensure that more SpaceX type projects can emerge (and compete with China’s growing space program), the law also loosens regulations on space startups, allowing them greater freedoms in certain operations.

“Throughout our entire economy, we need to eliminate unnecessary regulations that cost too much and make it harder for American innovators to create jobs,” said presidential candidate Marco Rubio. “The reforms included here make it easier for our innovators to return Americans to suborbital space and will help the American space industry continue pushing further into space than ever before.”

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Dutch nonprofit Mars One has named 100 people who will remain in the running for a one-way trip to Mars, expected to leave Earth in 2024. Out of more than 200,000 people who applied, 24 will be trained for the mission and four will take the first trip, if all goes according to plan.

This round of eliminations was made after Norbert Kraft, Mars One’s chief medical officer, interviewed 660 candidates who said they were ready to leave everything behind to venture to Mars. The applications were open to anyone over age 18, because the organization believes its greatest need is not to find the smartest or most-skilled people, but rather the people most dedicated to the cause.

Even the astronauts on the International Space Station switch out every couple of months and go back home to family,” Kraft said. “In our case, the astronauts will live together in a group for the rest of their lives.”

Of the 50 men and 50 women selected for the next cut, 38 reside in the U.S. The next-most represented countries are Canada and Australia, both with seven. Two of the candidates were 18 when they applied in 2013; the oldest, Reginald George Foulds of Toronto, was 60.

By education, the group breaks down as: 19 with no degree, two with associates, 27 bachelors, 30 masters, one law degree, four medical degrees and seven PhDs. Thirteen of the candidates are currently in school, 81 are employed and six are not working.

Of the 16 candidates who live in D.C., Maryland and Virginia, 10 were eliminated, including a married couple. Those who remain are:

Daniel Max Carey, 52, a data architect who lives in Annandale, Va.

Oscar Mathews, 32, of Suffolk, Va., a nuclear engineer and Navy reservist.

Michael Joseph McDonnell, 50, of Fairfax, Va.

Laura Maxine Smith-Velazquez, 38, a human factors and systems engineer in Owings Mills, Md.

Sonia Nicole Van Meter, 36, a political consultant who recently moved from Austin, Tex., to Alexandria, Va.

Leila Rowland Zucker, 46, an emergency room doctor at Howard University Hospital in D.C.

Here’s how Mars One describes what comes next for these candidates:

“The following selection rounds will focus on composing teams that can endure all the hardships of a permanent settlement on Mars. The candidates will receive their first shot at training in the copy of the Mars Outpost on Earth and will demonstrate their suitability to perform well in a team.”

To fund the estimated $6 billion trip (for just the first four people), Mars One will be televising the remainder of the competition to narrow the group down to 24. Those 24 people will be divided into six teams of four that will compete to determine which group is most prepared to leave for Mars in 2024.

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

When International Space Station commander Barry Wilmore needed a wrench, Nasa knew just what to do. They “emailed” him one. This is the first time an object has been designed on Earth and then transmitted to space for manufacture.

Made In Space, the California company that designed the 3D printer aboard the ISS, overheard Wilmore mentioning the need for a ratcheting socket wrench and decided to create one. Previously, if an astronaut needed a specific tool it would have to be flown up on the next mission to the ISS, which could take months.

This isn’t the first 3D printed object made in space, but it is the first created to meet the needs of an astronaut. In November astronauts aboard the ISS printed a replacement part for the recently installed 3D printer. A total of 21 objects have now been printed in space, all of which will be brought back to Earth for testing.

“We will use them to characterise the effects of long-term microgravity on our 3D-printing process, so that we can model and predict the performance of objects that we manufacture in space in the future,” explained Mike Chen from Made in Space.

Chen also explained the process of sending hardware to space. First, the part is designed by Made In Space in CAD software and converted into a file-format for the 3D printer. This file is then sent to Nasa before being transmitted to the ISS. In space the 3D printer receives the code and starts manufacturing.

“On the ISS this type of technology translates to lower costs for experiments, faster design iteration, and a safer, better experience for the crew members, who can use it to replace broken parts or create new tools on demand,” Chen said.

Take a look around you, and in your mind’s eye, randomly wipe out all but a small fraction of what you can see. Pretend the vast rest of reality is there but invisible.

You’d probably like a device that helps you see much more of it.

Scientists working at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, have made some progress in that direction with the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), which has been riding aboard the International Space Station since 2011.

Physicists believe that mental exercise in blindness reflects the reality of our universe, only about 4% of which manifests as the kind of matter and energy we can perceive.

More than 70% consists of so-called dark energy, physicists say, and more than 20% is dark matter, neither of which humans can directly detect so far.

But scientists feel certain it must exist, partly because of the gravity it exerts on the visible universe.

This week, CERN scientists published an analysis of data from the AMS, which detects subatomic particles constantly bombarding Earth. They include exceedingly rare antimatter particles that can result from the breakdown of dark matter.
They are called positrons, also known as anti-electrons. They have the same mass as electrons, but electrons have a negative charge, and positrons have a positive charge.

Scientists believe dark matter collides, splitting into pairs of electrons and positrons, so the ability to examine positrons in detail could help in proving the existence of dark matter.

Positrons are produced in minute quantities in our corner of the universe, and mostly come flying our way from its far reaches, bundled up with gangs of other subatomic particles, mainly protons and electrons.

The flying particles bear the name “cosmic rays,” a misnomer given to them at a time when they were not as well understood.

The AMS project has analyzed 41 billion cosmic ray particles, and determined 10 million of them to be made of electrons and positrons.
There have been fluctuations in the number of positrons in the mix, and thanks to the orbiting spectrometer, for the first time in a half-century of cosmic ray research scientists have been able to measure an important peak in positrons.

“AMS now unveiled data that no other experiment could ever record,” said CERN spokesman Arnaud Marsollier.

The data hint at the existence of dark matter. But CERN scientists are not completely sure yet that dark matter is the true source of the positrons.

“It may come from high-energy phenomena somewhere in our universe: But what?” Marsollier asks. “Pulsars? Supernovas?”

Pulsars are stars similar to black holes that spray particles and light through the universe. Supernovas are exploded former stars.

Because it detects particles as opposed to light, the way a telescope would, AMS may also be able to see other cosmic phenomena a telescope cannot.

The data released this week need more study, but at first glance, CERN says, what they have seen so far looks “tantalizingly consistent with dark matter particles.”

If that’s the case, the AMS may have begun to remove humanity’s greatest blindfold.