Three crew members returned to Earth just before three more launched to the International Space Station to continue work on the hundreds of experiments happening aboard the orbiting laboratory. NASA astronaut Scott Tingle and crewmates Anton Shkaplerov of the Russian space agency Roscosmos and Norishige Kanai of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) landed in Kazakhstan on Sunday, June 3. Three new crew members – NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor, Alexander Gerst of the European Space Agency (ESA), and Sergey Prokopyev of Roscosmos– joined the ranks of Expedition 56 Friday morning.
Ahead of the arrival of the latest crew members, the remaining trio conducted research in the fields of plant biology, human research and physical science.
Here are more details on some of the science that happened this week aboard your orbiting laboratory:
Plant growth investigation prepares for initiation
Understanding how plants grow and thrive in harsh environments, both on Earth and in space, is important for advancements in agriculture. The Advanced Plant Habitat Facility (Plant Habitat) is a fully automated facility used to conduct plant bioscience research and provides a large, enclosed, environmentally-controlled chamber aboard the space station.
Giving Roots and Shoots Their Space: The Advanced Plant Habitat
The Advanced Plant Habitat (APH), a recent addition to the International Space Station, is the largest growth chamber aboard the orbiting laboratory. Roughly the size of a mini-fridge, the habitat is designed to test which growth conditions plants prefer in space and provides specimens a larger root and shoot area. This space in turn will allow a wider variety of crops to grow aboard the station. Thus far, the habitat has been used to grow and study Arabidopsis, small flowering plants related to cabbage and mustard, and Dwarf Wheat.
Its monitoring and environmental control systems regulate temperature, oxygen, and carbon dioxide levels, and the system settings can be adjusted for growing different types of plants. Although the system is largely autonomous, the crew adds water to the chamber and changes atmospheric elements such as an ethylene scrubber, carbon dioxide scrubber & bottles, and filters. All systems can be monitored and controlled from a computer on the ground that interfaces directly with the habitat to relay instructions and detailed adjustments to ensure investigation integrity.
Because gravity is a constant downward force on Earth, researchers take advantage of the microgravity environment of the space station to achieve a clearer perspective of plant growth habits. Gravity is one of the major cues plants use to guide their growth, but microgravity can act as a kind of mute button that suppresses the role of gravity, enabling researchers to see what other cues take charge.
The APH also has an upgraded LED system that goes beyond the red, blue and green LEDs used at low, medium and high settings in the Veggie plant habitat. APH is equipped with white, red, blue, green, and far red LEDs and has a wide variety of settings capable of producing light from zero to 1,000 micromoles, a unit of measurement used to describe the intensity of a light source. By expanding the spectrum of light, researchers can broaden the types of plants they study in space and tailor the light to that plant’s unique needs because each of the lights within APH can be set to any level within that range.
“It’s more of a fine-tuned instrument,” said project manager Bryan Onate. If a team wants a certain amount of light for an investigation, we can provide that.”
Humidity and temperature can also be manipulated to test plant threshold responses for both ideal and inhospitable growth environments.
APH also provides the first true foray into studies involving space-based agricultural cycles. “Not only can we grow small plants, but we will be able to grow seed to seed” said Onate. This means that an entire line of plants could be grow from one seed brought from Earth, creating generations of offspring destined for life among the stars. “If we can get seeds that are viable in space and grow multiple generations from that one seed, that’s a new capability. And we now have the space to do that kind of testing with APH. We’ve tried to create a little Mother Earth,” adds Onate.
Alongside investigations like Veggie-PONDS and Plant Gravity Perception, this new facility sets the stage for a world of growth in space but also holds lessons for intervention gardening here on Earth. In learning more about the conditions plants prefer, botanists here at home may be able to plan new growth strategies for drought and blighted regions or push for the adoption of large-scale automated growth systems in regions with no naturally-arable soil.
The APH supports research solicited through NASA Research Announcements (NRAs) that are designed to meet NASA’s goals for the successful completion of exploration missions and the preservation of astronaut health throughout the life of the astronaut. In addition, the facility is available to support commercial and academic U.S. National Laboratory investigationssponsored by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space.
Want to learn more about this and other science investigations aboard the orbiting laboratory? Follow us @ISS_Research. For opportunities to see the space station pass over your town, check out Spot the Station.
Facility prepares for ground operations
The Electrostatic Levitation Furnace (ELF) is an experimental facility designed to levitate, melt and solidify materials by container-less processing techniques using the Electrostatic Levitation method. With this facility, properties of high temperature melts can be measured, and solidification from deeply undercooled melts can be achieved.
This week, the crew moved samples to prepare for upcoming ground commanded operations. Results from this investigation may contribute to the development of containerless processing technology, benefiting manufacturers and scientists designing new materials.
Satellite readied and attached to JEM Airlock for deploy
The space station the only spacecraft orbiting the Earth. In fact, it is accompanied by the Hubble Space Telescope, satellites within the Earth Observing System, and more than 1,000 other operational spacecraft and CubeSats. In addition to spacecraft, bits of orbital debris – human-made objects no longer serving a purpose in space – are also in orbit. NanoRacks-Remove Debris (RemDeb) demonstrates an approach to reducing the risks presented by orbital debris by using a 3D camera to map the location and speed of debris, then deploying a net to capture and de-orbit simulated debris up to 1 meter in size.
This week, the crew prepared the satellite for deployment by removing the launch panels and protective coverings, attaching the Kaber deployer system to the satellite, then attaching the satellite to the Airlock Adapter Plate on the JEM Airlock Slide Table before retracting the Slide Table back into the Airlock and closing the hatch. The satellites deployment is planned for June 19.
Other work was done on these investigations: Atomization, Probiotics, NICER, Food Acceptability, SUBSA, ICE Cubes Facility, Manufacturing Device, Wireless Compose, SABL, CEO, ASIM and Functional Immune.
For daily updates on the science happening aboard the space station, follow @ISS_Research, Space Station Research and Technology News, or our Facebook. For opportunities to see the space station pass over your town, check out Spot the Station.