NASA: 3D Printer; ocean monitoring tool part of big space delivery to ISS

SpaceX Dragon will deliver 5,000 pounds of cargo to the International Space Station

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ISS-RapidScat will have a close-up view of ocean winds from its perch on the International Space Station, as this  photo of Hurricane Earl illustrates.
Credit: NASA

Astronauts on board the International Space Station will this weekend get an infusion of cool new high-tech toys and experiments to play with.

 The tools and experiments include the first 3D printer for space operations, NASA's ISS-RapidScat environment package, a group of Earth science experiments from the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) and fruit flies. CASIS manages the research onboard the ISS.

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Made In Space team members, Mike Snyder and Jason Dunn, assemble the 3D printer that will fly to the International Space Station via a SpaceX Dragon resupply mission.

The Made In Space 3D printer called Portal, is the size of a small microwave and will act as a test bed for evaluating 3D printing in the microgravity of space.

A 3D printer works by extruding heated plastic, and then builds successive layers to make a three-dimensional object. In essence, this test on the ISS might well lead to establishing a “machine shop” in space. The 3D printer can churn out plastic objects within a span of 15 minutes to an hour, NASA stated.

 According to Made In Space, manufacturing goods in space, as opposed to launching them from Earth, will accelerate and broaden space development while providing unprecedented access for people on Earth to use in-space capabilities. Made In Space chalked up over 30,000 hours of 3D printing technology testing, and 400-plus parabolas of airborne microgravity test flights to prep for the space mission, Made In Space said.

 Meanwhile NASA’s ISS-RapidScat mission will observe global ocean wind speed and direction with an eye toward developing greater knowledge about tropical storms, hurricanes and typhoons.

NASA came up with “five fast facts” about the mission:

  1. The space station looks homeward. ISS-RapidScat is the first scientific Earth-observing instrument specifically designed and developed to mount on the exterior of the International Space Station.
  2. Microwaves in space. The ISS-RapidScat scatterometer is a type of radar that uses the same low-energy microwaves you use to warm up food. It bounces the microwaves off the ocean surface and analyzes the strength of the return signal to calculate wind speed and direction over the ocean.
  3. Great sightlines, tight deadlines. The entire mission was built in a mere 18 months to catch a free ride on a scheduled International Space Station cargo resupply mission and take advantage of an available mounting location on the station. Most free-flying satellite missions require many years in development before launch.
  4. Reduce, reuse, recycle. The ISS-RapidScat team adapted and reused hardware from the 1990s that was built to test the preceding NASA scatterometer instrument, QuikScat. Despite their advanced age, the components offer all the capacity the mission needs and passed every test. Using these components significantly reduced the mission’s overall cost.
  5. A view that changes daily. Two other satellite instruments record ocean winds, but they are in sun-synchronous orbit, meaning that they cross the equator at the same times each day. The space station's orbit will take ISS-RapidScat across almost the entire globe between the Arctic and Antarctic circles at different times of the day. This will give scientists data they need to study how ocean winds grow and change throughout the day.

The other big research program for the ISS comes from CASIS. The group’s hardware and life science investigations include the Bone Densitometer, which will be the first X-ray machine installed on the space station. A joint project between CASIS, NASA and Techshot, the facility will be instrumental in conducting rodent research on station. The Bone Densitometer will allow astronauts to examine bone density of model organisms in space through the use of Dual-Energy X-ray Absorptiometry (DEXA) technology. In short, researchers will be able to assess bone density loss by measuring energy levels absorbed by bones via the device.

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In addition, The Rodent Research-1 investigation starts a series of NASA and CASIS-sponsored investigations focused on rodent research aboard the space station. The study will be the first to use the Bone Densitometer in an effort to help scientists examine the effects of long duration spaceflight, NASA stated. There are numerous applications to these investigations including studying bone loss, muscle atrophy and cardiovascular anomalies. However, the primary focus of this inaugural mission will be to assess the operational capabilities of the new hardware designed for these investigations, the agency said.

Another CASIS program -- the Drug Metabolism study will assist researchers in the area of drug development and human biology. This investigation is looking to study yeast cells in microgravity. The goal of this investigation is to explore the changes in these cells in space to improve drug development for various diseases, including cancer therapeutics.

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The Ames student Fruit-Fly Experiment was initiated by the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research. The student-built payload—roughly half the size of a shoebox—includes a dual-chambered fly habitat, a video system for behavioral monitoring, lights, vents and fans for air circulation and sensors to measure environmental conditions. Each chamber of the habitat accommodates a separate population of fruit flies, allowing for two different genetic strains to be studied in one experiment.

 According to NASA, the flies that travel to the space station are housed in small habitats that provide all the air and food the flies need during the mission. The habitats also keep the flies contained so they do not become a buzzing annoyance to the crew.

 The mission will be the fourth ISS resupply trip for the SpaceX Dragon and it is scheduled to lift off on the company’s Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Sept. 20.

 According to SpaceX, its Dragon craft will be filled with more than 5,000 pounds of supplies and payloads, including the experiments mentioned above and others. Dragon will carry three powered cargo payloads in its pressurized section and two in its unpressurized trunk. Dragon will return with about 3,800 pounds of cargo, which includes crew supplies, hardware and computer resources, science experiments, space station hardware, and four powered payloads.

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