NASA Shuttle Atlantis sparks Space Station lab work

NASA space shuttle delivers host of new space experiments

One of the knocks against the International space Station was that for all of is cost, particularly to NASA; it wasn't being used enough as a laboratory for advanced science work.  

But with the delivery of a new lab segment by NASA's space shuttle Atlantis this week, in combination with a bunch of new and forthcoming experiments and the fact that the ISS is now largely, finally, complete, its use as a lab is expected to pick up.

21 critical future NASA missions  

This week Atlantis delivered the Russian-built Mini Research Module-1, also known as Rassvet or dawn in Russian.  The lab will be host to a variety of biotechnology, biological science, fluid physics and educational research experiments, NASA said. Astronauts bolted on Rassvet to the bottom port of the ISS Zarya module today. 

Rassvet includes a pressurized compartment with eight workstations equipped with facilities such as a glove box to keep experiments separated from the in-cabin environment; two incubators to accommodate high- and low-temperature experiments and a vibration isolation platform to protect payloads and experiments. It also will be used for cargo storage, NASA said. 

According to the Russian Space Website the scientific experiments planned for Rassvet would include Conjugation, which studies the exchange of genetic material in microgravity to develop strains producing new target proteins to fight disease. Another experiment, Kristallizator, would allow large protein crystals to grow in orbit to better determine their 3D structure. The results could be used in biology, medicine and pharmacology. However, from all official statements and publications made around the time of the MIM1 launch in May 2010, it was unclear when these or other scientific experiments onboard the new module would commence, officials stated. 

The module contains four other workstations, complete with mechanical adapters, to install payloads into roll-out racks and shelves. On its exterior, Rassvet will piggy-back an experiment airlock destined for use outside the final Russian module, named the Multipurpose Laboratory Module, which is planned for launch in 2012. 

Beyond the Russian lab, NASA said the shuttle crew will conduct nine short-duration experiments during the mission and return samples from 16 space station experiments. They will help enable nearly 130 long-duration station experiments in biology, physical and materials sciences, technology development, Earth and space science, NASA stated. 

Atlantis crew members will also conduct is the ninth in a series of U.S. National Laboratory Pathfinder experiments aimed at developing vaccines to fight disease-causing bacteria. The commercial payload will study how several different pathogenic organisms react to the microgravity environment. Previous similar experiments led to development of a potential vaccine for Salmonella bacteria that cause food poisoning. Approval from the Food and Drug Administration is being sought for this as an investigational new drug. 

NASA said another experiment known as Cells-4, will look at cellular replication to determine the use of spaceflight to enhance or improve cellular growth processes used in ground-based research. The shuttle astronauts also will participate in a first-of-its-kind Canadian experiment called Hypersole that aims to determine how the sensitivity of the sole of the foot affects balance control. 

The shuttle crew delivered 10 experiments to the space station. These include: Genara-A, a European experiment that looks at how plants grow without gravity; Ferulate, a Japanese experiment to study the strength of cell walls in microgravity; Cube Lab, a low-cost, 1 kilogram platform for commercial and educational projects; an experiment that studies the properties of colloids, which are tiny solid particles suspended in liquid, in microgravity; and the Smoke and Aerosol Measurement experiment, which is a follow-on investigation to previous tests of smoke detection technology. 

Several experiments will return to Earth aboard Atlantis. Among these are an European Space Agency experiment that will document the nature and distribution of radiation inside the station and create a method to measure absorption rates in biological samples and the first samples of ceramic glasses produced in Space Dynamically Responding Ultrasonic Matrix System, or SpaceDRUMS, which enables samples of materials to be processed without ever touching a container wall, NASA stated.

Meanwhile, NASA last month said it was looking for new experiments to run on the ISS lab.  The space said it was looking to expand the use of the ISS by providing access to the lab for the conduct of basic and applied research, technology development and industrial processing to private entities -- including commercial firms, non-profit institutions, and academic institutions. US federal, state and local government entities, and could also propose research.

NASA said it was particularly interested in, but not limited to, two areas of ISS expansion. 

1. Payload Integration and Operations Support Services:  There is an emphasis on systems or process that would enable new areas or research or production not currently available on ISS. Support services may include project-specific payload integration and operations support on an as needed bases in response to specific requirements as they emerge, NASA stated. 

2. Support Equipment and Instrumentation: NASA said it is interested in concepts that advance the capabilities of the ISS for utilization including providing standard interfaces that simplify and enable multiple research areas; expand the on orbit capabilities to allow for in-situ analysis and evaluation of payload results; and expand the on orbit capabilities to allow for more sophisticated operations on board. 

NASA said using the ISS as a national lab could help develop a number of applications in areas such as biotechnology, energy, engineering and remote sensing. 

Expanding the role of the ISS would be a welcome use of the facility as some experts have complained that the ISS, for all about $50 billion cost to NASA, is under-utilized.  

The international team that runs the ISS which includes Canada, Europe, Japan, Russia, and the US says now that the ISS is mostly complete, there will be an expansion of space-based research. Nearly 150 experiments are currently under way on the station, and more than 400 experiments have been conducted since research began nine years ago, the group says. These experiments already are leading to advances in the fight against food poisoning, new methods for delivering medicine to cancer cells and the development of more capable engines and materials for use on Earth and in space. 

NASA has identified 197 US-integrated investigations that have been conducted on orbit as of April 2009. According to NASA, as of February 2009, US ISS and research have resulted in over 160 publications, including articles on topics such as protein crystallization, plant growth, and human research. According to NASA, there have also been approximately 25 technology demonstration experiments flown on the ISS. 

There was concern that NASA, because of budget concerns might only fund use of he ISS for the next five years. But in his address to NASA in April President Obama said he wanted to extend ISS support at least five years beyond the current 2015 end date.  

And there has already been an uptick in new research for the ISS. 

Scientists at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) said this month they are looking to develop advanced 3-D models, algorithms that control clustered flight and electromagnetic thrust technology all in the zero-gravity environment of the ISS.  Specifically, they were looking for new research to conduct using the Synchronized Position, Hold, Engage, and Reorient Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) experiment on the ISS.  

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Space Systems Laboratory developed the three SPHERES satellites and they have been onboard the ISS since 2006 to provide DARPA, NASA, and other researchers with a system that could help those agencies test technologies for use in formation flight and autonomous docking, rendezvous and reconfiguration algorithms, MIT stated. 

NASA also is getting into the spirit saying it will send its newest humanoid robot known as Robonaut2 - or R2 -- capable of using the same tools as humans letting them work closely with people into space onboard the space shuttle's final mission. 

NASA and General Motors built the 300lb R2 as a faster, more dexterous and more technologically advanced robot than past humanoid bots. R2 can use its hands to do work beyond the scope of prior humanoid machines and can easily work safely alongside people, a necessity both on Earth and in space, NASA stated. It is also stronger: able to lift, not just hold, a 20-pound weight (about four times heavier than what other dexterous robots can handle) both near and away from its body, NASA stated. 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8   

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