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Solar arrays, animals, science, and more headed to the ISS on SpaceX CRS-22

Cargo Dragon for CRS-21 sits on a Falcon 9 as it awaits launch back in Dec. 2020. Credit: Jared Frankle/National Space Society

MAY 30, 2021–SpaceX and NASA are currently moving ahead towards the June 3 launch of the SpaceX CRS-22 resupply mission at 1:29 p.m. EDT to the ISS, in support of Expeditions 65 and 66. This launch will be the second launch of the cargo variant of Dragon 2 as well as the second CRS Phase Two launch for SpaceX. 

The flight will be supported by Falcon 9 booster B1067  and carry Dragon capsule C209. CRS-22 will be the first flight for both vehicles, and B1067 will support the Crew-3 mission on its next mission. Over the past 21 CRS missions by SpaceX, more than 45 tons of supplies have been delivered to the ISS, and approximately 35 tons of cargo has been brought back to Earth. Adding to that number on this mission will be more than 3,300 kilograms, of which 1950 kilograms will be pressurized cargo, and 1380 kilograms will be unpressurized cargo. The bulk of CRS-22’sunpressurized cargo is taken up by two new solar arrays that will be stowed in the trunk of the Dragon spacecraft.

iROSA solar arrays

DSS workers stand in front of an extended iROSA solar array. Credit: Deployable Space Systems

CRS-22 will mark the beginning of an overhaul of the International Space Station’s  solar arrays. The existing solar arrays on the ISS were installed between 2000 and 2009, and while they are still operational, they are beginning to show signs of degradation and a need for replacement.

Flying in the trunk of the Dragon spacecraft on CRS-22 will be two ISS Roll-out Solar Array (iROSA) units. These are the first of six solar arrays that will be placed in front of the existing solar arrays on the ISS, utilizing the existing sun tracking, power distribution, and channelization hardware. Each solar array will require two spacewalks for installation, one to prepare the attachment point with a modification kit, and a second to attach the array and bring it into service. Once installed, each solar array will be producing more than 20 kilowatts of electricity. NASA’s main contractor for space station operations, Boeing, along with its subsidiary Spectrolab, and major supplier Deployable Space Systems (DSS), will provide the new arrays. The iROSA arrays are targeting a 20-30% power increase when combined with the old ISS solar arrays.

Water bears and squids

Juvenile bobtail squid swimming in seawater just after hatching. Credit: Jamie S. Foster, University of Florida

Some small organisms will be taking a big journey on CRS-22 as part of the Cell Science-04 and UMAMI experiments. Cell Science-04 will be utilizing tardigrades, also known as water bears, for a study identifying the genes involved in adaptation and survival in high stress environments. Tardigrades are the first animals to have survived being exposed to space, as discovered during an European Space Agency experiment that flew on the FOTON-M3 mission, carrying the BIOPAN astrobiology payload. Although they will not be exposed to space directly during this experiment, they will be exposed to the stressful microgravity environment of the ISS, where the tardigrades will be monitored for genetic changes in repose to this induced stress.

They will be delivered to the ISS on CRS-22 in a frozen stasis at -20°C or lower, and from there they will be injected into a NASA Bioculture System where the experiment will take place. There are two groups of tardigrades, with the first group being active for one week before an injection of RNALater, a chemical that suspends changes in RNA, preserves them, and the second group being active two months before preservation for the return trip to Earth. Data from Cell Science-04 will be looked at for possible use in making vaccines and other biomaterials dry storage stable, thereby reducing costs brought about by requiring constant cold storage (e.g., -20°C to -80°C freezers) and building upon the tardigrade’s ability stabilize their cellular proteins and nucleic acids.

Not as small as the microscopic tardigrades, but still quite tiny, are the bobtail squid that will be part of the Understanding of Microgravity on Animal-Microbe Interactions (UMAMI) experiment. Microbes aid in development of animal tissues and maintaining human health, and UMAMI will be studying how spaceflight affects these symbiotic microbes and their host during development.

Bobtail squid Euprymna Scolopes paralarvae that have not yet been exposed to bacteria will fly on CRS-22 in the Techshot ADvanced Space Experiment Processor (ADSEP). Once on the station they will then be introduced to a symbiotic bacterium, Vibrio Fischeri, to observe how the microbes interact with and colonize the developing squids. There will also be a control group in the ADSEP that will experience microgravity but will not be introduced to the microbes. 

After 12 hours of observation, all the paralarvae will be frozen at -80°C to await a return trip back to Earth for analysis. The tissues will then be examined at the molecular level for changes in the transcriptome, or all the genes expressed at a given moment, and how the presence or lack of symbiotic microbes affected this. Results from this experiment will be used to look at how space travel affects microbe and host symbiotic relationships, possibly establishing protective measures for astronaut health, and giving a better understanding of the complex interactions between animals and beneficial microbes as well as possible ways to enhance these relationships.

Ultrasound, robots, kidneys, and cotton


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Nortis Parvivo culture platform with three independently perfused kidney tubules. Credit: Alex Levine (UW School of Pharmacy)

Along with the two animal experiments, onboard CRS-22 are several other notable experiments, ranging from technology demonstrations to medical and botanical sciences. Butterfly IQ Ultrasound is a technology demonstration of a portable ultrasound device. Typical ultrasound units are quite large and require extensive training to use, making them not very suitable for a spaceflight environment. Butterfly IQ, however, will only require an iPad to serve as the imaging platform during the 60–120-minute test. 

During this test, the astronaut will operate the device on themselves, using it to make five observations across their body, in areas such as the heart, lungs, veins, and tendons. The instructions for the procedure will be delivered via just-in-time instructions in PowerPoint slides, with the subject operating the device based on only these instructions. The portability of the Butterfly IQ system and operation via just-in-time instructions may prove useful on long duration space flights, where immediate ground support for medical or technical assistance is not an option.

Macro shot of the SIGMA-7 interface for the Pilote experiment. Credit: CNES/DE PRADA Thierry, 2021

ESA (European Space Agency) and the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) will be flying Pilote on CRS-22. Pilote is a robotic control study that will test the effectiveness of virtual reality (VR) and haptic (virtual sense of touch via applied pressure or vibration) user-machine interfaces  for operating the controls of a spacecraft or robotic arms. The astronaut will have to perform simulated activities using the VR headset and haptic controller. 

There will be two separate scenarios that the astronaut will have to carry out: PILOTING and CAPTURE. In PILOTING tasks, the user will use the haptic device to control a virtual object in order to follow a predefined path as accurately and quickly as possible. There will be multiple trials, all with different paths that the virtual object must be guided along by adjusting yaw, pitch, and roll, as well as rotations and linear displacement. CAPTURE, the second scenario, will simulate using a robotic arm to grapple a satellite or dock a spacecraft with the ISS. There will be no predetermined paths in this scenario, with emphasis placed on reaching the target position as quickly and smoothly as possible. The results of Pilote will be used to optimize ergonomics for controls in spaceflight and address the issues of impeded orientation brought about by microgravity environments.

The Tissue Chips in Space initiative will see the Kidney Cells-02 experiment fly on CRS-22. Tissue Chips are chips that mimic major organs and tissues of the human body, allowing for accurate non-human testing of pharmaceuticals. The Tissue Chips in Space initiative is a partnership between the ISS U.S. National Laboratory and the National Institutes of Health, having flown several Tissue Chips in the past to the ISS. 

The Kidney Cells-02 Tissue Chip aims to address the increased risk astronauts have for kidney stones while in a microgravity environment, which is dangerous to their health, and adds risk to long-duration spaceflights. To do this a three-dimensional microfluidic kidney cell system, accurately simulating a kidney’s functions, will be tested. Temperature controlled fluid will be pumped through twenty-four Nortis Triplex Chips during their flight to the ISS. Calcium oxalate microcrystals, a known component in the creation of kidney stones, will be added to the fluid. Observations will be made of how microcrystals form as well looking for molecular signs of inflammation and injury. These observations cannot be carried out on Earth due to the presence of gravity, which affects how microcrystals disperse in the system and can result in uneven accumulations. Results from this investigation may reveal more insight into the onset of kidney disease development and progression in microgravity and on Earth, as well as ways to prevent and treat it.

The Veggie plant growth hardware at KSC with the TIC TOC cotton experiment. Credit: NASA/Jeff Richards.

Retail store Target in partnership with the ISS National Laboratory will be funding research into the growth of cotton plants in microgravity as part of the Targeting Improved Cotton Through On-orbit Cultivation (TICTOC) experiment on CRS-22. Fifteen cotton seed samples will be launched and 12 will be installed in the Veggie unit on the ISS, to be grown in custom-designed growth devices called Target Veggie Chambers or TVCs, with three spares left over. A similar control group will be duplicated at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) with a 48-hour delay for growth comparisons and observing differentiating genes. 

The experiment aims to see which root system architecture influences stress resilience, water-use-efficiency, and carbon sequestration during the critical phase of seedling establishment over seven or more days. The TVCs are designed so the roots will be readily visible, with the center containing a 3D printed hollow core that allows for gas exchange, and a gel growth medium surrounding the core to support plant growth and enable root visibility. Three varieties of upland cotton  will be used in the investigation: one wild-type and two lines overexpressing the AVP1 gene. Cotton plants that express AVP1 are generally more resilient to stress, such as droughts and high salinity, and could possibly be better suited for growing in the stressful environment of microgravity. After seven days (possibly longer) the seeds will be harvested and preserved with either RNALater or rapid freezing for a return trip to Earth. This study will focus on how gravity affects plant roots and how that knowledge can be applied to growing plants for long duration deep space missions where self-sustainability is imperative. This research can also be applied to growing cotton here on Earth, finding ways to support growth of more resilient cultivars that require less watering and agricultural chemicals.

ELaNa 36

Students and mentors at Robertsville Middle School attach solar panels to RamSat. Credit: Oak Ridge Public Schools

As part of NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) and Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) there will be 10 CubeSats launched and scheduled for deployment on CRS-22:

  • Alpha– Cornell University, Ithaca, New York
  • ARKSAT-1 – University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Arkansas
  • BeaverCube – Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • CaNOP – Carthage University, Kenosha, Wisconsin
  • CAPSat – University of Illinois, Champaign, Illinois
  • EagleSat-2 – Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Prescott, Arizona
  • PR_CuNaR2 – International American University of Puerto Rico – Bayamon Campus, Bayamon Puerto Rico
  • RamSat – Oak Ridge Public Schools (Robertsville Middle School), Oak Ridge, Tennessee 
  • Stratus – Michigan Technological University, Houghton, Michigan
  • Space Hauc – University of Massachusetts-Lowell, Lowell, Massachusetts

CRS-22 is scheduled to begin docking with the ISS at 5 a.m. EDT on June 5, provided it launches on June 3. It will stay attached to the station for around a month before returning to Earth in July with 2,400 kilograms of experiments and cargo.

Go CRS-22, Go Falcon-9, Go SpaceX! 

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