SpaceX Dragon capsule arrives at the ISS after a two-day journey. (Photo Credit: NASA/SpaceX)

Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX),  successfully launched its fourth commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) on Sunday, September 21. After a two-day flight, NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Alexander Gerst employed the station's robotic Canadarm2 to successfully grapple the capsule and berth it to the station. The procedure was completed early at 6:52 a.m. EDT on September 23, and Wiseman and Gerst were given the go-ahead to open the hatch. A bit ahead of schedule, Dragon's hatch was opened on Tuesday and the astronauts spent the last few days unpacking 4,885 pounds of cargo. And they also unpacked some of their newest residents...

The Dragon spacecraft is berthed to the station's Harmony module, and will remain so for approximately a month, before it splashes down in the Pacific Ocean, bringing with it various experiments and supplies. This mission is the fourth of twelve planned flights under the commercial resupply contract, and the sixth overall flight of the Dragon capsule. SpaceX has eight more planned resupply missions, with one more later this year. Dragon's cargo contains various crew supplies, research experiments, hardware, spacesuit batteries, and computer gear.

This mission signals an increase in the orbiting laboratory's science output. The International Space Station was designed to be the ultimate science laboratory, capable of research that scientists on the ground cannot do. Construction on the ISS began back in 1998, and was a multi-year, multi-country project. The ISS has housed astronauts continuously for over 13 years, and since 2010 has become a fully functional, premier research laboratory.

Mission Objectives:

Principle investigators for various model organism investigations prepare to talk about their experiments. (Photo Credit: Megan Smith/FQTQ)

Organisms, organ systems, diseases, and many similar systems all behave differently when exposed to microgravity; most of the differences we are still exploring, and they could have major implications for life here on Earth. As part of the Dragon cargo, there are a number of experiments involving "model organisms". What exactly is a model organism? These are organisms labeled by the National Institute of Health (NIH) as having similar characteristics to humans. A few examples would be yeast, fruit flies, and even mice. There are three very exciting experiments involving model organisms on this particular mission.

NanoRacks teamed up with a group of students from NASA's Ames Research Facility, and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) to create a fruit fly habitat. Dubbed "the fruit fly condo," the habitat will support two groups of flies. There will be a grand total of 30 flies at the start of the experiment. Each group will have ten female flies and five males flies. One group will be a typical wall-type fly, and the other will be a mutant fly. No, these aren't the X-Men of the fruit fly world, but they are bred to be resistant to stressors, and studied on how microgravity plays into environmental stressors. A webcam is installed in the fruit fly condo, so the research team will be able to directly observe their flies.

Officially titled the Ames Student Fruit Fly Experiment (AFEX), the goal of this investigation will be to study how diseases function at the cellular and molecular levels in microgravity. Fruit flies have been used in research experiments for decades and are very useful in the lab. Approximately 700 out of 900 diseases affecting humans also affect the fruit fly.

The Micro-8 experiment is a follow-up to Micro-6 and will test yeast's reaction to two anti-fungal agents in microgravity. (Photo Credit: Megan Smith/FQTQ)

Another model organism is Candida albicans, a pathogenic yeast, that under normal circumstances is not harmful. This organism helps regulate the immune system, and is beneficial to our digestive system. However, when the body is stressed, C. albicans can get out of control and even cause infections. Space is a stressful environment and by studying this organism in microgravity, researchers can better control any infections. The Micro-8 experiment is a follow-up to the Micro-6 experiment that flew on SpaceX 1.

During that experiment, researchers noticed that the yeast were more resistant to anti-fungal agents and grew in a more elongated form than they would here on Earth. This combination could result in a more infectious yeast. In this new experiment, the yeast will be exposed to two anti-fungal agents, and will use human monocytes (blood cells) as host cells.

Shelia Nielsen, Ph.D., principle investigator for this experiment said, "We have already demonstrated that microgravity affects cell shape and behavior. A more complete understanding of the yeast adaptation response to extreme environments, such as microgravity, and the risks associated with potential infection is vital for long-term crew health and safety. With that knowledge, we can develop treatments to keep our astronauts and our Earth population healthier."

The Cargo:

As part of the cargo, Dragon ferried a group of mice or "mousetronauts" to the station as part of an investigation into microgravity's impact on bone and muscle loss. Dubbed the Rodent Research-1 investigation, this mission is the maiden voyage of the rodent research habitat. Rodents, predominately rats, have been studied throughout the history of the space program. Most of these experiments allowed for the rodents to be studied for short periods of time, whereas this investigation will allow the mice to be observed for 30 days. It takes a minimum of 20 days to really start to see the effects of microgravity on an organism.

The mice in this experiment are a group of 20 female, 4 month-old inbred mice -- specifically a variety known as C57 black-6. The mice were part of a late-load payload, and relied on Dragon's internal power to survive the trip to the station. Unlike the Russian geckos, who didn't survive their time in space,the mice survived their trip, and are safely tucked into their habitat, ready to begin their mission.

Mice typically do not free-float in space, but are very active, crawling around constantly. Despite their activity, mice are subject to the same bone loss and muscle atrophy humans are. Mice have about a two-year lifespan, and display the same degenerative aging properties that humans do, just on a smaller time scale. Initially the mice will be studied for a period of 30 days, but eventually longer missions will be performed. This research will be used to help manufacture better treatments against diseases such as osteoperosis.

TechShot, Inc. has collaborated with NASA for many years, and has developed a bone densitometer to be installed on the ISS. This device will be able to directly measure the amount of bone loss the rodents encounter while in space. At first, the device will be tested against ground controls to ensure it is able to perform as expected in space.

"NASA is our oldest customer," TechShot COO and executive vice president, John Vellinger said. "For over 25 years, the agency has relied on us to develop tools to conduct research in space. Nothing like the bone densitometer has ever flown in space before, and we deeply appreciate the trust that's been placed in us."

Astronauts are required to undergo pre- and post-mission bone scans as part of an effort to understand the bone loss process. Never before have during mission scans taken place. This piece of hardware will be essential for research and developing treatments. It has important implications for improving life here on Earth.

TechShot, Inc.'s bone densitometer will be able to provide during mission scans and bone loss data to scientists here on Earth. (Photo Credit: Megan Smith/FQTQ)

Space's First 3D Printer:

One of the most revolutionary pieces of equipment to ever be installed on the station is part of this mission. The International Space Station is receiving its first-ever 3D printer. So, why is this device so important? I mean, we all know how cool 3D printers are, but why should we have one in space?

Ever since the first person launched into space, we have been constrained by what we carry. Payload weight, and space has always been an issue. This remains one of the major concerns when we talk about deep space missions. How are we going to get people to Mars and carry everything we might need? Well, what if this wasn't an issue? What if you could print what you needed? That would definitely makes things a little easier. That's exactly what this 3D printing technology promises.

Example of a 3D printed screwdriver. (Photo Credit: Megan Smith/FQTQ)

NASA partnered up with Made In Space to develop the station's new 3D printer. The test model that just arrived on station will be used to print out prototypes of key station tools, filter caps, things of that nature. The prototypes will then be returned to Earth so they can be compared with ground controls. The printer currently uses ABS plastic, the same plastic used to make legos. Eventually other materials, such as regolith and even electronics will be printed. Imagine if Jim Lovell and the Apollo 13 crew didn't have to worry about how to fit a square peg in a round hole, but were able to print out the filter they needed.

Made in Space CEO Aaron Kemmer stated, "Everything that has ever been built for space, has been built on the ground. Tremendous amounts of time and money have been spent to place even the simplest of items in space to aid exploration and development. This new capability will fundamentally change how the supply and development of space missions is looked at. This is more than a 3D printer. For the first time in the history of our species, we will be manufacturing tools and hardware away from Earth. Rapid construction of important materials is a critical need if humans are going to establish a greater footprint in our universe."

The first 3D printed tools may not look exactly like their terrestrial counterparts, but they should be just as functional.

Golf in Space?

Another unique experiment aboard the Dragon, is one involving CASIS and Cobra Puma Golf. Believe it or not, there is a lot of science in golf. Materials science is a field that has practical applications in our every day lives. You might be reading this asking "why should we send a golf club to the space station"? As Mike Yagley, director of R&D research and testing for Cobra Puma said, "There is some pretty serious science in golf. This mission is not about research on a golf club, but is a perfect example of the research and development capabilities of CASIS."

The golf club in question has a silver coating overtop of an aluminum substructure. This investigation is designed to test how the crystal structures of the silver hold up in microgravity. It will test the adhesion properties and lead to plating improvements here on Earth.

View of the ISS with RapidScat's location shown in the inset. (Image Credit: NASA)

This year has seen an influx in NASA earth science missions, with three having launched and two more missions scheduled. The ISS-RapidScat is 2014's third earth science mission, and the first solely dedicated to studying the planet's near-surface ocean winds. With the help of the station's robotic arm, Dextre, the RapidScat was among the first things unloaded and is installed on the exterior of the station's Columbus laboratory. RapidScat uses radar pulses to measure the speed and direction of ocean winds. The data collected will be able to better determine weather forecasts as well as predicted severe weather systems, such as hurricanes.

ISS-RapidScat is a replacement for the failed QuickScat satellite. After QuickScat failed, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) teamed up with the ISS to quickly design and deploy the new device. Constructed from a QuickScat backup, RapidScat is specially designed to fit the space station. From its location on the orbiting laboratory, RapidScat has several advantages over traditional satellites. Thanks to the station's inclined orbit, versus traditional polar orbits, RapidScat will be able to scan more of the globe and at all times of the day.

RapidScat will require about a 30-day calibration period, and should yield its first measurements around the second week in October. When fully functional, RapidScat will be able to provide researchers on the ground data within three hours of being collected. Ocean winds are a key part of the energy transfer process and with the help of RapidScat, researchers will be able to better determine what role ocean winds play in global climate change. After its one-year mission, scientists should have a more complete picture of how the Earth functions as a system.

The next commercial resupply mission is slated for October 20, when Orbital Sciences will launch its Cygnus spacecraft. SpaceX and Dragon are slated for their fifth mission, CRS-5, in early December.

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