Inside the Belly of the Beast: What SpaceX’s Dragon Brought to the ISS

 Photo credit: theOrbital.space/Craig Vance Galien

Photo credit: theOrbital.space/Craig Vance Galien

This week started off with a bang as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lit up the night sky of Florida’s space coast Monday morning. At 12:45am ET July 18, the Dragon capsule was launched toward the International Space Station (ISS) for SpaceX’s ninth Cargo Resupply Services (CRS-9) contract fulfillment with NASA.

About eight minutes after liftoff, spectators witnessed the Falcon 9 launch vehicle return to view, as it literally rocketed its way back from space; breaking back into Earth’s atmosphere with two sequential sonic booms that could be heard for nearly 100 miles in every direction. The rocket’s first stage, landing legs deployed, touched down at SpaceX’s Landing Complex 1, just 7 miles from its starting point of Launch Complex 40.

Following a two-day orbital chase of the ISS, Dragon was captured by the station’s Canadarm2 robotic arm, and birthed to the Earth-facing port of the Harmony module Wednesday morning. With it, Dragon brings nearly 5,000 pounds of cargo and science experiments to the orbital laboratory. The ISS currently facilitates more than 280 active science and research investigations, and CRS-9 arrives with support for dozens. Here are some of the highlights: 

Biomolecule Sequencer

 Image courtesy of Oxford Nanopore Technologies

Image courtesy of Oxford Nanopore Technologies

Until now, DNA testing of specimens on the space station required returning samples back to Earth. Aiming to change that, a handheld device from Oxford Nanopore Technologies will now be used to test the ability to sequence DNA in space. Sequencing DNA in microgravity will help researchers better understand how that environment affects an organism. Expedition 48/49 NASA astronaut, and a member of the science team leading the Biomolecule Sequencer study, Kate Rubins will conduct experiments aboard the ISS through the sequencing DNA from a virus, a strain of bacteria, and a mouse. Simultaneously, researchers on the ground at NASA’s Johnson Space Center will sequence strands from the same samples. 

Faster, on-location DNA testing could prove invaluable to astronauts now and in the future. The ability to identify microbes or viruses aboard the station, or any other spacecraft for that matter, will allow for the immediate determination of an appropriate response. In line with the same type of health regulation and management, DNA testing of long-duration crew members will lead to a better understanding of the long-term affects of spaceflight on the human body.

Phase-Change Heat Exchanger

 Image courtesy of NASA

Image courtesy of NASA

One way engineers design spacecraft to better regulate the drastically extreme temperatures of space is through devices known as phase-change material heat exchangers. By freezing and thawing types wax or water, these devices help maintain the critical systems aboard a spacecraft through a process of radiator heat dispersion. A technology present on the lunar apollo lunar lander and Skylab, the Phase Change Heat Exchanger Project introduces a new phase-change materials (PCM) system to be tested for use aboard the Orion spacecraft during its first mission to lunar orbit, furthering NASA’s Journey to Mars.

OsteoOmics

Bone loss is a commonly studied phenomenon in spaceflight research. Prolonged exposure to a microgravity environment leads to serious musculoskeletal deterioration even when counteracted with diet and exercise. On Earth, scientists use a magnetic levitation device to simulate microgravity in order to study this bone loss. Suspended in simulated weightlessness, bone cells are then studied at the molecular level. Sponsored by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the OsteoOmics project will test the accuracy of these Earth-based microgravity simulators by doing the same experiments aboard the ISS, where the microgravity isn’t a simulation. 

Provided the magnetic levitation devices on the ground are, in fact, accurately simulating a weightless environment, the technique could be adapted to study a wide spectrum of biological repercussions due to microgravity. Such a capability would expand research once only possible on the ISS to ground-based facilities; hopefully expediting the progress necessary to counteract the affects of microgravity during a mission to Mars.

Heart Cells

 Living heart cells seen beating under a microscope. Video courtesy of NASA Johnson Space Center

Living heart cells seen beating under a microscope. Video courtesy of NASA Johnson Space Center

Living heart cells. But not regular heart cells. These heart cells were mutated from stem cells. But not regular stem cells. These stem cells were mutated from human skin cells.

Just like bones loss in microgravity, the risk of muscular atrophy in a weightless environment is a real issue scientists need to solve before humans can engage on any sort of regular interplanetary travel. These heart cells will remain on the ISS for one month before returning to Earth for analysis. In addition to ascertaining a better understanding of how microgravity can affect the heart, this experiment also has the potential to further the development of drugs to treat and prevent different types of heart disease.

These represent a small sample of the experiments aboard Dragon. Expedition 48/49 crew members aboard the station will spend the next few weeks unloading over 2.5 tons of cargo and life support equipment from the space capsule. The Dragon also brought the long awaited International Docking Adapter (IDA) to the ISS; paving the way for manned spaceflight’s return to American soil. The IDA introduces a new universal docking standard, which will allow future vessels, such as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, to dock with the space station.

Reloading it with 3,300 pounds return samples, cargo, and garbage, the Dragon capsule will be released from the ISS Monday, August 29, and will splash down in the Pacific Ocean, near Baja CA.