The next SpaceX mission to the International Space Station will deliver more than 2,000 pounds of science supplies, including a batch of tardigrades, tiny Hawaiian bobtail squid, and tissue chips to help explain why astronauts are more prone to developing kidney stones in space. This will be SpaceX’s 22nd cargo resupply mission to the ISS.
Liftoff of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is expected at 1:29 p.m. ET on Thursday, June 3, from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Dragon capsule, filled with supplies to support expeditions 65 and 66, will arrive at the ISS on Saturday, June 5 at 5:00 a.m. ET. Both the launch and docking of the SpaceX CRS-22 mission can be viewed live at NASA TV.
The total weight of the cargo amounts to 7,337 pounds (3,328 kg). The usual care package for the crew is included, along with a special shipment of fresh foods consisting of gala apples, oranges, tomatoes, onions, lemons, mini peppers, and avocados. Spacewalk equipment, vehicle hardware, and computer resources are also heading over, in addition to several interesting science projects.
Tardigrades of the species Hypsibius exemplaris are among three organisms included in the mission. These remarkably durable microscopic animals can tolerate freezing temperatures, intense radiation, the vacuum of space, and, as recent research shows, impacts in excess of 1,620 miles per hour (728 meters per second). That scientists want to observe tardigrades in low Earth orbit makes sense, as they’re excellent models for studying how biological systems adapt to life in extreme environments.
The purpose of this project, called Cell Science-04, is to study the short-term and multi-generational capabilities of tardigrades to withstand space conditions and to identify the genes responsible for survival in super stressful environments. Thomas Boothby, the principal investigator on the project and a molecular biologist at the University of Wyoming, said he’s hoping to “understand how tardigrades are surviving and reproducing in these environments and whether we can learn anything about the tricks that they are using and adapt them to safeguard astronauts,” as he explained in a NASA press release.
Indeed, findings from this research could provide an improved understanding of the stress factors that affect humans and nonhuman animals in space, and in turn support the development of countermeasures to meet those challenges.
Baby squid, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, baby squid, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, are also making the trek to space. As key members of the UMAMI experiment, the wee squid will demonstrate how beneficial microorganisms fare in space. Humans and other creatures rely on internal microbes to maintain strong immune systems and to assist with healthy digestion, among many other roles, but it’s not entirely clear how minimal gravity environments affect microbiomes. The UMAMI investigation is an effort to explore this very thing.
To that end, baby squid, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, of the species Euprymna scolopes, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, will be studied to determine how their symbiotic relationship with the bacterium Vibrio fischeri might be affected by microgravity. Or as NASA puts it, “to ascertain how microbes colonize and influence the development of the animals” in space. Scientists will study gene expression of squid in both microgravity and normal gravity environments, with and without the presence of the symbiotic bacteria. As NASA points out, insights in this area “could help identify ways to protect and enhance these relationships for better human health and well-being on Earth.”
A third organism, the humble cotton plant, is also going to space this week. The investigation is called Targeting Improved Cotton Through On-orbit Cultivation (TICTOC), and it’s being funded by retail giant Target. The purpose of this is to identify environmental factors and genes that control the growth of roots in minimal gravity environments, which could ultimately result in crops that require less water and pesticides. Principal investigator and botanist Simon Gilroy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison is hoping to uncover “features of root system formation that can be targeted by breeders and scientists to improve characteristics such as drought resistance or nutrient uptake, both key factors in the environmental impacts of modern agriculture,” as he told NASA.
The Kidney Cells-02 investigation could shed new light on why astronauts experience an increased susceptibility to kidney stones during space flights. Using a 3D kidney cell model—basically, a tissue chip—scientists will study microcrystal formation, the accumulation of which leads to kidney stones. This research could lead to new preventive measures or therapies, which would be of use to both astronauts and people living on Earth.
The crew will also test a virtual reality interface, called Pilote, to externally control robotic arms, such as Canadarm2, and spacecraft, like Soyuz. This project, developed by European Space Agency and the Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) “could help optimize the ergonomics of workstations on the space station and future space vehicles for missions to the Moon and Mars,” as NASA stated.
A portable ultrasound device will also be trialed in the microgravity environment of the ISS. Called the Butterfly IQ Ultrasound, the device, or something like it, would come in handy during a health emergency, as it would allow the crew to diagnose a serious medical condition during long duration missions to Mars, for example.
Also on board the Dragon is a batch of new solar panels. The ISS Roll-out Solar Array (iROSA) is made up of compact panels that will increase the energy available for research and other ISS activities. Installation of the first pair of six new arrays are scheduled to begin this summer.
NASA is increasingly relying on its commercial partner SpaceX for its ambitions in space exploration. The Elon Musk-led company recently won a contract to build a lunar landing system for NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to land humans on the Moon in 2024.