After germination in space, seed cassettes will be packaged in EMCS cold stowage bags by the crew aboard the ISS, frozen and returned to earth in a freezer aboard a SpaceX capsule. Image credit: NASA Ames / Eric James
Two bioscience payloads were launched to the International Space Station Friday, March 1, on the second Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) cargo resupply mission contracted by NASA. The experiments, Seedling Growth-1 and the Cell Bio Tech Demo, aim to expand knowledge of how living things respond to the harsh environment of space.
Seedling Growth-1 is the first in a series of joint NASA-European Space Agency (ESA) experiments designed to improve understanding of plant growth in space. The experiment will study how plants adapt to micro- and low-gravity environments. Researchers hope to determine the ability of vegetation to provide a complete, sustainable, dependable and economical means for human life support in space. Understanding plant growth also helps on Earth, supporting the development of strategies to optimize light sensing in plants, and modifying plant species to potentially improve crop production, lessen environmental impact and support greater sustainability of agricultural production to benefit human agriculture.
Designed and built at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., the unique hardware is mounted to ESA-built experiment containers and is completely self-contained, providing air circulation, water and light for the seeds. Once on the space station, the experiment containers will be mounted in a centrifuge in ESA's European Modular Cultivation System (EMCS) to test the effects of micro- and low-gravity environments on the growth of the seeds.
"The Seedling Growth experiments are an exciting opportunity for international collaboration between NASA and ESA to support critical space flight plant experiments to benefit Earth and Space Life Sciences," said Marianne Steele, project manager for Seedling Growth. "The data from the experiments will be shared between both NASA and ESA researchers and our team here at Ames is thrilled to be part of this fantastic adventure."
Plant biology experiments on the space station using the EMCS allow scientists to investigate plant growth and the processes within their cells to understand how plant life responds to conditions in space. The EMCS is a facility in which small organisms can grow in variable gravity conditions using a centrifuge. Other conditions, such as temperature, atmosphere composition, water supply, illumination and imaging, also are controlled in the facility.
The EMCS centrifuge is able to create variable gravity levels from 0.001-2G (twice Earth's gravity). This variability means that the EMCS can help to shed light on understanding how plant growth and development occurs at low gravity levels, such as those found on the moon and Mars.
The research experiment will focus on the flowering plant Arabidopsis thaliana or thale cress, as it is an excellent model for spaceflight experiments because of its small size and simple growth requirements, according to scientists.
The other payload, the Cell Bio Tech Demo, is a precursor to new hardware being developed by NASA scheduled for delivery to the orbiting laboratory in 2014. This new hardware, known as the Bioculture System, will enable long duration cell biology research in space and give scientists a greater understanding of how cells and tissues grow in the absence of gravity.
Before its launch, critical tests and operational checkouts must be completed. The Cell Bio Tech Demo will allow astronauts to test elements of the system, while the final design and development activities are taking place.
The purpose of the Cell Bio Tech Demo is to assess elements of the new Bioculture System aboard the station, demonstrating the technology and ease of operational use in the space environment.
Conducting research on the space station comes with many challenges. Maintaining the sterility of cell culture experiments is much more challenging in space than in ground laboratories. The Cell Bio Tech Demo payload will test newly developed techniques for fluid transfer and sample collection that will directly address this challenge.
Yeast is one of the things that will be grown to ensure that a sterile environment can be maintained. Since the payload will be working with live yeast, the Cell Bio Tech Demo hardware was loaded onto the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft very close to launch. To meet this timeline, members of the Cell Bio Tech Demo team hand carried hardware loaded with the live yeast to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a few days before launch.
"The results of Cell Bio Tech Demo will provide another critical step forward in space station utilization for biology research," said Kevin Sato, project scientist for the new hardware. "It will enable long duration experiments in microgravity to investigate life in space and ultimately understand life on Earth."
The ability to conduct experiments in microgravity helps scientists address questions of how gravity influences life on Earth and how cells and tissues might be affected on long-duration spaceflight missions. Cellular and bacterial microgravity experiments also can help improve understanding of medically relevant processes and point to new targets for the treatment of injuries and diseases on Earth. Likewise, insights into how plants grow and develop at a molecular level may lead to significant developments in agriculture production as well.