A Closer Look at NASA’s GeneBox Payload

By Keith Cowing
July 30, 2006
Filed under
A Closer Look at NASA’s GeneBox Payload

On 12 July Bigelow Aerospace launched its Genesis 1 spacecraft aboard a Russian Dnepr rocket. The module is the first in a series of progressively larger and more complex, inflatable spacecraft, which Robert Bigelow hopes to use to build his own space station.

This first flight is primarily a proof of concept mission for larger inflatable modules. However, it also carries some interesting scientific hardware, which could serve as the basis for future small free flying satellites – often referred to as smallsats or nanosats.

Named “GeneBox”, this small payload was developed by NASA Ames Research Center to test out new ways to perform in-flight genomic analysis of living systems. Indeed, much of what is being flown aboard this satellite is cutting edge biotech – the likes of which have yet to fly aboard the International Space Station. Future versions will be even more capable.

According to a NASA ARC press release “During this mission, we are verifying this new, small spacecraft’s systems and our procedures,” said John Hines, the GeneBox project manager at NASA Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, where scientists and engineers designed and built GeneBox. “GeneBox is an example of a low-cost spacecraft model that we hope will provide a short turn-around time for scientists, is responsive to their needs and that we feel will contribute to the Vision for Space Exploration.”

NASA developed the GeneBox payload and Bigelow Aerospace integrated and launched GeneBox – at no cost to NASA. ARC estimates that GeneBox cost approximately $1 million to fabricate, test, and prepare for flight. GeneBox is an adaptation of the “GeneSat” free flyer nanosatellite. NASA ARC expects GeneSat to cost approximately $6 million to develop.

GeneBox was funded entirely by NASA. This effort began with the (now disbanded) NASA Office of Biological and Physical Research (OBPR), then by the NASA Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD), and currently with NASA ARC internal R&D funds.

At present, there is no formal agreement involved between NASA and Bigelow Aerospace, other than verbal and email concurrence. However, Bigelow Aerospace and ARC are currently working on a Space Act agreement.

In order to take advantage of Bigelow Aerospace’s offer and to be accommodated within the Genesis 1 spacecraft, the GeneSat free flyer design was reconfigured into what became known as GeneBox. This was accomplished by removing GeneSat’s solar cells and batteries, and adding a GeneBox-to-Genesis power/data interface box.

The entire GeneBox unit weighs 4.6 kg (10 lbs) – 1.4 kg (3 lbs) for a mounting bracket – and 3.2 kg (7 lbs) for GeneBox and its power/data interface box. The unit’s dimensions are roughly 15″ (38 cm) x 4″ (10 cm) x 4″ (10 cm), not including the mounting bracket. (Click on image to enlarge)

Power consumption averages at around 2 watts but can peak at 4 watts if living organisms are aboard. On board control is provided by two PIC 18F6720 processors (data sheet). The GeneBox hardware is mounted via 3 ring clamps around one of the longerons that run the length of the Genesis 1 module. (see internal Genesis 1 images)

GeneBox monitors a number of internal environmental parameters, in addition to its analytical sensors. Data collected will include system times, control set points, status indicators, temperatures, payload pressure, currents, voltages, relative humidity, radiation, vibration, fluorescence, and optical density data, and reference readings from optical system components. The data will be used to demonstrate that the payload’s systems are operating nominally, and that the biology detection optics technology performs as designed by detecting fluorescence and optical density.

Due to the long time (more than six months) between the turn over of flight hardware until the actual flight of Genesis I, ARC elected to use calibration standards (discs) in lieu of living organisms to quantify the performance of optical systems. Future flights will utilize living specimens.

GeneBox is due to be activated soon – two weeks or so after launch – once the primary objectives for Genesis have been completed. GeneBox will be commanded to activate from Bigelow’s mission control center in Las Vegas. Once activated, GeneBox is programmed to run through a series of functions when power is applied. GeneBox will then collect data and store it internally via flash memory. Later, Genesis will query GeneBox for data and forward stored data to mission control.

For this test, ARC decided to go with a very simple command structure – basically for the unit to turn itself on. However, GeneBox, and possible free flying versions (GeneSat) will be capable of performing much more complex functions, including two-way interactions with mission control.

Once the data is captured on the ground, ARC will fetch it from a Bigelow Aerospace server. For this first flight, the primary focus is on the system’s performance during flight when compared with data collected during hardware development and ground testing. GeneBox data is not proprietary and will be posted on a ARC web site for external access as soon as possible. A briefing may be made at the upcoming November 2006 meeting of the American Society for Gravitational and Space Biology (ASGSB).

Bigelow Aerospace has indicated that there may be possible future launch opportunities for GeneBox. ARC is also working with the USAF Rocket Space Launch Program (RSLP) to fly the GeneSat satellite later this year. In addition, ARC plans to continue to seek opportunities to fly as a secondary payload on any vehicle that is heading for space. The plan is to have living specimens aboard all future flights.

This project also served as a chance for students to be involved with actual flight hardware. ARC has had engineering students from Stanford (at one time up to 10 graduate students), Santa Clara University, (25 graduate and undergraduates combined), and California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (4-6 graduate students). In addition, ARC summer interns on staff participated – including a biologist student from the University of San Francisco and an engineer from Northeastern University.

At a time when space life science is being scaled back aboard the International Space Station, small compact devices such as GeneBox and GeneSat offer alternate ways to answer questions regarding life’s responses to microgravity, radiation, and other factors associated with spaceflight.

Being located in the middle of Silicon Valley where much of the world’s cutting edge biotech and computing discoveries are made, NASA ARC is uniquely positioned to advance this technology as it is applied to space exploration. It will be interesting to watch this project develop.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.