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On April 18th, Orbital ATK’s 7th ISS cargo resupply mission successfully launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida carrying more than 7,600 pounds of experiments and crew member supplies. Orbital ATK’s Cygnus capsule, renamed the S.S. John Glenn in memory of the pioneering astronaut, was stocked with dozens of ISS National Lab sponsored investigations, all seeking to utilize the unique space environment to benefit life back on Earth. Payloads included physical sciences and genetics investigations, student experiments, Earth observation projects, and radiation studies—a few of which are highlighted below.
Antibody Drug Conjugates (ADCs) in Microgravity
Startup company Oncolinx Pharmaceuticals, LLC is using the microgravity environment of the ISS to test the efficacy and metabolism of new cancer fighting drugs in 3D cell cultures. Azonafides are drugs that inhibit tumor growth. In combination with ADCs, therapeutics that target tumors through receptors on the surface of cancer cells, cancer therapies are more effective against cancer cells and less toxic to healthy cells. Oncolinx has been given exclusive access by the National Cancer Institute to investigate and commercialize Azonafide ADCs, along with funding for related ground studies. Compared with cell cultures in a dish on Earth, cell cultures in microgravity serve as better tumor models due to specific responses to the space environment. Improved models allow researchers to better test the performance of therapeutics, which could accelerate the timeline for bringing a drug to market. This investigation originated through a joint CASIS–Boeing “Technology in Space” prize associated with the MassChallenge Accelerator program (the largest-ever startup accelerator and the first to support high-impact, early-stage entrepreneurs without taking any equity).
Crystal Growth of Cs2LiYCl6:CE Scintillators in Microgravity
Radiation Monitoring Devices, Inc. will use the ISS as a platform to conduct a series of experiments to grow scintillator crystals. Scintillators excite when exposed to certain types of radiation and can be used in detectors for safety monitoring or homeland security applications. The reduced fluid motion in microgravity could lead to the growth of scintillator crystals with higher purity and quality. This investigation leverages an updated facility onboard the ISS that acts as a furnace in microgravity, the Solidification Using a Baffle in Sealed Ampoules (SUBSA) hardware platform.
Magnetic 3D Cell Culture for Biological Research in Microgravity
Nano3D Biosciences, Inc. will lay the foundation for flight experiments to explore the use of magnetic nanoparticles and magnetic fields to aid in the 3D culture of cells on the ISS. A growing demand exists for cell culture models that better capture the characteristics of living tissue. In microgravity, cell cultures naturally grow in three dimensions, resulting in models that better recapitulate cell growth in living organisms. This investigation seeks to incorporate magnetic cell culture technology into existing flight hardware and optimize platform operation to support continued 3D cell growth experiments on the ISS. As part of this ISS National Lab project, Nano3D Biosciences has also advanced its magnetic 3D bioprinting technology, which is currently commercially available, enabling researchers on the ground to mimic microgravity properties and discover new insights in drug development within biologically relevant cell culture systems on Earth.
Genes in Space-2
In this student investigation, high school student Julian Rubinfien seeks to determine whether DNA from telomeres (protective caps on the tips of chromosomes) can be amplified in space to create an assay capable of measuring telomere length during spaceflight. Understanding how the regulation of telomere length changes during spaceflight and the role that it may play in disease and aging is important for future space missions and for use of the spaceflight environment to model terrestrial disease states. This project resulted from the Genes in SpaceTM program, an annual competition in which students compete to send their DNA experiment to the ISS. The Genes in SpaceTM program is supported by a partnership between the Boeing Company, CASIS, miniPCR, Math for America, and New England Biolabs.
Each of these space-based investigations will lead to discovery and innovation that advances an area of research and technology development of critical importance and direct relevance to humans on Earth. Were it not for the unique microgravity environment on the ISS National Lab, these experiments would not be possible.
Collaborative partnerships are key to enabling the growth of research, development, and commercialization opportunities on the ISS National Lab and setting the stage for a sustainable economy in low Earth orbit. Combining funding from multiple sources optimizes resources and enables space research projects that would not otherwise be possible. Recently, CASIS and the University of Florida Office of Research contributed $250,000 in matching funds to enable the Joint UF/CASIS International Space Station Research Initiative. Through a mutual selection process, awards were made to three new-to-space UF investigators in December 2016, and the projects are scheduled to launch to the ISS National Lab in 2017/2018.
One of the awarded projects, led by principal investigator Mark Settles, aims to perform genomic analyses of algae grown onboard the ISS, with the long-term goal of domesticating and engineering algae for optimal production of biomass feedstocks. Based on work in terrestrial plants, microgravity may be perceived as an abiotic stress. Because abiotic stresses can signal the production of high-value compounds in algae, the investigators hope to explore whether spaceflight induces the synthesis of novel high-value compounds.
The second awarded project, led by principal investigator Josephine Allen, is motivated by astronaut data showing a link between spaceflight and risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Because dysfunctional vascular cells are an underlying contributing factor in CVD, it is important to study these cells under altered growth conditions. Allen hopes to better understand CVD on Earth by elucidating the mechanisms of vascular cell damage during spaceflight through transcriptomics. This project explores new lines of investigation into the molecular mechanisms of vascular cell damage that may in turn lead to novel treatment options.
The third awarded project, led by principal investigator Kirk Ziegler, will use the microgravity environment on the ISS to observe electrodeposition, a process by which an electric current is used to form thin metal features on conductive surfaces like electrodes. As consumer electronics become smaller and more densely packed, components such as heat exchangers and sensors must also shrink in scale. Controlling the patterning of these components is critical at the micro-, macro-, and nanoscale to achieve the precise structures needed for component functionality. On Earth, measuring the forces involved in this process is challenging because of the confounding effects of gravity— but microgravity allows better visualization of the electrodeposition process. Success of this experiment would result in lower cost of production and increased performance of consumer electronics, enabling continued improvement in the overall performance of everyday devices.
Research through academic partnerships like the Joint UF/CASIS ISS Research Initiative combines resources of various institutions, creating the funding stream necessary for spaceflight endeavors. “The Joint UF/CASIS Research Initiative has been an exciting implementation partnership, and we look forward to the project results, which will build knowledge and future recognition for UF research programs,” said Dr. Sobha Jaishankar, UF Office of Research. CASIS seeks other similar partnerships to leverage its funding, thereby expanding the usefulness of low Earth orbit and the ISS National Lab to new users.
What could be cooler than studying quantum gases in microgravity? It turns out, practically nothing! Scientists and engineers from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory are using laser cooling technology to literally create the coldest place in the universe—and it will happen onboard the ISS.
The Cold Atom Laboratory, or CAL, is a multiuser facility to study degenerate gases and other quantum phenomena in the ISS environment—the first space-based facility of its kind. Like the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) launched to the ISS in 2011 and discussed in the February 2017 issue of Upward, the CAL should help scientists unlock secrets about the physical universe, including gravity, dark matter, and dark energy, that are extremely difficult (or even impossible) to study on Earth. The CAL is currently expected to launch to the ISS within the coming year.
Within the CAL facility, which is coincidentally about the size of an ice box, lasers excite atoms which emit photons (and heat) and cool the contents of the CAL. A series of other steps, including a “knife” of radio waves that removes any leftover heated atoms, then further cools and condenses the matter into what scientists believe will be the coldest spot in the universe—just a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. Under these conditions, the atoms become a superfluid or a quantumly-condensed gas—or in physical terms, a collection of free, non-interacting particles with pressure and other physical characteristics determined by quantum mechanical effect.
In this coldest of places, particles within the CAL will become a form of superfluid known as the Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC), a state of matter first observed by scientists in 1995. In this physical state, particles of matter behave more like waves than particles. Moreover, this extreme cold will allow the newly formed superfluids to be observable for as long as 10 seconds—a feat never before achieved, or perhaps even possible, on Earth. This may allow scientists to observe if the predicted behaviors of these superfluids actually occur—and perhaps even lend investigative technologies to larger concepts involving dark energy and the nature of gravity itself.
In addition to studying BECs, other experiments possible using the CAL may enable breakthroughs in General Relativistic investigations and other designer’s quantum phenomena. This study of ultra-cold quantum gases in microgravity is also well aligned with U.S. goals for spaceflight research. A 2011 report from the U.S. National Research Council, “Recapturing a Future for Space Exploration: Life and Physical Sciences Research for a New Era,” recommended that fundamental physics, and in particular the study of quantum gases and “the fundamental forces and symmetries of nature,” should be a high priority area for R&D onboard the ISS.
While the CAL is not an ISS National Lab facility, it complements many of the ongoing efforts to make accessible the unique environment of space to advance scientific knowledge, enable fundamental discovery, and improve human understanding of the world, and the universe, around us. The first science teams to use CAL will include thought leaders in the physical sciences and three Nobel Prize winners—and the validation of this technology will serve as a pathfinder for future spaceflight initiatives to study exotic particles and other fundamental physical concepts that elude traditional ground experimentation. For more information, visit coldatomlab.jpl.nasa.gov, and watch for additional updates once the facility is in orbit.
Right now, space tomatoes are growing in thousands of classrooms across North America. Through the award-winning Tomatosphere program, K-12 students cultivate and study seeds that were exposed to spaceflight conditions onboard the ISS National Lab. The program provides the space-flown seeds for free, along with educational resources that engage students in authentic experiments and extension activities.
A major strength of Tomatosphere is its hands-on, project-based design, said Karen Lindsey, a teacher at Lake Orienta Elementary School in Florida, who has participated in the Tomatosphere project since it began. “I love authentic learning, and the science content is directly tied into many of the standards I currently teach,” Lindsey said. “I also love how much the students collaborate while witnessing the growth of the seeds— I’ve been teaching for 35 years, and Tomatosphere is by far my favorite project!”
Like a healthy plant, the Tomatosphere program is growing in size and complexity as it matures. The program is now entering its second phase, using new instruments to add quantitative detail to students’ investigations.
Planting the Seeds of the Tomatosphere Program
Tomatosphere started as a Canadian Space Agency (CSA) project with the goal of getting Canada’s students excited about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). In December 2000, Tomatosphere principal investigators Robert Thirsk, retired CSA astronaut, and Michael Dixon, professor at the University of Guelph, Ontario, sent their first batch of Heinz 9478 F1 hybrid tomato seeds into space. A bag of 200,000 seeds accompanied CSA astronaut Marc Garneau on the STS-97 mission of Space Shuttle Endeavor. The investigators worked with collaborators to create curricular support materials that were distributed to schools with the seeds. Over the last 16 years, the project has been renewed several times under various co-investigators to fly more seeds and build more curricula.
As the program expanded in Canada, Tomatosphere caught the attention of teachers in the United States. Program leaders tried to accommodate the surge of requests from American classrooms, but the CSA struggled to manage large-scale distribution of seeds outside of Canada. To reach more schools, the program took the same approach as a plant reaching for more light—it grew new branches.
In 2016, Tomatosphere split into a Canada-based program operated by the nonprofit Let’s Talk Science and a U.S.-based program operated by the First the Seed Foundation, a STEM education initiative of the American Seed Trade Association. CASIS supports the Tomatosphere program by transporting seeds to and from the ISS National Lab and encouraging educators and students to participate in the program.
Tomatosphere is a good fit for the First the Seed Foundation, whose primary goal is “to give students an understanding about where their food comes from and get them excited about agriculture,” according to Ann Jorss, the foundation’s secretary and treasurer. To become smart consumers and stewards of natural resources, young people must practice asking fundamental questions about the foods and products they use every day.
Tomatosphere’s newly branched structure opens the program up to classrooms throughout America, as well as homeschool groups, afterschool programs, clubs, summer camps, Scout troops, and other groups of learners. As a result, Tomatosphere’s growth rate is accelerating. Compared with its first year, in which the program reached 2,700 classrooms, the Tomatosphere program has reached more than 20,000 classrooms so far in 2017—more than 500,000 students—and plenty of seeds are still available. About one-third of this year’s participants are in the U.S., and that proportion is expected to rise.
Engaging Students in a Real Space Experiment
After registering on the First the Seed Foundation’s website, a participating classroom receives an envelope in the mail with two packets of 30–35 seeds each. One set of seeds was flown in space onboard the ISS and the other was not.
The seed packets are labeled only with letters such as K and L, not descriptive labels like “space” and “ground,” allowing students to learn the importance of a blind experiment for minimizing observational bias. If the students knew the identity of the space-flown seeds in advance, they might over-interpret their observations, expecting to see something special. Concealing the seeds’ origins also adds a fun sense of suspense. Students are not just conducting an experiment; they are solving a mystery.
The main experiment in the Tomatosphere program focuses on germination. Students follow a simple protocol to plant the seeds and track the seedlings that appear over the next few weeks. They can also observe the plants’ growth rates and physical characteristics and use these clues to hypothesize about which seeds flew onboard the ISS. The students find out which packet contained the space-flown seeds when the class reports its results to the Tomatosphere program through an online form. The germination data are then made available to scientists studying plants in space, so the students are contributing to real research.
The experiment and its accompanying resources provide natural entry points into lessons about plant biology, human health, and space exploration. The program also touches on the fundamentals of science. “It is a perfect project for teaching about the scientific method,” said Lindsey, who works with students in grades 3–5.
Branching Into Interdisciplinary Instruction
Teachers can also broaden the range of curricular connections to include social studies. After finishing the main germination experiment, many students continue caring for their Tomatosphere plants until they bear fruit. Instead of merely eating or cooking with their tomatoes, some students have sold their produce at local farmer’s markets and used the money to support school programs. The steps necessary for selling the tomatoes—calculating costs, anticipating demand, deciding how much to charge for the product— are real-world applications of important concepts in economics.
Another group of students had the idea of donating their produce to a local food pantry. With this simple act, DeVall noticed a remarkable increase in the students’ civic awareness and engagement.
Julie Petcu, an enrichment teacher at St. Matthew School in Tennessee, challenges herself to keep the program fresh and fun year after year. For her 13th round of Tomatosphere experiments this fall, she plans to strengthen the link with her plant biology curriculum by having her students compare their tomato seedlings with other plant species. She also plans to intensify her emphasis on nutrition. Petcu is especially excited to incorporate more topics outside of STEM. “As I’ve matured as an educator, what I enjoy most is showing students how all of their educational disciplines are connected,” she said.
Petcu’s cross-disciplinary thinking aligns well with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) that are currently being adopted by many districts across the nation. The NGSS were developed collaboratively in 2011–2013 by nongovernmental educational organizations including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Science Teachers Association, and the National Academies of Science.
Like older science standards, the NGSS Framework recommends topics to cover at specific grade levels. Unlike the older standards, the NGSS provides continuity by grouping those topics into themes that span multiple grade levels. The themes, called Disciplinary Core Ideas, form one of three dimensions of science learning. The other two dimensions are Crosscutting Concepts and Science and Engineering Practices.
This three-dimensional approach is the game-changer that distinguishes the NGSS from other science standards. It pushes science education toward a more interdisciplinary model—for which Tomatosphere is well suited. Future phases of Tomatosphere are planned to more explicitly map the program’s curricula to the NGSS, providing teachers with a novel vehicle for reinforcing the standards.
Taking the Tomatosphere Program to New Levels
A new phase of Tomatosphere is just beginning and will provide an even more enriched learning experience for students. Tomatosphere seed distributor Stokes Seeds prepared bags of the usual Heinz 9478 F1 tomato seeds for flight to the ISS on SpaceX-11, which launched in early June. However, this time, the bags also contain HOBO data loggers. These compact instruments, manufactured by Onset Computer Corporation, measure and record temperature, relative humidity, and pressure.
The data loggers will continuously monitor the seeds’ environmental conditions for the entire three-month round trip—including transport to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, launch to the ISS on SpaceX-11, time spent onboard the ISS National Lab, reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, and transport from the splashdown site back to Stokes Seeds. The sensors are fully automated and do not require any involvement from ISS crew members. Identical data loggers will monitor the control group of seeds on Earth over the same period.
Starting in spring of 2018, registered classrooms will have access to the data along with their packets of tomato seeds. The new challenge of analyzing quantitative data—likely the largest datasets the students have yet encountered—will support meaningful learning in math and computer science. New curricular support materials will help educators and students process, visualize, and interpret the data.
The data from this second phase of the program may also help explain why Tomatosphere’s germination results vary so widely from year to year. Participants generally assume that the storage environment of the seeds on the ISS is similar to that of the control seeds on Earth, with microgravity being the only major exception. But it is possible that the space-flown seeds experience other deviations from Earth-like conditions during their journey. If the new Tomatosphere data reveal such differences, the results could have implications for other ISS experiments.
Following the exciting developments of this second phase, future phases of Tomatosphere seek to expand beyond the passive flight of seeds and into active research projects onboard the ISS National Lab. The Tomatosphere investigators envision germinating tomato seeds in the Vegetable Production System, also known as Veggie, on the ISS, freezing the seedlings for transport back to Earth, and performing postflight measurements of gene expression and protein production. Tomatosphere students at the high school level would then shift from making visual observations of plant growth to analyzing omics data from the postflight analysis.
Learn more at www.tomatosphere.org
While NASA is often associated with deep space exploration and reaching for the stars, NASA and CASIS also share a common vision of reaching upward to space to benefit life down on Earth. Both support the ISS as an unparalleled platform for innovation and research that enables discoveries that cannot be realized on the ground. Two recently co-sponsored projects highlight this common goal.
By coming together in partnership, CASIS and NASA’s Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Application Division (SLPSRA) recently joined forces to bring two projects to the ISS National Lab that otherwise may not have made it to orbit. Specifically, CASIS provided crew time that SLPSRA needed to conduct two fundamental-discovery protein crystal growth investigations sponsored by NASA.
Experiments that receive support from CASIS must benefit life on Earth, so the projects chosen for this co-sponsorship were carefully selected to fit the mission criteria of both NASA’s SLPSRA and CASIS. The two investigations, which were launched to the ISS aboard the Falcon 9 spacecraft on SpaceX CRS- 10 in February, are studying important aspects of protein crystal growth in space.
One of the projects will test widely accepted theories of why protein crystals grown in space are often higher quality than those grown on Earth. Similarly, the other project seeks to understand why only certain proteins benefit from crystallization in microgravity. Higher-quality crystals allow researchers to better image and identify structural details of the proteins, which helps scientists better understand protein-drug interactions.
Thus, microgravity-based crystallization studies may help to inform and improve drug development.
By observing the fundamental physical dynamics of how crystals grow in space, the co-sponsored projects will look for indicators that predict which proteins might benefit most from space-based crystallization. CASIS is working toward development of a sustainable program for crystallizing macromolecules, including proteins, in microgravity. These co-sponsored projects aim to fine-tune the selection of proteins and environmental conditions to maximize efficiency of such research on the ISS—to the benefit of NASA, the ISS National Lab, and diverse user communities.
“This partnership demonstrates the ability of the ISS National Lab and NASA to work together with researchers to continually improve the quality and quantity of science returned to Earth,” said Michael Roberts, CASIS deputy chief scientist. “The partnership will continue to optimize research capabilities in low Earth orbit and enable new collaborative projects.”