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New Industry, Academic Studies Arrive at Space Station

International Space Station

International Space Station (NASA.gov)

21 Feb. 2022. Several experiments from companies and academic labs arrived today at the International Space Station to test effects of microgravity and other conditions. NASA announced in a statement this morning that astronauts on the ISS retrieved the space craft with the experiments launched on Saturday from the agency’s flight facility at Wallops Island, Virginia.

The space cargo includes two health-related experiments from industry labs. Biotechnology company MicroQuin in Cambridge, Massachusetts is testing effects of weightless conditions on breast and prostate cancer cell development. The tests aim to compare cancer cell growth and maturation to healthy cells in microgravity that better simulates internal conditions in the body. “When you send cells into space, in particular cancer cells,” says MicroQuin president Scott Robinson in an ISS National Lab statement, “the signaling inside the cells changes considerably. These changes occur quite fast, and we don’t really understand exactly what those changes are and what causes them.”

The four year-old company is funding the project with a grant from Technology in Space Prize awarded by Center for the Advancement of Science in Space or Casis that operates the ISS National Lab. MicroQuin is a graduate of the MassChallenge technology incubator that partners with Casis and Boeing Company on the Technology in Space Prize.

Bubbles in microgravity

In another experiment, consumer products giant Colgate-Palmolive is testing effects of microgravity on live skin tissue samples. Astronauts already report evidence of rashes and irritation in space, as well as skin thinning after return to earth. The samples represent human skin tissue frozen at various points in time, to measure molecular and physiological responses to weightlessness as skin ages in space. Upon return of the samples to earth, researchers will conduct genetic and other analyses to identify biomarkers, or molecular indicators, that change in space, compared to similar samples on earth.

A team from University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana is testing microgravity effects on bubbles forming on heated nanoscale structured metals. Because gravity influences formation of bubbles on Earth, weightless conditions are expected to reveal different fluid dynamics affecting surface tension and capillary forces on bubbles formed in space. Thermal bubbles, say the researchers, are useful for studying biomarkers in blood in low concentrations.

Tengfei Luo, aerospace and engineering professor at Notre Dame is leading the project. “When gravity-driven buoyancy is removed,” says Luo in an ISS National Lab statement, “we can more clearly study how the surface tension and capillary forces compete with each other.” Luo adds, “In a laboratory sample, the longer a bubble stays intact and the larger it grows, the more potential biomarkers it can collect.”

NASA says the space cargo includes a number of its own tests and experiments. The agency is testing effects of microgravity on glass optics, with an algorithm-driven module to prepare for glass fiber manufacturing in space. Another module is testing plant growth with hydroponic and aeroponic techniques to remove the need for soil, from seed germination through maturity. In a separate test, a solid-state lithium ion battery is being demonstrated on the ISS, made with inorganic and flame-retardant materials. Conventional lithium-ion batteries are made with liquids that can leak and catch fire.

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