SpaceX will attempt to launch a Dragon cargo spacecraft, carrying a bundle of awesome science experiments, toward the International Space Station Friday.
Packed in the Dragon cargo ship, among supplies for the crew, will be a group of fungi that could help scientists develop new medicines, as well as the latest installment in a series of experiments to grow vegetables in space. The cargo also will include live mice that will be part of an experiment that could help scientists develop drugs to prevent muscle degeneration in astronauts or people on Earth. And stashed in the trunk of the spacecraft will be the first expandable space room that will be occupied by humans in orbit.
Friday's launch will be SpaceX's eighth mission to the station, as part of NASA's Commercial Resupply Mission. BEAMing Up: Photos of the Inflatable Space Room on Dragon]
BEAM me up
Bigelow Aerospace, a pioneer in expandable space habitats, will send the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) to the space station aboard the Dragon spacecraft. This will be the first expandable habitat to be occupied by humans in space, although astronauts will not use the habitat regularly. Rather, Bigelow will use this opportunity to further test and monitor its expandable habitat technology. The company has already flown two expandable habitats in space, and has grand plans for future space habitats.
The fungus among us
There are species of fungi here on Earth that have the capacity to produce molecules known as secondary metabolites, which can be used to make pharmaceutical drugs. Some of those secondary metabolites are produced only under stressful conditions, which is why a group of researchers is flying some species of fungi to space. The stressful trip on a rocket, the weightless environment and high radiation may cause the fungi to produce new secondary metabolites that could serve new medical purposes. You can read more about the experiment here on Space.com.
Veggies in space
Future space travelers who voyage to distant locations like the moon or Mars — places where resupply vehicles from Earth may be few and far between — will likely need a means of producing fresh food. That's why NASA has been investing in the Vegetable Production System experiment, also known as Veggie. In August 2015, astronauts on board the International Space Station became the first humans to eat space-grown produce: red romaine lettuce, grown as part of Veggie.
The newest phase of the Veggie experiment (Veg-03) will attempt to grow Tokyo Bekana cabbage.
Fresh food will provide space travelers with sustenance and nutrition, and (as opposed to the preserved food astronauts typically eat) may boost their mental health. The opportunity to practice gardening is part of the experiment as well, as it can offer the astronauts a "tool for relaxation and recreation," according to the experiment description.
Biology in space
Three interesting biology experiments will fly aboard the Dragon craft. The Microbial Observatory-1, led by Kasthuri Venkateswaran of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, will look at changes in microbial flora on the station over time. There appear to be strong links between the health of a person's microbial flora — the unique population of microbes living on or in a person's body — and his or her overall health. The experiment will aim to gain knowledge that could improve crewmembers' health.
High school student Anna-Sophia Boguraev won a competition to send an experiment to the station, and her winning entry could pave the way for many future experiments. Boguraev's experiment will study the effectiveness of a test called the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) — which can make copies of small segments of DNA to be studied — in a weightless environment. The test could be used to investigate the root cause of the negative effects of spaceflight on the human body — in particular, its effects on the immune system.
Finally, pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and Co. will send 20 live mice to the station to test a novel myostatin inhibitor. Myostatin is a natural regulator of muscle growth, but because muscles degenerate in microgravity, the company would like to try to promote muscle growth by blocking myostatin in the body. Down the road, the results could potentially help people on Earth who suffer from degenerative muscle diseases. Company representatives told Space.com that microgravity is an interesting test environment for this drug because microgravity seems to affect all of the muscles in the body.
Visit Space.com Friday to watch SpaceX launch itsFalcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo ship to the International Space Station. NASA's launch webcast will begin at 3:30 p.m. ET SpaceX is also expected to land its Falcon 9 booster on a drone ship in the ocean as part of a reusable rocket test.