Cargo Dragon C208-3 arrives at Station loaded with science experiments

by Chris Gebhardt

SpaceX’s 25th contracted resupply mission for NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) initiative has safely and successfully arrived at the International Space Station (ISS), docking to the forward port on the Harmony/Node-2 module.

The arrival took place 38 and a half hours after liftoff from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and marks the start of approximately one month of joint operations with the station.

Overall, Cargo Dragon C208-3, the “-3” indicating its third flight, carries 2,631 kg of cargo, food, supplies, and experiments for the station’s seven-member crew.

Of the experiments, one in particular from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is the Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation (EMIT).

To be mounted outside the ISS, EMIT will use NASA imaging spectroscopy technology to take measurements of the mineral composition of dust in Earth’s arid regions.

This dust, when taken airborne, can travel around the globe and affect local weather conditions and overall climate, and it can have positive and negative effects on crop and livestock production as well. It can also affect air quality, snow melt, and phytoplankton health in the oceans.

However, scientists do not yet have enough data on how the various kinds of dust from arid regions affect the planet’s changing climate. In fact, there are fewer than 5,000 sampling sites available, and most of those are in farming areas.

This leaves the major dust-producing regions undersampled due to their sparsely populated and unused nature. Therefore, assumptions in dust composition are currently used in climate change models.

EMIT will now undertake a one-year survey of these undersampled regions from its mount outside the ISS. This data will allow scientists to create maps of the mineral composition in the regions on Earth that produce dust.

EMIT works when sunlight is reflected from Earth into its spectrometer. EMIT breaks the light into hundreds of distinct colors and records it on a grid of light detectors that has 1,280 columns each with 480 elements. Every column is effectively its own spectrometer. 

EMIT will be able to scan areas of the surface in 80 km-wide strips and will produce more than one billion measurements over its one-year deployment. 

Inside the Cargo Dragon, one of the biomedical experiments pertains to a way the immune system changes in response to spaceflight — changes that usually occur only with aging on Earth through a process called immunosenescence.

This experiment from the International Space Station U.S. National Lab will examine the effects of microgravity on cells involved in tissue regeneration and whether the cells recover after the flight.

The results of this experiment could provide clues on whether the effects of the biological aging process can be reversed — something that would benefit future space travelers as well as those on Earth.

Staying in the biomedical realm, the Dynamics of Microbiomes in Space experiment will examine the effects of space travel on the metabolic processes of communities of soil microbes.  

The organisms are a key element in soil health and crop growth. Among other things, soil microbes are responsible for carbon and nutrient cycling.

A control for this experiment will be undertaken at the Kennedy Space Center while the one on-orbit takes place. 

Scientists believe that the altered atmospheric gas composition, microgravity, and increased radiation environment of the station change the microbial community population dynamics and the metabolic interactions between specific microbial community members.

Preflight image of a rack of tubes containing different cultures of bacteria to be added to sterile soil for the Dynamics of the Microbiome in Space investigation. (Credit: NASA)

In-space results from this experiment could lead to changes in the design of life-support systems that might use the natural processes carried out by soil microorganisms while Earth-bound applications include optimizations of these microbe communities to support agricultural efforts.

Stepping away from biomedical, the Biopolymer Research for In-Situ Capabilities will help fill a needed research gap in construction materials that will be needed for off-world habitat construction.  

Specifically, the experiment will look at “cement made from biopolymer soil composite,” a potential way to create building materials with in-situ resources and stop the need to take the materials along at launch.

Specifically, the experiment will test the construction of bricks composed of bovine serum albumin. This is an organic compound that, according to the investigation summary from NASA, “forms protein bridges between grains of silica upon being hydrated and dehydrated.”

In addition to space-based applications, this potential new method of concrete production could help reduce the global carbon emissions created as a byproduct of concrete production. Overall, concrete represents 8% of carbon emissions, according to NASA research.

Lastly, the BeaverCube experiment being carried aboard the Cargo Dragon is a 3U CubeSat that employs cameras to monitor temperatures at cloud tops and on the ocean’s surface.

Three modules of flight hardware for the Biopolymer Research for In-Situ Capabilities investigation. (Credit: NASA)

Data from the experiment will provide a better understanding of the concentration of phytoplankton and their overall connection to atmospheric oxygen generation, which in turn affects climate and weather systems.

BeaveCube will also demonstrate “the first in-flight test of the Tiled Ionic Liquid Electrospray (TILE) 2 electrospray thruster technology for satellite propulsion.” This engine is small, just like CubeSats, and carries a high specific impulse.

After unloading all of the science and supplies, crews will then repack the Cargo Dragon C208-3 before the craft undocks and returns to Earth in August for a splashdown off the coast of Florida.

Cargo Dragon, the only capsule currently capable of returning a large amount of cargo from the Station, will return with time-sensitive science investigation results as well as other experiments that weren’t time sensitive that have been waiting on a ride back to Earth.

(Lead image: A Cargo Dragon approaches the ISS for docking. Credit: NASA)

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