This month, the Axiom Mission 3 (Ax-3) crew joined the seven existing astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) from the Expedition 70 mission, comprised of the crews of Crew-7 and Soyuz MS-24 — becoming the first all-European crewed mission to the Station.
This brings a total of 11 astronauts aboard the ISS and a total of 14 people in orbit, including three taikonauts from the Shenzhou 17 mission currently aboard the Chinese Tiangong space station.
The record still technically stands, albeit very briefly, at 17 in orbit — this was set last May when the launch of China’s Shenzhou 16 crew added three more to the existing count of Axiom-2, Expedition 69, and Shenzhou 15 astronauts already in space, only for the Axiom-2 crew to then depart within a day of the Chinese crew’s launch.
Those latter three missions also contributed to a record of 20 people in space at an altitude of over 80 kilometers. This was set that same month when Virgin Galactic Unity 25 very briefly contributed an additional six people for a few minutes. This record was reached again this month when the Virgin Galactic-06 suborbital mission carried its astronauts into space for a few minutes on Jan. 26.
The Ax-3 crew is the third entirely private astronaut mission to visit the orbiting laboratory and is led by Commander Michael Lopez-Alegria (Spain/US), colloquially known amongst his team as MLA. He is visiting the station for the second time, having previously arrived via a Soyuz as part of Expedition 14.
This is the sixth time this veteran astronaut has been in space, whose experience includes three Shuttle missions dating back to his debut mission on STS-73 in 1995. Lopez-Alegria is accompanied by Pilot Walter Villadei (Italy) and Mission Specialists Alper Gezeravci (Turkey) and Marcus Wandt (Sweden) who are all enjoying their first trip over the Karman line. Villadei has previous flight experience aboard Galactic 01 aboard VSS Unity last year.
Crew Dragon Freedom automatically docked to the Harmony module’s forward port on Jan. 19 and the quartet expected to spend about two weeks conducting over 30 science and research experiments in microgravity before they returned to Earth. The crew stayed beyond the original planned undocking date of Feb. 3 due to weather conditions, and subsequently pushed away on Feb. 7 at 9:20 AM EST (14:20 UTC) ahead of a 47 hour ride to then splash down off the coast of Florida.
The Expedition 70 crew were quickly back to work this year after an off-duty day on Jan. 1 and were quickly preparing or conducting their experiments. Naturally, the crew spent some time preparing and checking hardware in the days ahead of the Ax-3 crew’s arrival.
The delay to the launch of Ax-3 gave SpaceX additional time to complete some data analysis of the straps that connect the Dragon’s parachute bag to the parachute door, having noticed that some of the stitches didn’t pull through as expected after Dragon had returned from CRS-29. This has been since improved for Ax-3, and these straps are folded and stitched together in such a way that the stitches will intentionally break, regulating the load applied to the main chutes by allowing the straps to pull at a constant force during the handoff between drogue and main parachutes.
The station performed an orbital reboost to a slightly higher position on Friday, Jan. 12, firing the engines on the Progress MS-24 (identified by NASA as “85P”) for 17 minutes and 30 seconds. This sets up the correct phasing ahead of the Progress 87 resupply mission (also referred to as Progress MS-26), which is set to arrive at the Station on Feb. 15.
The Cygnus cargo spacecraft S.S. Laurel Clark, which departed the station in late December after a four-and-a-half-month stay, finally re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere for a fiery end above the Pacific Ocean this month.
Another Cygnus, the S.S. Patricia “Patty” Hilliard Robertson (NG-20), arrived at the very end of the month bearing more supplies but also many new and exciting experiments for the crew. Astronauts Loral O’Hara and Jasmin Moghbeli had been practicing the process of capturing the cargo craft via the Canadarm2 robotic arm ahead of its arrival in the early morning of Jan. 31.
The Astrobee free-flying robots have been on the move again, this time using a perching arm to grapple station handrails and move about the Kibo laboratory module, rather than via propellant. These ‘Astrobatics’ test hops across the station involved Astrobee Vehicle (AB) 1 performing a self-toss maneuver to send itself away from a handrail in a particular trajectory, and a soft-landing in which it grabbed another rail — all monitored with essential data capture by AB2.
These maneuvering tests will inform future robotic missions and could even feed back to the control algorithms used on terrestrial robots, which face similar mobility challenges while running to those encountered here during hops.
NASA Flight Engineer Loral O’Hara has been configuring a Robotic Arm Repair Satellite experiment that intends to advance the use of robotics in space, focusing on small-scale robots that could, one day, perform surveying and repair of spacecraft.
The latest iteration, called the Robotic Experimental Construction Satellite, is a cubesat with robotic arms that are fitted with claws and cameras. It will be constantly fed by ISS power and communications to allow the focus to remain on the objectives of repeatedly reaching a target object with its end effectors, the passing of an object between them, and the performance of a full 360-degree survey using its onboard cameras.
Mission Specialist Marcus Wandt began to help simulate a long-distance robotic exploration mission in which the robots would be controlled off-planet from a spacecraft. Using a laptop in the Columbus module, Wandt has been testing the orbit-to-ground control of Earth-based robots that may one day be deployed to asteroids or other planets but could also be utilized for under-sea missions.
This Surface Avatar experiment will better understand the considerations or challenges in setting up and supervising a semi-autonomous robot team, including taking over control of one individual to then fully control it as an avatar, when necessary. The experiment includes testing with a high latency or lossy signal to simulate less-than-ideal conditions.
The NG-20 cargo ship will arrive with another surgical robot with two ‘hands’ that will help the team to test the process in microgravity and any communications latency performing remote surgery in space with an operator on the ground.
This little surgeon is going to space! Researchers will evaluate the performance of this surgical robot which can be remotely controlled from Earth.
— ISS Research (@ISS_Research) January 25, 2024
Long-duration mission experiments
A common theme running through a series of experiments being conducted on the ISS is the preparation for longer-duration missions to the Moon and Mars and a number of technologies and procedures that will be needed. These missions will place additional expectations on the life-supporting systems and food supply and could present new considerations, such as medical emergencies or parts needing replacement whilst en route.
NASA Flight Engineer Loral O’Hara harvested three crops of wild-type tomatoes as part of the Plant Habitat-06 experiment. This explores the impacts of spaceflight on plant defense responses, such as their genetic activation and immune functions. This will continue to inform the growth of plants and food production for lengthier missions in the future.
Last week I saw plants for the first time in 4 months. I might have gotten a little teary. We get fresh fruit and veggies via our cargo vehicles and they provide welcome pops of color and scent, but it turns out this does not compare at all to seeing living plants and smelling… pic.twitter.com/AfxHemAUbz
— Loral O'Hara (@lunarloral) January 24, 2024
Flight Engineers Jamin Moghbeli (NASA), Satoshi Furukawa (JAXA), and Commander Andreas Mogensen (ESA) also performed experiments as part of the Plant Water Management 5 experiment. This will advance our understanding of fluid flow and delivery systems that will be needed to provide adequate water and nutrition to these plants grown in space.
Various nutrients in stored foods and supplements have been found to degrade significantly in space, hence this experiment to provide on-demand production of human nutrients through engineered yeast-like microbes. Astronauts have been periodically hydrating, activating, and later freezing a series of prepared storage and growth packets as part of a five-year BioNutrients experiment. The frozen experiments are eventually returned to Earth for analysis, with roughly one onboard experiment conducted per year.
Jasmin Moghbeli has also been demonstrating hardware that can monitor the microbial environment onboard spacecraft, which will become key on lunar and Mars missions where samples need analyzing locally rather than sending them back to Earth for analysis. By extracting DNA from station water samples, this BioMole experiment will analyze microbes in situ, to protect crew health as well as the life support systems.
The Ax-3 crew have also begun conducting their own set of experiments, including a study of how microgravity affects the biochemistry of neurodegenerative diseases. It is known that the microgravity environment can affect nervous system functions, in particular, altering the folding and unfolding of proteins, which could lead to an aggregation of ‘misfolded’ proteins. Astronauts Villadei and Lopez-Alegria conducted these Amyloid Aggregation experiments, which will inform any potential risks to astronauts on longer-duration missions, as well as help to advance monitoring and prevention approaches on Earth.
Additional research and experiments
Mission Specialist Alper Gezeravcı has been conducting a botany experiment that could lead to using CRISPR gene editing to enhance plant stress resistance. This could ultimately help to sustain life support systems where plants could be used for the recycling of oxygen and the purification of water, and there may be benefits to improve crop yields here on Earth too.
To date, seeds exposed to radiation in space, as well as microgravity, have displayed characteristics that make them resistant to drought and certain diseases. The experiment will test how CRISPR approaches are affected by microgravity and the salt stress tolerance of two species of plants.
Pilot Walter Villadei has been using the Kermit microscope to observe cancerous cell cultures in an endeavor to better understand how conditions in low-Earth orbit, such as radiation, affect cancer growth. During their stay, the crew will be exposed to ionizing radiation and changes to their immune system functions, which could put them more at risk for certain cancer types. The goal is to develop models that predict that risk and, in the longer term, to develop countermeasures to mitigate it.
Satoshi Furukawa also explored whether microgravity enabled the manufacture of superior fiber optic cables using a blend of elements called ZBLAN (zirconium, barium, lanthanum, and aluminum sodium fluoride). Theoretical studies suggest fibers created in this environment will exhibit an order of magnitude higher qualities with reduced attenuation.
ZBLAN fibers could potentially transmit signals up to 100 times more efficiently than more typical silica optical fibers, and the market for these low-loss fibers includes ultra-high-speed broadband, supercontinuum light sources, as well as high power and ‘eye-safe’ mid-IR lasers.
The Microgravity Science Glovebox was used for this experiment. This is a floor-to-ceiling rack-based facility that allows similar physical and biological experiments to those that would be carried out in ground-based laboratories, including those involving flames, liquids, or particles. It comes with its own airlock to avoid contamination, and the astronauts can manipulate experiments inside the sealed work volume through glove ports on the front and sides.
Other experiments this month included the testing of an antimicrobial coating in space which may prevent the spread of microbes on spacecraft caused by human touch, and another to better understand how plasma crystals form in microgravity.
Microbes can catch a joyride on cargo and crew traveling to the @Space_Station. Most are harmless, but some microbes may cause diseases and affect spacecraft systems. Crews are testing ways to monitor and catalog microbes on station: https://t.co/b7M9NyASIw pic.twitter.com/GKM7Tk2T8a
— ISS Research (@ISS_Research) January 18, 2024
Plasma makes up over 99% of the visible universe and is commonly seen forming around returning spacecraft on livestreams as they re-enter our atmosphere. These experiments need to be conducted and observed on orbit as they would otherwise be disturbed by the influence of gravity on Earth. The insights from these explorations could lead to better heat shield or vehicle designs as well as improve our understanding of this phenomenon.
The Ax-3 crew also tested the new Smart Flight Suit 2 (SFS2) for both comfort and performance in microgravity, including the inbuilt sensors that can monitor and report biomedical data to integrated devices in real-time as well as store the data locally. This new suit will be tested for a minimum of eight hours and is constructed from over 200 pieces to provide a fireproof yet breathable suit that is intended to be the most comfortable yet. SFS2 is capable of actively maintaining body temperature through cooling in more extreme scenarios such as physical exertion.
Crew health and wellbeing
For some experiments, the astronauts themselves become the test subjects, as part of increasing our understanding of how our bodies respond to various experiences in space. Loral O’Hara donned the Actiwatch which will monitor her sleep-wake patterns through the night. This waterproof wrist-worn device collects data on body movement and ambient light intensity and has been in periodic use since the Shuttle days of STS-120.
Jasmin Moghbeli and Loral O’Hara also wore Bio-Monitor headbands which were packed with sensors to monitor crew health.
With as many as sixteen sunrises and sunsets visible each day, this can affect the crew’s circadian rhythms and Commander Mogensen has been conducting assessments for a new LED lighting system installed in their sleeping quarters.
The experiment hopes to benefit astronauts through gradually changing intensity and color, mimicking the variations experienced on Earth such as bluer and brighter morning light changing to dimmer, redder evening light but also subtler variations that represent more overcast or sunnier days. It’s thought this will help to battle monotony but could, perhaps, even boost their cognitive performance.
Various crew members have undergone routine hearing assessments, supporting an ongoing review of auditory functions in microgravity, while Cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko has been measuring his heart activity in microgravity. This contributes to an ongoing long-term cardiac study capturing data from sensors worn periodically by the astronauts.
The crew has also been using virtual reality headsets to experience and evaluate biking sessions aboard the outpost, as well as for simpler relaxation using 360-degree video and sound scenarios to explore the potential impact on mood and mental health – again with longer duration expeditions in mind.
With Virtual Reality for Mental Hygiene (VRMH) now considered a proven technology, this builds on whether the long-term use of VRMH could have a stabilizing effect on the nervous system and promote both mental and physical health through frequent use.
— Axiom Space (@Axiom_Space) January 20, 2024
Aside from these experiments, there are plenty of less exciting but nonetheless essential maintenance tasks to do, as well as audit and inventory tasks that occupy the crew’s time. These can include visual inspections around the station and measuring acoustic levels via body-worn microphones. There’s also been a focus on checking stowage bags, tethers, helmets, and suits ahead of forthcoming spacewalks.
There’s a lot of housekeeping to do on a station this size, and this month, the crew has cleaned the ventilation system, replaced filters, sensors, and heat exchangers, cleaned the station cameras, and serviced the science freezers and combustion research gear, to name but a few.
The crew has also taken part in various outreach projects, recording short educational ‘STEMonstrations’ and space physics videos for students and teachers. The Ax-3 crew also found time for occasional video check-ins on their progress.
The station continues to inform research, improve life, and inspire the next generation.
(Lead image: The cupola on the ISS. Credit: NASA)