(Highlights: Week of April 3, 2017) – Three crew members prepared for their return to Earth as NASA announced astronaut Peggy Whitson will extend her stay on the International Space Station by three months. The announcement capped a very productive week of science on orbit.
Whitson began growing another crop of Tokyo Bekana Chinese cabbage for the Veg-03 investigation. The crew is already seeing sprouts. Understanding how plants respond to microgravity is an important step for future long-duration space missions, which will require crew members to grow their own food. Astronauts on the station have previously grown lettuce and flowers in the Veggie facility.
Veggie provides lighting and necessary nutrients for plants by using a low-cost growth chamber and planting pillows, which deliver nutrients to the root system. The Veggie pillow concept is a low-maintenance, modular system that requires no additional energy beyond a special light to help the plants grow. It supports a variety of plant species that can be cultivated for fresh food, and even for education experiments.
Crew members have commented that they enjoy space gardening, and investigators believe growing plants could provide a psychological benefit to crew members on long-duration missions, just as gardening is often an enjoyable hobby for people on Earth. Data from this investigation could benefit agricultural practices on Earth by designing systems that use valuable resources such as water more efficiently.
Just as a special light is used to grow these plants, NASA is investigating changing the lighting on the space station to provide a more productive environment for the crew.
Whitson set up and configured light meter hardware for the Testing Solid State Lighting Countermeasures to Improve Circadian Adaptation, Sleep, and Performance During High Fidelity Analog and Flight Studies for the International Space Station (Lighting Effects) investigation. This investigation tests a new lighting design using light-emitting diodes to replace the fragile fluorescent lights currently used on the space station. Whitson took measurements of various light settings in Node 3 and the U.S. Lab to ensure the LEDs provide enough light to be able to complete science experiments while improving her own cognitive performance.
LEDs are adjustable for intensity and color – the blue, white, or yellow sections of the light spectrum. Scientists and doctors want to determine if the new lights can improve crew sleep cycles and alertness during the day. Besides the potential health benefits, these lights also require less energy to run and are lower in mass, making them a prime candidate for use on future spacecraft. Using these same types of lights on Earth, and subtly adjusting their color temperature during the day may help people be more productive, especially those who work a night shift.
Whitson also ran another round of the Universal Docking Port investigation using the Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellites (SPHERES) on the space station.
Whitson worked on guiding two small, bowling-ball-sized satellites into a rendezvous for the SPHERES-UDP investigation. With the ability to dock and undock, SPHERES provide a test bed to address many of the challenges of combining autonomous spacecraft. Mated spacecraft can assemble complex systems in orbit or combine sensors and actuators for satellite servicing and repurposing missions. The SPHERES enable testing of complex tasks through autonomous decision-making processes and real-time image processing. Development of robotic servicing in space can be applied on Earth, such as in missions to an uncharted ocean floor or the construction and repair of seabed pipelines.
Progress was made on other investigations, outreach activities, and facilities this week, including Rodent Research 4, Wet Lab RNA Smartcycler, Multi Omics Mouse, Google Street View, Story Time From Space, EXPRESS Rack, SABL, Programmable Isolation Mount, Cool Flames Investigation, JAXA ELF, Manufacturing Device, Sally Ride EarthKAM, ISS Ham Radio, and Group Combustion.