Next Shuttle Mission to Boost Space Station Science
The space shuttle Discovery sits poised for an Aug. 25, 2009 launch atop Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida to begin the STS-128 mission to the International Space Station.
Credit: NASA/Troy Cryder

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - When the space shuttle Discovery rockets into orbit this week, it will carry a treasure trove of new science gear to boost research aboard the International Space Station.

Tucked in Discovery?s payload bay is a cargo pod packed with more than 7 tons of supplies and research equipment for astronauts aboard the space station. Some of that gear will help support the station?s six-person crew, but a large chunk is built to jumpstart scientific research aboard the $100 billion orbiting laboratory.

?We really are starting to outfit the research capability of the station,? said NASA?s space station program manager Michael Suffredini said in a recent briefing. Liftoff for Discovery is set for Tuesday at 1:36 a.m. EDT (0536 GMT) from NASA?s Kennedy Space Center here.

The shuttle is hauling a new super-cold freezer and two large experiment racks for materials and fluids research in weightlessness.

?They are essentially a lab bench in space that contains a unified set of equipment for scientific disciplines,? NASA?s space station program scientist Julie Robinson told reporters here in a Sunday briefing.

The new gear on Discovery is essential for the space station as it transitions from an outpost under construction to a fully complete orbiting laboratory over the next year or so, Robinson said. Once the station is complete, astronauts will be able to dedicate more time to fundamental research than to its maintenance or assembly, mission managers have said.

New gear, more science

The new freezer bound for the station can sustain temperatures of minus 80 degrees Celsius (minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit) and will double the outpost?s capacity to store biological samples taken by astronauts. The station already has one such freezer, but its crew sized doubled to six people earlier this year, which meant more samples that need to be preserved.

?This insures that we have the infrastructure on orbit to freeze all the samples that are needed and then bring them home for study on Earth,? Robinson said.

The two new experiment racks are a pair of versatile science stations - each the size of a large refrigerator - called the Fluids Integrated Rack and the Materials Science Research Rack.

The fluids rack is designed to study the physics of fluids in space in experiments that could help develop improved fuel tanks, heat exchangers and water systems for future spacecraft. Researchers at NASA?s Glenn Research Center in Ohio built the rack for the station.

As its name suggests, the materials science rack is built to study the properties of ceramics, metal alloys and other materials in the unique environment in order to find new ways to improve them. It has two small furnaces capable of cooking samples up to 1,371 degrees C (2,500 F) to reveal their chemical and physical properties without the interference of gravity.

?The list is really endless,? said Joe Delai, Discovery?s payload manager. ?Hopefully, we?ll discover new applications for existing material, or even new materials, with this science rack.?

Robinson said that it should take astronauts about two months to fully activate the new science racks once they arrive at the space station.

Discovery will also deliver fresh supplies for the 96 different experiments currently being performed aboard the station, as well as a small drawer of mice who will live in space for three months as part of a bone loss study that takes advantage of the outpost?s microgravity environment.

?It?s an incredibly capable vehicle,? said Mark Uhran, NASA?s deputy associate administrator for the space station, of the orbiting laboratory. ?It?s more capable than any other vehicle we?ve every built before.?

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SPACE.com is providing complete coverage of Discovery's STS-128 mission to the International Space Station with Managing Editor Tariq Malik in Cape Canaveral, Fla., and Staff Writer Clara Moskowitz in New York. Click here for shuttle mission updates and a link to NASA TV.