Private SpaceX Capsule Brings Big Science to Space Station

NanoRacks Plate Reader
The NanoRacks Plate Reader, shown here, will enable in orbit analysis of research samples for certain studies aboard the International Space Station. (Image credit: NASA)

The International Space Station is now home to more than 1,200 pounds (544 kilograms) of supplies delivered by an unmanned, privately built space capsule that reached the orbiting science laboratory on Sunday (March 3).

Among the goods SpaceX's Dragon capsule transported to the station were science experiments primed and ready for the six international residents of the space station.

"Dragon is scheduled to return to Earth on March 25, bringing home nearly double the amount of supplies it brought up, about 2,668 pounds (1,210 kilograms)," NASA officials said in a statement. "Returning investigation samples will demonstrate how life in microgravity affects the growth of plant seedlings, changes to the human body, the behavior of semiconductors and detergents, and more."

The capsule will begin its scheduled three-week-long stay at the orbiting space station. Image released March 3, 2013. (Image credit: NASA)

Some of the experiments will only stay on board for three weeks, making a round trip back to Earth with Dragon when the capsule detaches from the station. One of those experiments involves thale cress, a plant used in many experiments because of its small, relatively easy-to-map genome.

Scientists affiliated with NASA and the European Space Agency sent up one experiment called "Seedling Growth-1," designed to investigate how well plants grow amid stresses such as low oxygen. [See video of SpaceX's Dragon docking in orbit]

"The experiment will study how plants adapt to micro- and low-gravity environments," NASA officials wrote in a statement. "Researchers hope to determine the ability of vegetation to provide a complete, sustainable, dependable and economical means for human life-support in space."

The Experiment Container with Plant Seedling Seed Cassettes (seedlings, inset lower right) is an example of the samples returning aboard the SpaceX Dragon vehicle for ground analysis. (Image credit: NASA)

Beyond helping scientists learn how to grow food in space, the research might contribute to better agricultural practices back on Earth. Understanding how these plants react to a stressful environment could lend insight into how farmers could mitigate those taxing situations back on the planet's surface.

Some of the experiments sent to the International Space Station will play a role in education, as well.

"Students from several California schools developed investigations to study bacteria, iron corrosion, battery performance and carbon dioxide levels aboard the station, all of which will be delivered by Dragon," NASA officials wrote in a statement.

Personal product manufacturer Procter & Gamble sent up another experiment that will study how to better preserve toothpaste, gels and creams.

"Particle additives can make a product last longer by maintaining its consistency, but they sink and clump together after a certain amount of time, which can spoil a product," NASA officials said. "It's difficult to study these dynamics on Earth because gravity gets in the way, making the space station an ideal research platform for these important industrial processes."

Although Dragon's launch went flawlessly, once the capsule parted from the Falcon 9 rocket used to boost it into orbit, one glitch became apparent. A thruster problem delayed Dragon's approach to the space station by a day. The spacecraft is expected to return to Earth with experiment results and other gear on March 25.

Dragon also brought a few treats for the astronauts, with bananas and apples among the first items unloaded to the space station.

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Miriam Kramer
Staff Writer

Miriam Kramer joined as a Staff Writer in December 2012. Since then, she has floated in weightlessness on a zero-gravity flight, felt the pull of 4-Gs in a trainer aircraft and watched rockets soar into space from Florida and Virginia. She also served as's lead space entertainment reporter, and enjoys all aspects of space news, astronomy and commercial spaceflight.  Miriam has also presented space stories during live interviews with Fox News and other TV and radio outlets. She originally hails from Knoxville, Tennessee where she and her family would take trips to dark spots on the outskirts of town to watch meteor showers every year. She loves to travel and one day hopes to see the northern lights in person. Miriam is currently a space reporter with Axios, writing the Axios Space newsletter. You can follow Miriam on Twitter.