Axiom Space's 3rd private mission will conduct pioneering microgravity experiments on ISS

uncrewed SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft is the first Commercial Crew vehicle to visit the International Space Station. Here it is pictured with its nose cone open revealing its docking mechanism while approaching the station's Harmony module.
SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft. (Image credit: NASA)

Axiom Space and its partners, including the European Space Agency (ESA), have revealed some of the pioneering scientific investigations that will be conducted during its Axiom-3 mission.

Set to blast off in January 2024 atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, the crew of Axiom-3 —  which includes Commander Michael López-Alegría, Pilot Walter Villadei, and Mission Specialists Alper Gezeravci and Marcus Wandt — will journey to the International Space Station (ISS) in the Dragon spacecraft.

Once there, the Axiom-3 team will spend 14 days docked at the ISS, using the microgravity conditions of low-Earth orbit to conduct experiments and technology demonstrations across a range of scientific disciplines, including human health, medicine, cell biology, materials and even gastronomy. 

One of the main focuses of this research  will be the facilitation of longer-lasting human space missions and even habitability in space

Related: Axiom Space's 3rd private astronaut crew ready for ISS mission in 2024

How is Axiom-3 advancing materials, robotics and Artificial Intelligence 

Axiom-3 will see further research into robotic assets that could be used for space exploration and eventually for building infrastructure on planets and asteroids via the ESA's Multi-Avatar and Robots Collaborating with Intuitive Interface (Surface Avatar) project.

The applications of this experiment won't have to wait until we start constructing infrastructure on the moon or Mars, though, as it's results can benefit science  on Earth too, such as in arctic exploration, search and rescue techniques in disaster zones and under-sea maintenance. 

When it comes to microgravity construction mechanisms, future space missions won't just need builders, but also require revolutionary building materials. The Innovative Research on Novel Space Alloys (UYNA) mission aims to test novel medium entropy and high entropy alloys, characterized by their high strength, toughness and resistance to corrosion. These alloys, scientists say, can be used in building infrastructure in space as well as on Earth in the aviation, automotive, energy and medical industries.

The Italian Space Operations Centre (ISOC) services for the ISS experiment conducted during the two-week ISS mission focus on space safety via the development of catalogs and algorithms capable of improving real-time space awareness. ISOC will use systems already in place at the ISS to process the data needed to help the space station avoid collision with objects in its low-Earth orbit vicinity.

Turkey's Vokalkord experiment on Axiom-3 will continue the development of an artificial intelligence system capable of detecting over 70 types of disease by analyzing audio of speaking and coughing sounds. Testing this system in microgravity will allow the validation of Vokalkord as a system that could be used to monitor the health of astronauts remotely.

"Our astronaut [Alper Gezeravci] will not be just taking experiments to space, but the hopes and dreams of our entire nation," TÜBİTAK Space Technologies Research Institute project manager, Ömer Atas, said during the press conference explaining the importance of this mission.

Human health in space 

The Axiom-3 crew pictured ahead of their voyage to the ISS where they will conduct important science experiments. (Image credit: Axiom Space)

One of the key themes of Axion-3's predecessor missions, the commercial projects Axiom-1 and Axiom-2, has been to advance our understanding of human health in space. With Ax-3, this is set to continue.

Among the projects that will push the boundaries of this investigation are experiments led by the Italian Air Force (ItAF) and the Italian Space Agency (ASI), such as one that'll look at vascular health and reactivity of astronauts before, during and after spaceflight. 

This experiment will take readings of the Axiom-3 crew, then the  results will be compared to measurements from non-orbital flight personnel in order to better understand how the vascular system  —  made up of the vessels that carry blood  —  changes during space missions. This is knowledge that will undoubtedly benefit future long-duration human spaceflight missions, whenever they start to happen.

Another Italian-led health project that will be conducted during the Axiom-3 mission will be the study of amyloid beta (Aβ) proteins, which disrupt the normal folding of proteins and are related to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's. The scientists behind this mission aim to see how microgravity may disrupt the normal folding and unfolding of proteins in the body; such deviations can lead to the formation and aggregation of misfolded proteins. This could help identify if astronauts on long-term space missions are more at risk of neurodegeneration.

The ESA will be studying  bone density loss as the result of long stays in space and look for traces of gases that astronauts are exposed to during missions on the ISS. These gases would likely be present during other future space missions.

It won’t just be physical health that the Axiom-3 mission collects important data about, however.An ESA experiment conducted during the crew’s two-year stay on the ISS will investigate the impact of architectural settings on astronauts' psychologies, including their cognitive performance levels, stress levels, and stress recovery rates. The experiment will determine if these factors are different in isolated space environments compared to isolated environments here on Earth.

"ESA is really excited about this mission, and for us, the collaboration with Axiom Space is really a great opportunity to broaden our access to space and especially to the ISS with which we already have a lot of heritage," ESA’s ISS Utilization Planning and Integration Team Leader Julia Weis said. "So this is a good example of how the ISS can be used as a testbed for future space exploration activities." 

Bringing human health advances down to Earth 

The science conducted during the Axiom-3 mission will  have several important applications in human health here on Earth, including for the treatment of cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. 

"The ongoing Cancer in Leo project from the Sanford Stem Cell Institute is studying tumor organoids in microgravity with the aim of identifying early warning signs of cancer for prediction and prevention of this disease and accelerating opportunities for the development of new cancer therapies for patients here on Earth," explained Jana Stoudemire, Axiom Space Director of In-Space Manufacturing. 

Stoudemire also explained the Axiom-3 mission will continue the work of the Cosmic Brain Organoids project associated with the National Stem Cell Foundation. This project studies small 3D aggregates of neural cells that can be used to track the development of the human nervous system and its degeneration, called "brain organoids." 

Brain organoids studied as part of the Axiom-3 mission will be derived from the stem cells of patients with Parkinson’s disease and primary progressive multiple sclerosis to uncover new cellular pathways that can ultimately help us better understand and treat neurodegenerative diseases on Earth, according to Stoudemire.

"Through these partnerships, we’re working to create diverse and robust new markets in the commercial space economy that will generate significant economic and social benefits around the world," Stoudemire concluded.

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Robert Lea
Senior Writer

Robert Lea is a science journalist in the U.K. whose articles have been published in Physics World, New Scientist, Astronomy Magazine, All About Space, Newsweek and ZME Science. He also writes about science communication for Elsevier and the European Journal of Physics. Rob holds a bachelor of science degree in physics and astronomy from the U.K.’s Open University. Follow him on Twitter @sciencef1rst.