Blobs in space and other cool science launching to the space station Tuesday

A Northrop Grumman Antares rocket carrying a Cygnus resupply spacecraft is seen at sunrise on Pad-0A at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, on Aug. 7, 2021.
A Northrop Grumman Antares rocket carrying a Cygnus resupply spacecraft is seen at sunrise on Pad-0A at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, on Aug. 7, 2021. (Image credit: Terry Zaperach/NASA)

WALLOPS ISLAND, Va. — Northrop Grumman's next Cygnus cargo ship will launch on a journey to the International Space Station tomorrow, carrying with it a bevy of research investigations and crew supplies for the astronauts of Expedition 65. 

The keg-like spacecraft will launch from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on Tuesday (Aug. 10) at 5:56 p.m. EDT (2156 GMT) packed with more than 8,200 lbs. (3,700 kilograms) of crew supplies, research investigations and hardware — including a new mounting bracket for the station's upgraded solar arrays.

After the capsule's two-day journey to the ISS, NASA astronaut Megan McArthur will use the space station's robotic arm to capture the Cygnus on Thursday (Aug. 12), and with the help of European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet, she will berth the vessel to the orbital outpost. 

Prior to launch, Northrop Grumman announced that this Cygnus would be named the S.S. Ellison Onizuka, after the first Asian American astronaut, who lost his life aboard the space shuttle Challenger in 1986. 

Related: The amazing predawn Antares rocket launch of Cygnus NG-10 in photos

What's on board? 

Cygnus is carrying a variety of cargo from crew supplies and hardware, to research investigations and even a new carbon dioxide removal system for the orbital outpost. 

Also tucked inside the Cygnus capsule are several investigations to help researchers better understand how spaceflight affects the human body. One such experiment, called Cardinal Muscle, will look at how engineered muscle tissue forms in space to see if microgravity is a good research tool for understanding a type of age-related muscle loss called sarcopenia. As people age, they naturally become more sedentary and in turn, lose muscle mass. The same thing happens to astronauts in space, but at a much faster rate. 

Ngan Huang, an assistant professor of cardiothoracic surgery at Stanford University in California is leading the investigation. She told that the experiment will involve muscle tissue grown on tissue chips. The researchers will engineer muscle tissue in microgravity, and study the affects of that environment on the tissue, in order to identify better therapies to use back on Earth

The other part of the study is to validate this platform as a viable drug screening platform in microgravity. The researchers will test drugs that are known to have some ability to improve muscle formation on the engineered muscle tissue. 

"We will use these drugs in space to see how well they work in microgravity as compared to on the ground," Huang said. 

Printing with moon dust 

Redwire is sending a new printhead to the space station that could help astronauts build better habitats on the moon or Mars. The project is a technology demonstration that will use a regolith simulant — to emulate the rocky soil on the moon — as raw material for the 3D printer already on the space station. 

Redwire's Chief Technology Officer Michael Snyder explained what the company hopes to achieve with the project, and what it could mean for future space exploration missions during a prelaunch science briefing.

"This experiment represents a critical step in developing sustainable manufacturing capabilities for lunar surfaces that will ultimately establish a permanent human presence off-earth by utilizing available resources with adaptive systems," he said during the news conference. "So this is really exciting for the future and hopefully, something like this gets eventually deployed to the moon."

Snyder said that the company will be printing three different specimens in space. The trio will then be returned to Earth on a later mission and analyzed for quality. Researchers on Earth have been 3D printing with regolith for years, but now it's time to see how the space-based samples will hold up on the ground. 

"Once those components or specimens are returned, NASA will test the material properties of the prints by performing destructive tests," Synder said. 

Blobs in space 

In a partnership with NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) is sending a slime mold to space to test how it functions in microgravity in an experiment called Blob. Although it lacks a brain, the single-celled organism known as Physarum polycephalum (aka a slime mold) can move, feed itself and even communicate with other slime molds. 

Researchers at the French National Center for Space Studies (CNES) decided it would be smart to send not one but four slime molds — an organism that can double in size every day — to the space station. What could go wrong, right? But don't worry, the blobs will travel to the space station in a dormant phase and will only going to be active for a few days. (If slime molds go without food for seven days, they return to a dormant state.)

Pesquet will be in charge of the slime mold. To kick off the investigation, he will wake up the slime mold, and use its activities to engage school children around Europe. Pesquet will be observing how the slime mold behaves in microgravity and the results will be compared to a terrestrial counterpart. The entire investigation will last for seven days, with Pesquet capturing both photos and video of the blobs in action. 

Carbon scrubber 

Also packed inside the Cygnus capsule is a new carbon-dioxide scrubber to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere on the space station.

Called the four-bed carbon-dioxide scrubber, it's part of a technology demonstration that will attempt to improve upon the current system that's been onboard the ISS for nearly 20 years, but with some upgrades. 

"We used data gathered over those 20 years to implement some design changes that will improve the liability and the longevity of the system," Michael Salopek of Johnson Space Center said during the same news conference. 

The improvements being tested during this investigation are crucial for future exploration missions beyond low Earth orbit, the researchers said. Its main goal is to recycle and regenerate most of the air and water necessary to sustain the station's crew. To that end, the carbon dioxide scrubber will retain water vapor while filtering carbon dioxide out of the space station’s airflow, much like the version currently on station.

That system works by removing water vapor and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The water vapor is cycled through the system and returned back to the cabin, while the carbon dioxide is either diverted to a reduction system, where it will be converted into water, or it is expelled from the spacecraft. 

Researchers want a system that can operate continuously for 20,000 hours without a failure. To date, no life support system has met that goal, but the engineers believe the technology in this system will do so. 

The new upgrades being tested will also help prevent long-term dust accumulation and erosion, which can jam valves and other moving parts inside the system. 

This tech demo will eventually replace the current system on the ISS if all goes according to plan. Initially, it will be tested for one year. Samples collected from the carbon dioxide absorption beds will be sent back to Earth for researchers at Johnson Space Center to analyze to ensure that the system is working properly in order to maintain astronaut health. The hardware will then remain on the orbiting laboratory for three additional years of testing. 

Feeling the heat 

Cygnus will remain attached to the space station until October. When its mission ends, it will detach and complete its secondary mission called Kentucky Re-Entry Probe Experiment (KREPE), which will test new thermal protection systems. 

Thermal protection systems (or TPS) are a crucial part of a spacecraft, protecting the vehicle as it travels through the atmosphere. Cygnus is carrying three different capsules, each of which is outfitted with sensors to study how different materials hold up to the searing heat of re-entry. 

Unlike SpaceX's cargo Dragon capsule, the Cygnus is designed to burn up during re-entry, and is predominately used as a waste disposal means after it delivers its cargo to the space station. To that end, researchers decided that on this flight they will test out new thermal protection materials as the spacecraft meets its fiery end. 

Each of the capsules are designed to withstand the spacecraft breaking apart and will ultimately splashdown somewhere in the ocean. Researchers said during a news conference that the capsules will not be recovered, but their data will be logged and used to make spacecraft safer as well as help with fire safety systems here on Earth. 

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Amy Thompson
Contributing Writer

Amy Thompson is a Florida-based space and science journalist, who joined as a contributing writer in 2015. She's passionate about all things space and is a huge science and science-fiction geek. Star Wars is her favorite fandom, with that sassy little droid, R2D2 being her favorite. She studied science at the University of Florida, earning a degree in microbiology. Her work has also been published in Newsweek, VICE, Smithsonian, and many more. Now she chases rockets, writing about launches, commercial space, space station science, and everything in between.