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SpaceX is launching science experiments to space with Crew-3 astronauts on Halloween

NASA astronauts Kayla Barron, Raja Chari and Thomas Marshburn, and Europe's Matthias Maurer pose with the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule Endurance just before its launch pad rollout.
NASA astronauts Kayla Barron, Raja Chari and Thomas Marshburn, and Europe's Matthias Maurer pose with the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule Endurance just before its launch pad rollout. (Image credit: NASA)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Four astronauts are headed to the International Space Station (ISS) this Halloween (Oct. 31), where they'll spend six months conducting research for scientists back on Earth. During their stay, the international crew will work on more than 200 different research investigations. 

NASA astronauts Raja Chari, who will command the mission, Tom Marshburn and Kayla Barron, along with European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Matthias Maurer, make up the quartet of astronauts that will join the Expedition 65 crew already on board the space station. This will be the first spaceflight for Chari, Barron and Maurer. 

The astronauts will launch on the Crew-3 mission to the orbiting lab in a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft from Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center at 2:21 a.m. EDT (0621 GMT) on Sunday (Oct. 31), and you can watch the launch and prelaunch action live here at Space.com.

Live Updates: SpaceX's Crew-3 astronaut mission

During their stay, the crew will work on hundreds of experiments, including new medical research. Those experiments will help scientists here on Earth to combat diseases and help space agencies around the world better understand how space affects the human body so they can better prepare astronauts for future, longer-duration space travel to the moon, Mars and beyond.

Among the research investigations, the crew will work on is a protein crystal growth experiment from the National Cancer Institute. As part of this experiment, called Uniform Protein Crystal Growth (UPCG), tiny crystals of RNA (ribonucleic acid) will be grown in microgravity and then examined using a powerful light source to look at their 3-dimensional shape.

The crew will also study the impacts of an enhanced spaceflight diet on astronaut health, as part of a food physiology experiment.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company's Crew Dragon spacecraft onboard is seen on the launch pad at Launch Complex 39A during a brief static fire test ahead of NASA’s SpaceX Crew-3 mission, Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Image credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky)

The astronauts will launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket as part of the third operational crew launch for SpaceX which followed the successful test flight of its Crew Dragon vehicle as part of the Demo-2 mission in May 2020. The private spaceflight company is one of two commercial partners that NASA has contracted to send its astronauts to and from the space station as part of its commercial crew program — Boeing is the other. (Boeing has yet to launch astronauts on its Starliner crew capsule; a second uncrewed Starliner test flight was scheduled to launch in August, but was put on hold indefinitely as the teams continue to try and fix valves stuck in the vehicle's propulsion system.)

NASA's commercial crew program was created to not only return the capability of launching astronauts back to the U.S. but also to enable more research to be conducted on the space station. By having a fourth U.S. crew member on station, NASA says it's able to significantly increase the amount of science being conducted at the orbiting lab. 

"One of the benefits that the relatively new Commercial Crew Program (CCP) provides to ISS research is being able to launch science alongside the crew," David Brady, NASA's associate program scientist for the International Space Station Program at Johnson Space Center (JSC) told reporters during a science briefing held on Thursday afternoon (Oct. 28). "And by being able to do so, we've increased our ability to conform to schedules that are based upon the needs of our researchers, which makes for better science."

The upcoming protein crystal growth experiment is a good example of that, says Brady, since the experiment is riding up to space with Crew-3 and then returning to Earth with the Crew-2 astronauts a week later. 

The commercial crew vehicles have another added benefit: quicker return time for experiments. "Another advantage of the CCP program is that it keeps the transportation path close to the lab," Brady said. "For Dragon vehicles, the science launches from Florida and is then recovered just off the Florida coast, which is perfect for expediting samples back to the lab."

That capability is thanks to some upgrades the Crew Dragon and its cargo-toting counterpart received. Each reusable capsule is capable of flying as many as five times and, instead of being recovered off the coast of California and then trucked across country, each Dragon is scooped up out of the water and then transferred to a facility here at the Cape where it is prepped to fly again, while the science is sent to investigators within just a few hours of returning from space, compared to other craft and missions that could take several days. 

Let's take a look at some of the science investigations that the Crew-2 astronauts will perform during their six-month stay on orbit: 

Protein crystal growth

With the help of powerful lasers, researchers hope to determine the 3-dimensional shape of protein crystals grown in microgravity. As part of the UPCG experiment, researchers will grow a bunch of RNA crystals in space and send them back to Earth where researchers will analyze their 3D atomic structure. 

This is important because the shapes of these proteins are directly correlated with their biological functions. When the protein crystals are forming, there are a number of factors that can peterb their growth, which would in turn alter their structure and ultimately affect how well they function. 

In microgravity, the crystals are able to grow in a more uniform fashion, enabling the production of more perfect crystals than would be possible with gravity on Earth. This in turn could lead to better therapies and treatments for disease, says Jason R. Stagno, staff scientist in the Structural Biophysics Laboratory at the National Cancer Institute, and researcher on the project.

This investigation focuses on X-ray Free-Electron Laser (XFEL) technology, which enables imaging of biological molecules that cannot be grown into large crystals — such as viruses, nanoparticles and single molecules (like ribose) — and lets researchers track  time-resolved structural changes of important biological molecules.

As part of the experiment, the researchers are focusing on riboswitch RNA because it controls gene expression. This type of non-coding RNA is highly prevalent in bacteria and has the potential for the development of novel antibiotics as well as engineering RNA-based therapeutic switches. ( Riboswitches are called "switches" because they can turn genes on and off through a series of structural changes, which are controlled by the binding of a small molecule.)

"The RNA is like a light switch, and whether or not it's in the on or off position is determined by what it interacts with," Stagno said during the briefing. "So like a camera with a very fast shutter speed, we're going to try to capture the moment the RNA structure changes in response to stimulation."

The research team is hoping to make a mini RNA movie of sorts. To do that, they need millions of tiny crystals instead of just a few large ones, which typically has been the focus of other space station protein crystal growth experiments. 

Food physiology

Grace Douglas, lead scientist for NASA’s Advanced Food Technology research effort, is looking at the impact of diet on human response to gut microbiota and nutritional status during spaceflight. "We wanted to start this experiment because when we look at current spaceflight, we learn a lot," she said. "And some of the things that we learn are that astronauts do have changes in their immune system like dysregulation of the immune system, reduced immune cell function, bone and muscle loss." 

Douglas said that these changes occur within the timeframe of a six-month ISS mission, so as humanity pushes further out into the solar system, researchers want to be able to counteract these issues and improve astronaut health. To do this, diet is a great place to start, she said. "What we eat, our microbiome eats," says Douglas. "[The microbiome] essentially influences everything, so if we're eating the right diet, we can promote health and performance."

Astronaut diets tend to contain more processed food, as it needs to be shelf stable or otherwise endure the environment of space travel. Douglas says that the team's goal is to give the astronauts access to healthier foods that are rich in omega three fatty acids as well as a greater selection of fruits and vegetables, and then determine the impact of this change on the astronaut's immune system function and microbiome over the course of the mission.

The team aims to do that by looking for specific markers in biological samples that the astronauts provide. Douglas says that they tried out this Food Physiology experiment here on the ground during some Human Exploration Research analog missions here on Earth and did notice improvements in both nutritional and cognitive outcomes. "And so over 45 days, I can say one of the very apparent outcomes was a reduction in cholesterol, and, and some other nutritional benefits similar to that. So pretty quickly, you can start seeing benefits just from increasing these numbers of fruits and vegetables and things like that," she said.

Now, Douglas and her team want to try their Food Physiology experiment in space. "Some of the things that were developed specifically to support this study were some freeze dried vegetables, like butternut squash and sweet and savory kale," she said. "And then also some extra fish products were developed, like barramundi, which is a farmed fish that's rich in omega threes and has a less fishy taste than the traditional salmon or tuna."  

Smartphone video guidance sensor

Hector Gutierrez, Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Florida Institute of Technology has been working with NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center to develop a software sensor called Smartphone video guidance sensor, or SVGS. 

The purpose of their investigation is to demonstrate that it's possible to have a software sensor — capable of being used on multiple platforms — that can calculate the position and attitude of illuminated beacons. "That is a very valuable means to provide guidance and navigation information when you are doing proximity maneuvers with a small spacecraft or drones or mobile robots," says Gutierrez.

He says that as the investigation's name says, one version of SVGS can be deployed using a cell phone. "The code can be programmed to run on a cell phone as an app that uses the phone camera to take photos of a target and navigate and obtain position and attitude information from two dimensional images coming from the phone," he said during the briefing. 

According to Gutierriez, most robots will have multiple CPUs, and many of them will have cameras. So SVGS is a technology that can be deployed on a variety of robotics platforms. "We are going to demonstrate this by deploying it on the free flying robot currently on the ISS, called Astrobee," he said. 

Astrobee has been on the station for over a year, and is the replacement for a previous group of free-flying robots called spheres. These robots are used to help out with some of the research investigations, like SVGS. Gutierriez says that the bees will be positioned in the Japan pressurized module (JPM) with four LED beacons that will be used to conduct a series of five maneuvers that will be carried out in order to test the sensors. 

Spaceflight standard measures

NASA's Human Research Program is hoping to mitigate the human health risk associated with spaceflight by surveying its astronauts and collecting data using tech and measures like smartwatches from now until the end of the space station. 

The risks associated with spaceflight could be caused by a variety of factors like the absence of gravity, radiation, isolation and confinement and as well as different spacecraft design. NASA has been collecting biological samples, medical data and more from its astronauts for years in order to better understand how microgravity affects the human body. However, what's different with this project is that it spans multiple disciplines.  

"This project is a cross-cutting project," said Giles Clement, of Lyon Neuroscience Center in France. "And by that we mean that we collect response, not from just one discipline like muscle or bone, or immune system, but we collect response from all of the disciplines at once in physiology, human biology, and psychology as well." 

According to Clement, the astronauts participating in the investigation will be wearing smartwatches that they will wear all day (even when sleeping). They will do this for two weeks every other month during their spaceflight. It will help researchers on the ground measure things like how long they sleep.  

Clement also says that the crew members will be asked to complete monthly surveys about how they interact with the team in order to evaluate equations and performance. "We also have a laptop on the space station in which they can test over 10 different neurocognitive tests to measure their reaction time, their attention concentration, working memory, spatial orientation," he said. "We are also collecting some blood and saliva samples to look at the given status and function and in general blood and urine chemistry at different periods during the flight." 

This project began in 2018 and Clement says that the researchers have already collected a wealth of data. The project is helping the team predict things like which astronauts are likely to have cardiovascular events after they return home thanks to arterial changes from radiation and other aspects of spaceflight. 

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