SpaceX Dragon to launch heart cell experiment and more to space station tonight

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket stands ready for launch at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket stands ready for launch at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. (Image credit: SpaceX)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX is preparing for its fifth launch of the year: a resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS). The mission, which is scheduled to launch Friday (March 6) at 11:50 p.m. EST (0450 GMT on March 7), will bring a bevy of science material to the astronauts living and working in the orbiting laboratory. 

This flight, dubbed CRS-20, marks the 20th and final mission for SpaceX under the company's first commercial cargo resupply services contract with NASA. Perched atop a Falcon 9 rocket will sit a cargo Dragon capsule filled with more than 4,300 lbs. (1,950 kilograms) of supplies, including more than 2,100 lbs. (950 kg) of science equipment.

The scientific cargo will support a host of experiments across Expeditions 62 and 63, focusing on a range of topics, from biological sciences (growing human heart cells in space), to water conservation methods, to particle-foam manufacturing and the addition of a new research platform on the ISS. 

You can watch SpaceX's Dragon launch live here on, courtesy of SpaceX, beginning at about 11:30 p.m. EST (0430 GMT), courtesy of NASA TV. You can also watch the launch directly from SpaceX here, beginning at 11:35 p.m. EST (0435 GMT). 

Video: What's flying to the space station on SpaceX's CRS-20 mission?
SpaceX Dragon cargo ship launching tonight. How to watch live. 

Adidas boost

In its never-ending quest to create the best athletic shoe, Adidas has turned its sights to the International Space Station. The sportswear company has developed a performance midsole — an additional shoe layer between the insole (next to your feet) and the sole (what touches the ground) — that will enhance comfort. 

To create its midsole, Adidas uses a process called particle foam molding, in which thousands of small pellets are blasted into a mold so they fuse together. To streamline the process and create the best shoe it can, Adidas is going to try this process in microgravity. The experiment, dubbed Adidas BOOST (Boost Orbital Operations on Spheroid Tessellation), will look at how the particles fuse together in space. 

The BOOST Orbital Operations on Spheroid Tesellation (adidas BOOST) experiment examines the particle foam mold filling process using different types of pellets.  (Image credit: NASA)

By removing gravity from the process, the team can take a closer look at individual pellet motion and location. The results of this investigation could show that the space station is a good platform for testing out new manufacturing methods and could lead to more-efficient means of packing and cushioning materials. 

Related: Adidas launching new sneakers inspired by historic NASA spacesuits

Water conservation

Delta Faucet Co., a manufacturer of shower heads and other bathroom hardware, is launching a payload on CRS-20 that will seek to better understand how water droplets form. The company will use that knowledge to build a better shower head that lines up with Delta's ultimate goal: creating the sensation of increased pressure while using less water. 

Conserving water is incredibly important, but one of the biggest drawbacks is that eco-friendly, low-flow shower heads do not perform as well as their less environmentally friendly counterparts. Users complain that the water pressure feels so low it's difficult to rinse off properly, which can result in longer showers and, ultimately, more water usage. 

To help mitigate this issue, Delta has created a unique shower head, called the H2Okinetic, that controls the size and the speed of the water droplets with the help of an oscillating chip. That chip creates a better shower experience by breaking up the water flow into bigger droplets and shooting them out faster, giving the illusion of more water. 

Related: Showering in space: Astronaut home video shows off 'hygiene corner'

"Water is a precious commodity," Garry Marty, principal engineer at Delta Faucet, said during a prelaunch briefing on Thursday (March 5). "We are trying to create a shower head to keep our customers happy while using less water."

He went on to explain that once the water leaves the pipes, it essentially doesn't have any pressure. What you're feeling are the droplets. With this new shower head, Delta Faucet is able to control the size and speed on each drop, revolutionizing the way a shower device delivers a shower. 

"Lower-flow showers aren't really great to be under," Marty said. "But the more we understand, the more we can improve." 

Marty added that, someday, humanity will be living on the moon or Mars and will need a way to take a shower. The lessons learned from this research go beyond conserving water and user experience, he said; it has implications for the space industry as well. But for now, the bigger concern is to better understand the fundamentals of water droplet formation.

Growing cardiac cells in space

Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death in the U.S. A team of researchers from Emory University in Atlanta, led by Chunhui Xu, are sending an experiment up to the space station to explore how effectively stem cells can be turned into heart muscle cells. 

The data collected could lead to new therapies and even speed up the development of new drugs that can better treat heart disease. 

The microgravity environment found on the space station is known to have a profound effect on cell growth. Through this research, the team aims to understand the impact microgravity has on cardiac precursors (cardiac cells created from stem cells) and how effectively they produce cardiac muscle cells, called cardiomyocytes.

Related: Heart cells beat differently in microgravity, may benefit astronauts

Ground-based research shows that when cells are grown under simulated microgravity conditions, the production rate of cardiomyocytes is greater than if they were grown under the effects of gravity. By sending the experiment to the space station, Xu and her team will be able to determine if their results are accurate. 

"Our goal is to help make stem cell-based therapy more readily available," Xu said during the briefing. "If successful, the demand for it will be tremendous, because heart disease is the No. 1 killer in America." 

In order to have a successful therapy, Xu said that the team will need to produce a large number of high-quality cardiomyocytes. To do that, the researchers need to first understand the mechanisms behind cell transformation. 

A new research platform

Bartolomeo is a new research platform that will be installed on the exterior of the space station. Placed outside the European Columbus module, this science balcony will host as many as 12 research experiments at one time. 

Built by Airbus, the platform will enable researchers to conduct more experiments on the station's exterior. During a prelaunch briefing, NASA and Airbus explained that Bartolomeo’s potential uses include Earth observation, robotics, materials science and astrophysics. 

"All of your [research] dreams can come true with Bartolomeo," said Andreas Schuette, program manager of Bartolomeo at Airbus. 

And parking spots on the washing machine-sized platform are all-inclusive, which means that researchers can pay one price to launch, install, operate and even return to Earth. By working directly with agencies like NASA, ESA, and SpaceX, Airbus is able to offer a cost-effective means of conducting research on the space station. 

Airbus workers inspect the Bartolomeo platform after it was unpacked from its shipping container in the Space Station Processing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Jan. 30, 2020.  (Image credit: Ben Smegelsky/NASA)

The company is also working with the United Nations in an effort  to entice those who wouldn't otherwise be able to afford to send payloads into space, Schuette told The duo have teamed up with the United Nations Office for Outer Space (UNOOSA) to make that happen. (The agency works to make space more accessible.)

If all goes as scheduled, the Dragon will arrive at the International Space Station on Monday (March 9) at approximately 6 a.m. EDT (1000 GMT). From there, NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Drew Morgan will use the station's Canadarm2 robotic arm to capture and attach the spacecraft, before beginning the unloading process. 

Follow Amy Thompson on Twitter @astrogingersnap. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

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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.

  • Sarge
    I am former USAF Security Forces Staff Sergeant and 919th Special Operations and I want to go into space how do I apply for 2021's mission???