It’s a busy week for the International Space Station. Tomorrow, over 7,600 pounds of gear and supplies will soar into the skies above Florida on its way to the ISS. On Thursday, another launch will take place on the opposite side of the world at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. There, two new Expedition 51 crew members will take a six-hour trip to start a more than 4-month stay aboard the ISS.

What the Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft is bringing to the ISS

Besides the usual stuff to keep five astronauts fed and the ISS functioning, tomorrow’s launch is also bringing a host of new experiments.

packing spacecraft

Saffire III. Not every piece of gear leaves the Cygnus spacecraft. Saffire III will hitch a ride to the ISS, but it won’t do its thing until Cygnus departs four months later (June 21, 2017). Before the supply capsule begins its fiery, destructive re-entry over the Pacific Ocean, scientists will start a fire of their own.

Saffire III gives a unique opportunity to study how fire works in microgravity. The capsule is going to burn up anyway, may as well do some science. A ground station will activate a hot wire and start the experiment that should last about two-and-a-half hours. A fabric panel measuring 0.4 meters wide by 1 meter long will burn for about twenty minutes.

Here’s a composite image of a fiberglass reinforced cotton cloth burns from the Saffire I experiment.

Saffire experiment

What scientists learn during these short experiments can be applied to future missions. Saffire III will also lay the groundwork for new technology such as devices that can detect gases from a fire. Or, scrubbers that can clear the atmosphere after a fire, so it is safe for the crew.

Zero Boil-Off Tank (ZBOT) experiment. Rocket fuel, along with other liquids used in space, needs to be cold. We’re talking temperatures of around -240 degrees Fahrenheit and colder. That’s the temp where refrigeration ends and cryogenics takes over. But the liquids don’t stay cold forever. The surrounding environment warms liquid cryogens which lead to evaporation. That causes a bump in pressure inside storage tanks.

ZBOT experiment

What ZBOT is designed to do is study how to relieve the increase in pressure without losing any of the liquid. The results will help improve tank design for more efficient long-term cryogenic liquid storage and pressure control. That helps reduce the cost, and more importantly, the risk of future deep space exploration missions.

Biomolecule Sequencer. This is a continuation of an ongoing experiment. Last August, NASA astronaut Kate Rubins sequenced DNA for the first time in microgravity. “A space-based DNA sequencer could identify microbes, diagnose diseases and understand crew member health, and potentially help detect DNA-based life elsewhere in the solar system,” reads the NASA description for the experiment.

Genes in Space II. Spaceflight isn’t kind on the human body. Bone loss is the most common issue we hear about. A new experiment heading to the ISS will take a look at how spaceflight affects telomeres (protective caps on the tips of chromosomes). Everyone’s telomeres shorten as we age, but stress can also affect it.

This experiment will look into whether telomeric DNA can be measured during spaceflight.

A 360-degree launch

Tomorrow’s launch marks the first NASA launch we can watch with a 360-degree view. Dust off your VR headset. NASA promises the view will be like you are standing on the launch pad. The livestream goes live 10 minutes before launch.

Right now, NASA is looking at a 30-minute window between 11:11 a.m. to 11:41 a.m. Eastern.

Weather is looking great with meteorologists at the U.S. Air Force 45th Weather Squadron calling for a 90% chance of ‘go’ conditions during the launch window. Those catching the action live will enjoy temperatures in the mid-70s with a light on-shore wind. The only concern right now is the chance for cumulus clouds.

Remember, the Cygnus spacecraft won’t dock with the ISS until Saturday. The quicker action is coming on Thursday when two new crewmembers go from solid ground to the ISS in a little over six hours.

Image credits: NASA


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