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JSC pursues collection of new technologies for ISS
by Catherine Ragin Williams for JSC News
Houston TX (SPX) Aug 05, 2016

The MED-2 is a compact exercise device part of the 5x2015 initiative. Image courtesy NASA. For a larger version of this image please go here.

What originally began as an initiative to send two exploration prototypes to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2015 to benefit future human space exploration quickly evolved to 5x2015. After all, this is the center of human spaceflight and the home of America's astronauts. There is no shortage of ingenuity, as well as the scientists and engineers eager to put their hardware and experiments through the rigors of space.

However, none of these special projects would have taken flight-at least, in such an expedited fashion-were it not for the Class I-E certification process.

"The 1-E process has been a learning process for all involved, but the fact that several 1-E missions succeeded in delivering their flight hardware within one year of project inception shows that 1-E is a powerful new means for improving science support for ISS and future crewed missions," said Dr. Marc Fries, principal investigator of the Strata-1 5x2015 experiment.

Cory Simon, Wearable Electronics Application and Research Lab manager who also led the Personal Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Monitor 5x2015 team, was also impressed with the new certification class.

"Class I-E allowed us to move very quickly through the flight certification process and deliver custom-built hardware only 10 months after receiving project approval," Simon said.

"Class I-E isn't a good fit for every project, or every project manager, but the team learned a great deal in a short amount of time, and we're proud to now be operating our payload on ISS."

Though not all hardware is suitable for this fast-track approach, the ones that are can start to benefit the crew, as well as our Journey to Mars, within months versus years.

Read on to learn more about the 5x2015 projects sparking invention around the center.

Compact exercise device, big goals
The Miniature Exercise Device (MED-2) is a compact all-in-one exercise device that flew to the space station aboard an Orbital vehicle last March. The machine boasts the ability to give astronauts both an aerobic and resistive workout.

Once unpacked, the sleek 65-pound device will be attached to the existing Advanced Resistive Exercise Device (ARED) platform aboard station for testing. By acting as a barnacle to ARED, the MED-2 team did not have to develop their own solution for absorbing vibrations.

Med-2's Microsoft Surface-powered interface allows crew members to log into their profile, switch between different types of workouts and calibrate resistance. The software also collects and syncs exercise data with trainers on the ground. The MED-2 team worked with other groups at Johnson Space Center that need a Microsoft Surface for their projects to get the tablet ready for spaceflight for the first time.

"We're introducing a new modality of exercise to space station, which is pretty exciting," said MED-2 Principal Investigator Fernando Zumbado. "Now we're introducing aerobic row, so hopefully that will give something new to the crew that they'll enjoy, and just give them a little variety."

MED-2 is also a great first step to downsizing for a deep space. Vehicles like Orion aren't as roomy as station, so everything-including exercise equipment-must get miniaturized for the moon, Mars and beyond.

The air up there
For every breath crew members take aboard the International Space Station, we won't necessarily be watching; monitoring, however, is a different story.

Thanks to a Class I-E 5x2015 project sent to the space station aboard a Cygnus vehicle this past January, station crews may soon have much better analysis of the air quality in their immediate vicinity-wherever that happens to be. Though wall-mounted sensors on the orbiting laboratory have been around, the Personal CO2 Monitor (PCO2M) will give researchers more data to comb through.

"The PCO2M team developed a small clip-on sensing device complete with batteries, onboard data storage and wireless communication to a custom iPad app," Simon said.

Clipped unobtrusively to the astronaut's clothing, the PCO2M gathers detailed analysis of the air quality just as the astronaut is experiencing it.

"The way the air mixes without gravity is different than with gravity," Simon said. "On space station they end up with these pockets of air that have different properties than a pocket of air five feet away, or one foot away."

This device could unlock some medical mysteries that have been puzzling researchers.

"There are theories that the crew is more sensitive to carbon dioxide exposure than we are on the ground due to fluid shifts," Simon said. "It seems that the crew is reporting symptoms associated with high levels of CO2 at levels that are much lower than we would expect based on ground testing."

This increased data capture through wearable technology will only enhance our knowledge of what's really going on with the air up there.

How particles act-and react
The secret to planetary formation and landing on asteroids lies in a handful of glass beads and meteorite fragments.

These materials are the main component for the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science experiment Strata-1, a payload designed to test how regolith, or impact-shattered "soil," acts on small, airless bodies like asteroids, comets and the moon.

"Regolith is similar to soil and covers the surfaces of these bodies, but differs from Earth's soil in that regolith contains no biological material, has never been altered by wind or water and is composed of shattered, angular fragments of rock," Fries said.

"Strata-1 is our first relatively long-term experiment on regolith behavior in microgravity and will help us understand how regolith evolves in microgravity, how to set anchors for exploration of small bodies and whether the materials collected in asteroid-sampling missions such as OSIRIS-REx [Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer] and ARM [Asteroid Redirect Mission] are subjected to large-scale sorting bias."

Strata-1 is composed of four transparent tubes that house materials of different shapes and sizes. Cameras will take photos as the materials interact with microgravity and, every three months, the station crew will send down images for processing. The photos will be analyzed different ways and edited together into time lapses to show the movement of the materials in zero-g.

"Strata-1 is an experiment that, in the words of one of the science team investigators, has been desired by the small-bodies research community for 40 years now," Fries said.

"Previous investigations have examined regolith dynamics on a scale of seconds or minutes in microgravity 'drop towers' or parabolic flights. Strata-1 allows careful observation of particle dynamics over a year's time, which is necessary in order to infer the behavior of materials on small bodies over time scales of years to millions of years. The 1-E program has allowed this significant experiment to go forward and has opened the door to a wide variety of new experiments."

Leaving microbial hitchhikers behind
The Water and Food Analytics Laboratory within the Human Health and Performance Directorate (HH and P) at JSC can test for hundreds of bacteria and chemicals in samples returned from the International Space Station; but, until now, there has been no way to quantify and identify bacteria species while in orbit.

"When you can't bring the samples back [to Earth], you're forced to think innovatively," said Torin McCoy, Environmental Sciences Branch Chief within the HH and P Directorate.

The new Microbial Monitoring System, which was carried to space station on July 18 aboard a SpaceX Dragon, gives astronauts the capability to test for a known bacteria (Pseudomonas aeruginosa) using custom reagents created by Kennedy Space Center scientists and a commercial off-the-shelf detection instrument. Best of all, this monitoring happens within the relative comforts of the astronauts' temporary home-the space station.

"This technology helps us prepare for exploration by letting us get real-time information, in flight, without having to wait for ground-based analysis of sample returns," McCoy said.

Sampling capability without having to bring the little buggers back to Earth? That's something we can get onboard with.

Sequencing DNA ... and other duties as assigned
Also hitching a ride with the ninth contracted SpaceX cargo delivery on July 18 was NASA's Biomolecule Sequencer. Much like the miniature, goggle-wearing yellow organisms of the big screen that live to serve, a tiny new device called the MinION, developed by Oxford Nanopore Technologies, promises to help scientists sequence DNA in space.

The investigation's objectives include providing proof-of-concept for the device's functionality and evaluation of crew operability of a DNA sequencer in space station's unique microgravity environment. While the petite device is already being used to sequence DNA on Earth, it has never been used to do so in space.

"This technology really is a game changer," said Dr. Sarah Castro, a self-professed NASA microbiologist by day and project manager for the Biomolecule Sequencer payload at all other times.

"There is nothing to compare it to, as it provides a completely unique capability onboard the ISS. DNA sequencing is a tool that can be used to identify microbial contamination in the environment, diagnose infectious disease, provide insight into crew health and possibly aid in the detection of nucleic acid-based life elsewhere in the universe. Validation of this sequencing technology inflight will also open the doors to unlimited research potential in human exploration and planetary science."

If successful, this investigation will allow the implementation of the sequencer into operational microbial monitoring, a vast array of medical operations, a research facility on the ISS and integration into astrobiology-based exploration missions.

"The space station and Earth are end members of the gravity continuum, so if the device works on Earth and in microgravity, then it should work in any environment in between like an asteroid or Mars," said Principal Investigator Dr. Aaron Burton.

The long game
These Class I-E 5x2015 projects don't just seek to be innovative for the short term when, in fact, exploration is a long game. The closest ultimate prizes? Sampling asteroids, sending humans to Mars and robotically unearthing what remains hidden in the cosmos. These projects are not only making life on the ground and space station better-they are unmasking possibilities once thought to be inconceivable.

As Wallace said, "Three early career scientists, with no flight hardware experience, were able to successfully certify a payload for flight in 10 months and with a very small budget."

JSC 2.016 looks to build off the early successes of the 5x2015 projects and amplify them in 2016. The only question remaining is: What role will you play?

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