Tucked in the trunk of the latest commercial cargo spacecraft to head for the International Space Station is an expandable structure that has the potential to revolutionize work and life on the space station. SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft is delivering almost 7,000 pounds of cargo, including the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), to the orbital laboratory following its launch on a Falcon 9 rocket at 4:43 p.m. EDT on Friday, Apr. 8 from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. After sending the Dragon capsule on its way, Falcon 9's reusable main-stage booster landed on an ocean platform minutes later in a dramatic spaceflight first.
The successful autonomous touchdown of the booster at sea marked another milestone for billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk and his privately owned Space Exploration Technologies in the quest to develop a cheap, reusable rocket, expanding his edge in the burgeoning commercial space launch industry.
"I think this was a really good milestone for the future of spaceflight, I think it's another step toward the stars," Musk told reporters after the landing. "In order for us to really open up access to space, we've got to achieve full and rapid reusability.
SpaceX successfully landed a booster stage at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station last December, but Friday's touchdown was the first on an off-shore barge after several near misses. The eventual payoff, Musk said, will be dramatically lower launch costs.
The mission is SpaceX’s eighth cargo delivery (CRS-8) through NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services contract. Dragon's cargo will support dozens of the more than 250 science and research investigations taking place on the space station during Expeditions 47 and 48.
“The cargo will allow investigators to use microgravity conditions to test the viability of expandable space habitats, assess the impact of antibodies on muscle wasting, use protein crystal growth to aid the design of new disease-fighting drugs and investigate how microbes could affect the health of the crew and their equipment over a long duration mission,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman.
Dragon will be grappled at 7 a.m. Sunday, April 10, by ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Tim Peake, using the station's Candarm2 robotic arm, with help from NASA astronaut Jeff Williams.
BEAM will arrive in Dragon’s unpressurized trunk and, after about five days, will be removed and attached to the station. Expansion is targeted for the end of May. The module will expand to roughly 10 feet in diameter and 13 feet long. During its two-year test mission, astronauts will enter the module for a few hours several times a year to retrieve sensor data and assess conditions. Expandable habitats are designed to take up less room on a rocket, but provide greater volume for living and working in space once expanded. This first in situ test of the module will allow investigators to gauge how well the habitat protects against solar radiation, space debris and contamination.
Billionaire Robert Bigelow, whose company Bigelow Aerospace of Las Vegas built the BEAM expandable under a $17.8 million contract with NASA, sees his module as a stepping stone to the future, an attempt to prove the technology works as advertised in the real-world space environment.
Bigelow hopes to launch much larger compartments with three times the volume of a typical station module around the end of the decade to form the core of a commercial space station. Similar modules may prove attractive to NASA as habitats for astronauts heading to Mars or other deep space destinations.
"We would operate these on behalf of nations that have astronaut corps and others that aspire to have them," Bigelow said Thursday. "Right now, the frequency of the opportunity to fly is not often. Other than for the United States and Russia, it's about once every three years. Some countries, maybe never, or very, very seldom. So there is a substantial appetite out there we've discovered, and so we think that's a market."
|This artist's concept depicts the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), constructed by Bigelow Aerospace, attached to the International Space Station (ISS). Credit: Bigelow Aerospace|
“In this mission it is hard to know what to be the most excited about,” said Dale Skran, Executive Vice President of the National Space Society. “SpaceX continues to break new ground in lowering the cost of going into space, and the drone ship landing is key to maximizing the amount that can be lifted into space by a first stage that is flying back to Earth. BEAM will pave the way for more affordable future commercial and deep space stations.”
Crew members experience significant decreases in bone density and muscle mass during long-duration spaceflight without appropriate nutrition and exercise. One life science investigation on its way to the orbiting laboratory will assess myostatin inhibition as a means of preventing skeletal muscle atrophy and weakness in mice exposed to long-duration spaceflight. Drugs tested on the space station could progress to human clinical trials back on Earth to validate their effectiveness for future space missions.
Dragon also will deliver Microchannel Diffusion, a study of fluids at the nanoscale, or atomic, level. Nanofluidic sensors could measure the air in the space station, or be used to deliver drugs to specific places in the body. The laws that govern flow through nanoscale channels are not well understood, and this investigation simulates those interactions by studying them at the larger microscopic level. This type of research is possible only on the space station, where Earth’s gravity is not strong enough to interact with the molecules in a sample, so they behave more like they would at the nanoscale. Knowledge gleaned from the investigation may have implications for drug delivery and particle filtration, as well as future technological applications for space exploration.
Another experiment onboard Dragon is a protein crystal growth investigation focused on drug design and development. Growing protein crystals in microgravity can help researchers avoid some of the obstacles inherent to protein crystallization on Earth, such as sedimentation. One investigation will study the effect of microgravity on the co-crystallization of a membrane protein to determine its three-dimensional structure. This will enable scientists to chemically target and inhibit, with “designer” compounds, an important human biological pathway thought to be responsible for several types of cancer.
The spacecraft is scheduled to depart the space station May 11 for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, west of Baja California, bringing almost 3,500 pounds of science, hardware and spacewalking tools back to Earth for further study, including biological samples from NASA’s one-year mission.