The regular supply missions to the International Space Station (ISS) routinely carry the essentials for keeping the station crew alive and the orbital laboratory functioning. But the OA-9 mission that lifted off on Monday from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia is unusual in that 2,251 lbs (1,021 kg) of its manifest included scientific experiments that will mark some real firsts in space exploration as well as advancing the frontiers of pure science.

Sextant Navigation

We imagine that spaceflight is the highest of high-tech fields with every task being conducted using bleeding-edge technology, yet it's surprising how much depends on instruments that Captain Cook would have been familiar with. So although the Sextant Navigation experiment may seem like a throwback to the Age of Sail, it actually has a very space age purpose.

Astronauts have been using sextants as far back as the Gemini orbital missions of 1965 and '66, and the Apollo Command Module had a built-in sextant that was used by the Command Module Pilot to check the spacecraft's course to and from the Moon by taking sighting on various stars.

The practice fell out of use as manned missions became restricted to low-Earth orbit in the 1970s, but with NASA's upcoming Orion missions scheduled to send astronauts back into deep space, the space agency is interested in reviving the old skills as a backup should the capsule's communications and main computers fail. Since a standard handheld sextant doesn't take up much space and needs no power, it seems a prudent bit of insurance. The experiment will focus on stability and star sighting in microgravity using a hand-held sextant.

Biomolecule Extraction and Sequencing Technology (BEST)

Bio experiments on the ISS aren't new, but the BEST experiment is intended to take things a step farther. Like the previous Genes in Space 3 project, BEST is intended to identify potentially harmful microorganisms on the space station and assess any mutations. But where previous experiments required freezing samples and returning them to Earth for final analysis, BEST allows for in-flight identification with minimal preparation. It does this by directly studying the microbe's gene sequences without resorting to traditional culturing methods

"With small modifications to our process, you can pretty much do any type of sequencing on the station," says principal investigator Sarah Wallace. "Until now, we had to bring samples back to the ground to see these changes. We know gene expression changes, but freezing a sample and bringing it back to the ground could result in alterations that not caused by the spaceflight environment. If we could look at it while on the station, it might look very different. There is so much to be gained from that real-time snapshot of gene expression. I think it will be key to a lot of research."

Cold Atom Lab (CAL)

Also in the realm of the very small, CAL uses lasers and magnetic fields to slow down atoms to a near stop. Or, in other words, it can create temperatures 10 billion times colder than the vacuum of space. By making ultra-cold atoms in the weightless conditions of the ISS, CAL will be able to study ultra-cold quantum gases that will last much longer than they would on Earth.

The hope is that, aside from pure research, CAL could lead to better sensors, quantum computers, and atomic clocks to improve space navigation.

International Commercial Experiment (ICE)

This experiment by ESA and SpaceAps is a support system for other projects. It consists of sliding frameworks called ICE Cubes made from off-the-shelf parts that will be permanently installed in the European Columbus module. This will provide a plug-and-play space for scientific experiments that can be quickly customized to suit particular projects, ranging from stem cells to radiation research to fluid sciences that can run for over four months at a time.

Zaiput Liquid-Liquid Separation

This is a new liquid separator that is used to improve flow chemistry in a space environment. Instead of using liquid sedimentation, which relies on gravity, it uses surface forces to separate liquids. It may one day find applications in chemical production in space and in developing new drugs for use on Earth.

Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT)

OCT is a medical experiment to study Spaceflight Associated Neuro-Ocular Syndrome (SANS). That is, the effects of weightlessness on astronauts' eyesight as a result of fluids rising into the head and face. Among other effects, this pooling puts pressure and the eyes and optic nerves, resulting in decreased vision – a problem that could affect long-range space missions as well as the health of returning astronauts.

CubeSat

The Cygnus is also delivering three pioneering CubeSats to the ISS. RainCube will test the first active radar installed in a CubeSat, CubeRRT is tasked with demonstrating new radio communication techniques, and TEMPEST-D will seek toshow how fleets of mini-satellites can study fast-developing storm systems.

Along with the experiments, Cygnus will also include new high-definition cameras, pumps to scavenge air from airlocks instead of releasing it into space, new outside storage facilities for spacewalks, adjustable LED lights to help astronauts sleep, as well as components for a new water storage system, and oxygen resupply tanks.

The Cygnus spacecraft, designated the SS James Thompson, is currently executing a series of orbital maneuvers to catch up with the ISS. On May 24, it will arrive at the station, where NASA astronauts Scott Tingle and Ricky Arnold will use a robotic arm to capture the craft and guide it to a berth on one of the modules. It will remain there until July, when it will be loaded up with several tonnes of waste and sent on a controlled reentry to burn up somewhere over the South Pacific.

Source: NASA

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