Soil, Sutures, and Climate Modeling Among Investigations Riding SpaceX CRS-25 Dragon to International Space Station

Soil in Space

On Earth, complex communities of microorganisms carry out key functions in soil, including cycling of carbon and other nutrients and supporting plant growth. DynaMoS examines how microgravity affects metabolic interactions in communities of soil microbes. This research focuses on microbe communities that decompose chitin, a natural carbon polymer on Earth.

“Soil microorganisms carry out beneficial functions that are essential for life on our planet,” says principal investigator Janet K. Jansson, chief scientist and laboratory fellow at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “To harness these beneficial activities for future space missions, we need to understand more about how conditions in space, like microgravity and radiation, influence these microbes and the beneficial functions that they provide. Perhaps in the future, we will use beneficial soil microbes to enhance growth of crops on the lunar surface.”

Improved understanding of the function of soil microorganism communities also could reveal ways to optimize these communities to support agricultural production on Earth.

Genes, No Cells

Cell-free technology is a platform for producing protein without specialized equipment of living cells that need to be cultured. Genes in Space-9, sponsored by the ISS National Lab, demonstrates cell-free production of protein in microgravity and evaluates two cell-free biosensors that can detect specific target molecules. This technology could provide a simple, portable, and low-cost tool for medical diagnostics, on-demand production of medicine and vaccines, and environmental monitoring on future space missions.

“Biosensors are a class of synthetic biology tools with immense potential for spaceflight applications in contaminant detection, environmental monitoring, and point-of-care diagnostics,” said Selin Kocalar, student winner of Genes in Space 2021. “This investigation seeks to validate their use aboard the space station. If it is successful, Genes in Space-9 will lay the foundation for downstream applications of biosensors for space exploration and resource-limited settings on Earth.”

Genes in Space, an annual research competition, challenges students in grades 7 through 12 to design DNA experiments to be conducted on the space station. The program has launched eight investigations so far, and some have resulted in publications furthering our knowledge on genetics experiments through space-based research, including the first experiment to use CRISPR technology in microgravity in 2019.

Better Concrete

Biopolymer Research for In-Situ Capabilities looks at how microgravity affects the process of creating a concrete alternative made with an organic material and on-site materials such as lunar or Martian dust, known as a biopolymer soil composite (BPC). Using resources available where construction takes place makes it possible to increase the mass of the construction material and, therefore, the amount of shielding.

“Astronauts on the Moon and Mars will need habitats that provide radiation shielding, but transporting large amounts of conventional construction materials from Earth is logistically and financially infeasible,” said team member Laywood Fayne. “Our student team, led by Michael Lepech from the Blume Earthquake Engineering Center at Stanford University, is studying a way to convert regolith in these environments into a concrete-like material by mixing in water and a protein known as bovine serum albumin.”

This material hardens as the water evaporates, a process affected by gravity, explains team co-lead James Wall. “Our project consists of making six bricks in microgravity to compare to bricks made on Earth at 1 g and less than 1 g,” Wall says. “We will investigate the number and orientations of protein bridges, compressive strength, and porosity. Our conclusions could help determine how these bricks might form on the Moon and Mars.”

BPCs also could offer an environmentally friendly concrete alternative for making structures on Earth. In 2018, concrete production represented 8% of global carbon emissions. BPC material has zero carbon emissions and can be made from local, readily available resources, which also simplifies supply chains. This experiment is a part of NASA’s Student Payload Opportunity with Citizen ScienceSPOCS) program, which provides students enrolled in institutions of higher learning the opportunity to design and build an experiment to fly to and return from the International Space Station.

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