Spectacular SpaceX Dragon Supply Run Bolsters International Space Station's Scientific Mission


6/7/20234 min read

On a seemingly ordinary Monday morning, as the International Space Station (ISS) traversed the skies roughly 270 miles above the Brazilian coastline, an extraordinary event occurred. At exactly 5:54 a.m. EDT, a SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft, relying purely on its autonomous docking systems, fastened itself to the ISS’s Harmony module. NASA astronaut Woody Hoburg vigilantly oversaw the process, a crucial lifeline to our orbiting science lab.

The SpaceX Dragon was launched just a day before, at 11:47 a.m. EDT on June 5, under the banner of SpaceX’s 28th commercial resupply services mission for NASA. The launch took place at Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in sunny Florida. The Dragon's visit to the ISS is slated to last about three weeks before it makes its return journey to Earth, bringing back valuable cargo and the results of numerous research projects.

This particular mission of SpaceX's Dragon was notable for a vital reason - it carried a pair of IROSAs (International Space Station Roll Out Solar Arrays). Once these IROSAs are installed, they will significantly bolster the energy generation capacity of the orbiting research outpost, a vital enhancement for a station that relies on solar power for many of its operations.

But the IROSAs are far from the only significant cargo onboard the Dragon. It also carried a diverse array of scientific experiments, shedding light on topics ranging from atmospheric phenomena to the genetic secrets of aging.

Thunderstorm Watch from Space: Illuminating the Skies

One of these fascinating investigations, dubbed "What Happens Above Thunderstorms (Thor-Davis)", is an experiment helmed by the European Space Agency (ESA). The experiment leverages the unique perspective of the space station to observe thunderstorms from above. This viewpoint reveals key insights into the electrical activity that occurs above these storms, a phenomenon that remains poorly understood.

This unique perspective enables researchers to investigate the inception, frequency, and altitude of recently discovered blue discharges, a type of lightning that occurs above thunderstorms. By estimating the energy of these occurrences, scientists hope to gauge their impact on the atmosphere. This research could lead to improved atmospheric models and a more comprehensive understanding of Earth’s climate and weather patterns.

Growing Green in Microgravity: The Next Generation

Another investigation making the trip aboard the Dragon is Plant Habitat-03 (PH-03). This experiment aims to uncover how plants, exposed to the stress of spaceflight, adapt and whether they can pass on these changes to subsequent generations.

PH-03 will create a second generation of plants from seeds that were previously produced and returned to Earth. The insights derived from this experiment could improve our ability to grow food during long-term space missions, while also supporting terrestrial efforts to cultivate crops in marginal and reclaimed habitats.

Decoding Aging in Microgravity: A Telomere Tale

Then there's Genes in Space-10, a project that seeks to further our understanding of telomeres, the protective structures on the ends of our chromosomes. Curiously, while telomeres on Earth tend to shorten with age, they've been observed to lengthen in space.

Genes in Space-10 aims to test a technique for measuring telomere length in the weightless environment of space, where traditional methods prove challenging. The team will investigate if this unusual telomere extension results from the increased proliferation of stem cells, which typically have longer telomeres. The results could not only inform astronaut health during lengthy space missions but also pave the way for a wealth of related research.

Nanoracks CubeSat Deployer Mission 26: Observing Earth and Beyond

Among the host of other intriguing investigations aboard the Dragon is the 26th mission for the Nanoracks CubeSat Deployer (NRCSD). This mission includes the Educational Space Science and Engineering CubeSat Experiment Mission (ESSENCE), which has been developed by universities in Canada and Australia.

ESSENCE will perform a variety of critical observations. One of the onboard instruments, a wide-angle camera, will observe the thawing of ice and permafrost in the Canadian Arctic. The data collected could provide invaluable insights into the effects of climate change, aiding both scientific understanding and practical local infrastructure planning.

Simultaneously, the satellite will house a solar energetic proton detector, designed to record data during periods of solar activity. These periods often emit highly energized, radioactive protons, which can cause significant damage to the structure and electronic components of spacecraft. As we build our understanding of these effects, we can engineer future CubeSats to be more resistant to radiation damage.

Another major focus of the ESSENCE project is testing a novel method for reestablishing control over a satellite’s attitude, or orientation, if a control mechanism fails. The success of this experiment could influence the future design and operation of similar spacecraft. ESSENCE is a critical part of the Canadian CubeSat Project, led by CSA (Canadian Space Agency).

Gazing at Cosmic Weathering: Iris Watches

Finally, there’s Iris, an experiment that aims to observe the weathering of geological samples exposed to direct solar and background cosmic radiation. This intriguing study aims to determine whether these environmental changes can be visually detected, a question that could have significant implications for future space missions.

Iris will also showcase experimental sun sensors, torque rods for attitude control and detumbling of satellites, and a novel battery heater. The project is a collaboration between graduate, undergraduate, and middle school students in Canada, demonstrating the ongoing commitment to fostering the next generation of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.

These experiments, along with countless others currently ongoing aboard the ISS, span the gamut of scientific disciplines, from biology and biotechnology to physical sciences, and Earth and space science. Each one not only furthers our understanding of life in the universe but also contributes to keeping astronauts healthy during long-duration space travel. Moreover, they play a vital role in developing technologies for future human and robotic exploration beyond low Earth orbit, including NASA’s Artemis missions to the Moon and eventual missions to Mars.