The World's Highest Laboratory
The space station's finished. Now what?
- By Guy Gugliotta
- Air & Space magazine, March 2012
(Page 3 of 5)
Scientists are interested in jatropha because it produces a fruit whose seeds yield an astonishingly pure oil that is an ideal source of biodiesel. “The problem is we don’t have commercial cultivars yet,” Vendrame says. “It’s a wild species and it’s like somebody found the first corn plant.” Jatropha may be a source of revenue for growers in the state of Florida, which, worried about winter freezes, citrus canker, and other threats to its groves, is looking for a profitable alternative to oranges and grapefruit. But jatropha’s early promise faded because of improper cultivation practices; in addition, there are too many varieties of the plant with too few desirable characteristics.
Vendrame is using his best plants on the station, and comparing the results with his ground samples, hoping to more quickly identify genes that produce the most oil. In traditional harvesting on Earth, many generations must be produced before a useful cultivar can be found. “Microgravity might accelerate the process,” he says. “We may be able to save 10 years.”
The station’s international partners are also planning Earth-focused activities. The Canada-based company UrtheCast has an agreement with the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, and aerospace company RSC Energia to launch and install a pair of Earth-observation cameras on the Russian side of the station this year. One camera will be fixed in place and point straight down, while a second, boom-mounted camera will be movable to focus on details, says UrtheCast president Scott Larson. Both feeds will be streamed on the Internet for free, but Larson says the company expects to make money by selling its raw data to other firms and organizations, and through advertising.
The European Space Agency has steadily expanded its station science agenda since the launch and installation of its Columbus laboratory in 2008. Columbus now has 150 projects under way and expects to move into experiments lasting much longer. “For us, it’s a steady evolution,” says Martin Zell, chief of ESA’s Astronauts and ISS Utilisation Department. “In our research into plant biology, immunology, neurophysiology, fluids and materials research, we are implementing several experiments where the new objectives are based on the results of previous experiments.” Like NASA, ESA is moving into studying the effects of prolonged spaceflight on the body.
In the third lab, the Japanese-built Kibo, experiments are focused on space medicine, biology, Earth observations, materials production, biotechnology, and communications research. The Japanese space agency, JAXA, has selected 19 candidate experiments to fly in 2012—15 in life sciences and four in materials sciences. Some of the more exotic involve studying the effects of microgravity on zebrafish, mouse embryos, and mammalian reproductive cells.
EVIDENCE IS MOUNTING that the odd behavior of cells and microbes in space might lead to shortcuts in fields as diverse as disease pathology and crop development. Because this is one area where research in microgravity might translate into useful science on Earth, biological experiments will be a key focus of the National Laboratory. Experiments on both the shuttle and the station have shown that microgravity alters gene expression in microbes and plant and animal cells, and researchers want to continue to use the station to gain insights into these changes.
Much of NASA’s optimism for the National Laboratory springs from an unusual 2006 experiment initiated by microbiologist Cheryl Nickerson of Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute and NASA’s Mark Ott, a microbiologist at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Ott had noted that astronauts’ immune systems appeared to weaken during spaceflight, “and I asked him whether we knew anything about the effects of spaceflight on microbial pathogens,” Nickerson recalls. “He said ‘Not really.’ ” It was not a farfetched question. Biologists have long known that microbes have an uncanny ability to thrive in extreme environments, such as ocean floor vents, cave ponds, or toxic waste dumps. Why not in space?
So Nickerson and Ott decided to fly cultures of salmonella bacteria aboard space shuttle Atlantis to see what happened. The cultures were placed in individual chambers that the shuttle crew activated for 24 hours. Back on Earth, the team tested the samples and found that, in space, several key salmonella genes manifested themselves differently, and that a particular protein acted as a master switch to turn up the infectivity of the bacteria. The group validated the work on another shuttle mission, showing that they could turn off the infectivity by manipulating salts in the cultures.