Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Astronaut Ops

The CARA experiment was successfully activated this morning at 7:04 a.m. EDT. The astronaut proceeded smoothly through the instructions, asked questions along the way, we answered, and the experiment began its growth phase on the ISS. Sounds simple, and in a way it is, but conversing with the astronaut is a little like a game of telephone…

It works like this: We scientists sit in the EMA with our Payload Integration Specialist. She talks with other payloads on a communications loop with the Payload Operations Director (POD), who in turn talks to the Payload Communications Manager (PAYCOM), and then PAYCOM conveys the message directly to the astronaut. It may sound complicated, but these are communications experts and it all works flawlessly.

What the astronaut sees when the payload is de-stowed from its cold transport bag is a set of plates wrapped in black cloth (1). Unwrapped, the seeds can be seen sown on the surface of the nutrient agar inside the Petri plate (2). In eight days, the seeds will look something like the plants in (3), and then on day 12 they will be harvested, looking much like the plants in (4).

Activation on the ISS 4/30/2014

This morning we are in the EMA (Experiment Monitoring Area), a mini-mission control room at KSC where our local payload integration specialist April Spinale and mission support engineer Joe Benjamin join the communications loops that connect with the ISS. They serve the ISS operations by answering questions and providing clarification on procedures. They also gather data as it comes down for the experiment records.

Within the EMA we have the closest real time connection with the astronaut. We can listen in on the audio loops and watch available video, and virtually participate in the experiment.

At 7:04 a.m. EDT astronaut Steve Swanson completed the activation of the experiment. He unwrapped the plates and put them under the lights for growth. Pictures were taken and we hope to get those downloaded soon.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Why Do We Study Space Biology?

Our science is driven by questions about what happens to terrestrial life when it leaves Earth. How successful can life be at moving away from Earth? What are the limits of life’s movements in the universe? More directly from a biological research perspective, what does it take to adapt to an extraterrestrial existence?

Think about it, the spaceflight environment is completely outside of the evolutionary experience of any terrestrial organism, so how do you “know” what to take out of your metabolic tool box to help you adapt? In space, plants know that they are in a place that lacks their customary cues, and as a consequence they engage a wide variety of responses to help navigate in this novel place.

We monitor plant responses by examining their changing patterns of gene expression – the breadcrumbs they drop as they explore different paths to acclimation.  We have been studying this for years now, using the modern tools of biotechnology and the spaceflight opportunities afforded by NASA programs.

Although our research focuses on the fundamental nature of how plants respond to novel environments, our space biology program is about more than just growing plants in space … it is also about understanding how to grow plants in small closed environments and optimizing protected habitats. These are issues that are important to us if we want to grow plants on a space station or on a long journey, but also if we want to grow plants in a greenhouse on Mars or the moon. Think of it as extreme protected agriculture! And indeed, the lessons we have learned and tools we have developed growing plants in a Martian-analog greenhouse in the arctic, and in small chambers on the shuttle and ISS, have direct application to protected agriculture here in Florida.

Update - Experiment Activation will happen on the ISS, Wednesday 4/30

The timeline for the Dragon capsule stay at the ISS is now established, setting in place the timeline for the CARA experiments. Astronaut Steve Swanson has set up the area in the ISS where the Petri plates with the plants will grow. Wednesday at 6 a.m EDT he will activate the experiment by pulling the plates out of cold stowage and exposing them to light to start the seeds germinating.

Here are images of the Petri plates, wrapped in black cloth to prevent seed germination, being loaded into the Double Cold Bag just before being placed in Dragon before launch. To activate the experiment Steve Swanson will open the cold bag, remove the temperature control cold blocks, then pull out the wrapped Petri plates. After they warm up he will unwrap them from the black cloth and mount them in the ISS.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Video - Our 2010 Experiments on the ISS

Over the coming weeks, our experiments aboard the ISS will be unpacked and activated by an ISS astronaut, and then manipulated from the ground via the Light Microscopy Module.

In 2010, we had the pleasure of working with astronaut Jeffrey Williams on the ISS. In the video above, you can watch Jeff work with one of our experiments. Using methods and actions similar to what goes on in labs here at the University of Florida, Jeff is harvesting plants, taking pictures, recording the data and placing the plants in fixation tubes to preserve them – in this case for their ride back to earth and UF.

The video shows him working in the ISS US Laboratory Module at a bench-like facility called the Maintenance Work Area - it has velcro and widget attachments to hold tools and samples in place. Jeff, like most all of the astronauts we have met, is a superb lab rat who cares deeply about conducting good science. (Actually, he looks pretty much like a typical graduate student, except that he is floating more than most of the students in our labs.)

The video is a little long and is green at the beginning. Fast forward to about 2:00 minutes to get to the action.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

SpaceX Dragon Takes UF Plants To Space Station

A University of Florida science project that rocketed to the International Space Station on April 18 aboard the SpaceX-3 Dragon is focused, literally, on what it takes for biology to adapt and thrive in space.

The experiment by plant molecular biologists Robert Ferl and Anna-Lisa Paul uses small plants as models to understand cellular responses to spaceflight. This experiment, known as CARA, is a follow-up to research they conducted on the ISS in 2010 which found for the first time that roots display normal movements used to get around rocks and obstacles even when there is no gravity.

The movements, known as waving and skewing, were thought to be due to cellular responses to gravity pulling on roots as they sample their growing surface with touch, Paul said.

“But as the images from our experiment started to come down from the International Space Station in early 2010, it was clear that gravity was not required after all,” she said.

Based on the 2010 results, Paul and Ferl wanted to see if, in the absence of gravity, perhaps the plants were responding to another directional cue, such as the overhead light source integrated into the plant growth hardware. Such alternate signal processing by the plant cells would indicate that biology explores unique adaptive strategies when in novel circumstances.

“We are intrigued by the numerous light-sensing genes that are expressed specifically in roots in orbit, and the SpaceX-3 experiment further explored the role of these genes in orientation and cellular remodeling,” Paul said. “It is likely that light plays a more important role in root growth in microgravity than it does on Earth.”

And that has big implications for life somewhere other than Earth, Ferl said.

“This is telling us that life utilizes special, potentially unique signals to adapt to living off planet,” he said. “This has tremendous implications for the expansion of human existence to other worlds, but also richly informs us about the potential for plants to adapt to unusual environmental changes here on Earth.”

Ferl and Paul are working with NASA engineers at Glenn Research Center (GRC) in Ohio to adapt the Light Microscopy Module (LMM) for biological applications in order to focus the analysis on the cells that normally sense gravity in plants.

The LMM is a sophisticated fluorescent microscope facility housed on the ISS, with a counterpart at GRC, that has historically been used for physics experiments. The plants of the CARA experiment are grown in square petri plates on a nutrient agar matrix, and in this experiment simply attached to the wall of the US module of the ISS. During the course of the CARA experiment the plates are being photographed in place with a standard camera.

In addition, the plate containing plants engineered with fluorescent reporters are being examined with the LMM to evaluate spaceflight-associated changes in the cellular localization of selected genes.

An astronaut inserts the plate into a specially adapted holder on the on-orbit LMM, then Paul and Ferl work with the GRC engineers to control the use of the microscope telemetrically from the ground.

The experiment is sponsored as a research grant to Paul and Ferl by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the Florida-based national organization responsible for promoting science on the ISS.