Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Flight Video

Check out a video of our most recent flight on the NASA Weightless Wonder VI.  In the video you can see how we work to complete research in even the most interesting environments.  

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Parabolic Flight Campaign 2015 - Mission and Current Status

In a previous post, we discussed what parabolic flights are and why they are used.  But why are we using them this time?  We are flying our custom imaging systems (FLEX) to observe how various genes behave in zero gravity in three distinct ways.  These methods are either contained within FLEX imager itself or are external experiments designed to complement and verify the data collected within the imager.
We have two FLEX imager units, named Rocky and Bullwinkle.  One unit will be operational on the ground, and the other will fly on the C-9 parabolic aircraft.  This experimental design allows parallel data collection so we know that when we compare flight to ground, our differences are solely in what is happening during flight.
Part one of our experiment is green fluorescent protein (GFP) imaging.  This system will take pictures of GFP in our plants by using blue LEDs to excite the GFP and filters to see where the GFP is located.  We have already tagged GFP to genes of interest, and using this system will allow us to watch where these genes are active how they behave over the course of the parabolic flight.
Part one is supported by a floor harvest.  During the course of a parabolic flight, we can do 10 parabolas before we run out of airspace and need to turn around.  During these turns, we are able to open our Arabidopsis plates, take all the plants off of the plates, and put them into a solution that "freezes" (chemically preserves) the plants.  We can to this at each of the turns (after 10, 20, 30, and 40 parabolas).  For this campaign, we are harvesting the same plant "breeds" (lines) we are imaging in part one to verify that the change in GFP we may see through the camera is correct.
Part two of our experiment uses a FLIR thermal imaging camera.  We are comparing two different lines of Arabidopsis where one of the lines cools itself better than the other.  We want to see how the leaf temperature of these lines differ in zero gravity, since air can move differently in zero g.
Part three is an experiment designed to see what happens to plants at the beginning of one of these flights.  Using a Kennedy Space Center Fixation Tube (KFT), we are going to preserve plants at various early points in the flight to separate the plant responses to hyper gravity and zero gravity.
Currently, we are in Building 993 at Ellington Air Field, awaiting the final go-ahead that we are ready to fly.  Rocky and Bullwinkle are ready to go, and so are all of our plants.  More updates soon! - Eric Schultz

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Parabolic Flights – More than just the “Vomit Comet”

We have posted online the past several weeks that we are currently gearing up for a new parabolic flight campaign in Houston, TX.  But what is involved in a parabolic flight campaign?  What is a parabolic flight?  And why do we even do them?  Hopefully, this brief overview will answer these questions, or at least provide an initial framework for where to go next.

A parabolic flight campaign is the entire mission associated with the parabolic flights.  For this campaign, that involved a pre-Test Readiness Review (TRR) on Friday, June 5th, followed by the actual TRR the following Monday (as well as loading the plane and installing hardware), four consecutive flight days (Tuesday-Friday), unloading the aircraft on Friday, with a backup day on Saturday.  Since we study plants, that means all of our planting must be done beforehand, and must be done so that each day, we can have the same age of plants.  For this campaign, that means planting dormant plates and activating them in a staggered pattern, so that we can have (for example) 8 day old plants on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.  Since we will be in Texas, and not close to UF, we also have to arrange travel, lodging, meals, and set up a portable workstation and laboratory to do the work we need to do while we are there.  A lot of planning goes into one of these campaigns, usually starting about three months before we depart.  But it is this planning that makes these campaigns possible—and the more planning, the more successful it is too.

Image credit: "Zero gravity flight trajectory C9-565" by NASA - C-9B Flight Trajectory, NASA Reduced Gravity Research Program. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

A parabolic flight uses commercial aircraft to achieve true zero gravity by adjusting its angle of flight.  The diagram (above) shows one parabola and how the plane is able to achieve this altered gravity state.  In our case, we will fly forty parabolas in one flight, for a campaign total of 160 parabolas.  We depart and arrive at Ellington Airport (formerly Ellington Field) in Houston, TX.  What about the nickname, “Vomit Comet?”  Though it is not the official name of the aircraft (that would be “Weightless Wonder”), it does accurately reflect the relatively high rate of motion sickness induced by this kind of a flight pattern.  Anti-motion sickness medication is usually administered to all flyers prior to each flight, and from experience, they really do work.  The flight is very smooth also.  Save for an abrupt end to each of the zero gravity portions, the rest of the flight is more akin to a boat’s motion than a roller coaster.  Weightlessness is truly a unique feeling.

We use parabolic flight to see rapid responses to zero gravity, hyper gravity, and changes in gravity in general.  NASA has used parabolic flight in the past to train astronauts, and many other institutions and organizations have used them for testing their systems and techniques in zero gravity, prior to true spaceflight.  Being a plant space biology laboratory, we are particularly interested in plant response to gravity.  Plants have not evolved to respond specifically to zero gravity, and thus in order to adapt to this new environment; they must engage previously-existing pathways.  What parabolic flight allows us is to look at what happens first—the plant’s initial response to a change in gravity, whether that is from normal 1g to 2g (beginning of the parabola), 2g to 0g (middle), or 0g to 2g (end).  Spaceflight allows us to look at adaptation to a prolonged zero gravity environment, which is extremely valuable.  Combined with parabolic flight, we can generate a more complete picture of how plants respond to changes in gravity. 

Here is Dr. Paul explaining a little more about what it is like to ride on the "Vomit Comet".

Monday, April 6, 2015

What do interceptor-class jets and plants have in common? A lot more than you might think…

In April of 2013, our lab performed an experiment with Starfighters Aerospace, located in Kennedy Space Center.  This company uses Lockheed F-104s to create the same extreme g-forces felt during suborbital missions.  These craft are able to fly at Mach 2.2 and are able to climb to altitudes over 90,000 feet.  For more information, visit

But what do Starfighters have to do with plants?  Our experiment looked at plant transcriptome response to suborbital flight profiles.  The basic question we asked was, “What would plants feel during a suborbital flight?”  We were also asking if an untrained civilian (represented here by our two PIs, Dr. Rob Ferl and Dr. Anna-Lisa Paul) could be tasked to perform certain functions during the flight, such as taking various measurements and harvesting plants in a special chemical fixation unit designed at Kennedy Space Center called a KFT.  We also flew more plants in the two separate cargo holds, one of which was pressurized.  We are currently analyzing the data from microarrays, which tell us the transcriptional profile of the plants from KFTs, and will soon be analyzing the differences in atmospheric pressures, in addition to the g-forces felt on this kind of flight.

The flight itself consisted of a high-speed takeoff, three lateral turns, a high-speed, low-altitude run, followed by a 90-degree vertical climb.  The F-104 then turned upside-down, resulting in about 10 seconds of zero gravity, then began the high-g descent.  This profile is similar to the forces that will be felt on suborbital craft, the only difference being the amount of time in zero gravity.  The entire process was repeated two to three times for each flight.  The video below is a montage of the two flights from that day that represents the flight profile and some of the activities performed onboard.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Imaging phase is over - awaiting sample return

It is with a small sense of relief, and a large sense of gratitude, that we now close down the LMM image gathering segment of the APEX-03 experiment. The crew at GRC have been fantastic and we deeply appreciate their efforts. Now we return our focus to the flight operations that center with our colleagues at KSC. Having successfully managed the flight operations and the ground control operations, the team at KSC is back in our forefront, monitoring the packing and stowing of the APEX samples for return on Dragon.

We will all be watching for a safe departure of Dragon from the ISS and a successful splash down.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Third and final APEX harvest and imaging off to a great start

This morning at about 0230 EST CDR Butch Wilmore began the setup and actual final harvest of the APEX-03 experiment on the ISS. The harvest went extremely well. CDR Wilmore's expertise and attention to detail, plus his familiarity with the APEX experiments, all contributed to a fast and efficient harvest that was amazing to see.

The last imaging plate was installed into the LMM to complete the harvest activity, and the imaging team at GRC is and will be hard at work for the next 28 hours collecting the final sets of on orbit images of Arabidopsis gene expression.

Outstanding stuff!

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Second LMM Imaging Session: Video of astronaut closing up the LMM

Here is a part of the process that we have not been able to show previously. This video shows the front window of the glovebox that holds the stage of the LMM. You can see our petri plate sitting on the stage (it is sitting flat in this perspective, presenting a side view with the white tape wrap visible, just to the left of the glove).Later in the video you can see CDR Wilmore swing the glovebox and LMM back into the FIR rack in preparation for closing up the rack panels. Once this is complete the rack is powered on and the team from GRC takes over to command the images.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

and busier...

Well, we survived the first set (flight and ground) of LMM operations – one set down, two to go. We need to keep long and unusual hours, and we trade off shifts to allow the other to get some rest. Being from Florida, driving to the base at 0200 in the snow is a new reality… As said earlier – we are busy, but it is the price of being able to do exciting science in an amazing environment.

Below is a composite image of one of the roots we collected with the orbital LMM this week. It shows a section of root expressing two different fluorescent gene reporters, one tracked with GFP and the other tracked with RFP. The white light image is stacked with the red and green images to produce this map off gene expression and adaptation to spaceflight.

Also below is a time lapse movie of astronaut Cdr. Butch Wilmore working with our experiment,captured with a cell phone from one of the monitors. We have already posted some snippets of his operations, but the time-lapse is pretty fun to watch.
Some of the corresponding Ground Control operations can be seen below as well; Allison Mjoen of KSC is the pseudonaut.


and finally, a small look at the outside of GRC building 333, which houses the LMM GIU and the Telescience Support Center.

Imaging is moving along



The harvest on orbit went fine, and that started in motion a long list of data gathering activities that have taken all the time of the crew here at GRC. To give you some idea of what we look at, here is an animation of what the product looks like. The root morphology is in white, with a halo of lighter white water around it, and the specific gene expression areas are in  green. Once we get all the LMM images taken, post processing turns those raw images into image stacks and volumes that look like this. Know what genes are expressed in what areas of the root is just the information that we are trying to develop. It will really help our understanding of gravity related signalling in the root tips and help us better define the adaptation of plants to spaceflight.

ISS Video- CDR with science sampling

Here is a short video of CDR Barry Willmore working the APEX harvest. Butch has proven to be a careful and attentive bench scientist and the harvests have proceeded without a hitch. Nice work!

Monday, January 26, 2015

UF Spaceplants on their way to the LMM

The first UF Spaceplants harvest of APEX-03 is happening this morning. The UF team arrived at GRC at about 2:30AM EST to get set up watching the ISS videos and listening to the comms links. Its cold and snowy in Cleveland and the entrance to GRC actually looks quite special under these conditions.
Nice night/morning to arrive at Glenn
ISS CDR Butch Wilmore is in now in the middle of the harvest procedure. He is at the MWA, the maintenance work area, which is all set up as the ISS lab bench for this experiment. Here is a short video of the video of the early procedures. In this video you can also see a portion of the crew planning document on the left hand side.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Operations at Glenn Research Center (GRC) are off to a great start. We spent the day running through the LMM (Light Microscopy Module) data collection protocols that we will be using for our flight experiment on Monday.  We are using our standard 10 cm square petri plates, but in addition to plants, the plates are also decorated with a series of fluorescent markers that we will use for calibration.

Step one is to take a reference photo of the plate. For this test run, the below reference photo was taken with my cell phone – on orbit the reference photo of the LMM plate will be taken by the astronaut with a sophisticated SLR camera.

Step two is to attach the petri plate to the LMM sample holder by means of Velcro tabs. This stabilizes the plate, and on orbit prevents it from floating off the surface.

Step three is the insertion of the sample holder into the Ground Imaging Unit (GIU) of the LMM, and (in this case) draping the microscope in black cloth to prevent stray light from interfering with fluorescent imaging.
Step four is to walk back from the High Bay where the LMM is housed, into the comfort of the Telescience Center.
From here,  we and a team of engineers “drive” the LMM; all operations – finding plant parts in the field of view, focusing, and collecting images – is done telemetrically. Although the ‘scope is only about 200 yards away, we conduct the experiment exactly as if it were, say, 200 miles above the surface of the earth… both the ground  and space station the role of navigators (and sometimes backseat drivers) as we peruse what the LMM reveals about how our plants are responding to their environment. Pretty amazing stuff.

Starting LMM operations at Glenn

Today we are working with the GRC crew that tends the LMM on the ISS. Today we spin up operations with the LMM and its ground unit the GIU, with the goal of establishing the procedures that we will use starting early Monday morning on the ISS. We are working out exposure values, magnifications and imaging locations so that all will be ready for the imaging on orbit.

Glenn Research Center is great place located in a really pretty part of the valleys and woods in this part of Cleveland. Of course it is still winter here so for us from UF it is a big change compared to Florida weather :)
The entrance into GRC, early this morning.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Ground Controls all good

Ground controls off and running!

Ground Controls starting today at KSC

Today the ground control experiments are getting started. The ground controls are a perfectly matched set of plates going into the ISSES chambers at KSC. These chambers are well matched to ISS local environment conditions such as temperature and CO2. And there is a veggie plant growth unit that is identical to the one on the ISS. This allows us to have a matched set of controls for comparison to the flight samples
Views of the ISSES Chambers and the insertion of APEX plates

Thursday, January 15, 2015

ISS Operations done for the day

At this point the APEX experiment appears to be off to a great start. No reports of anomalies with the plates or the hardware. We are hoping for some downloaded HD video later in the day.

Closing out this activation process now sets the timeline for the rest of the time that Dragon is docked to the ISS. Our next operation is scheduled for the 26th, when the first harvest plates will be harvested and the Imaging Plate will be transferred to the Light Microscopy Module for GFP. In the meantime we will be monitoring growth conditions, checking with the KSC operations crew, and generally getting ready to start the on orbit analysis phase.

Video: APEX plates on the ISS

Here is a short video, captured by Joe Benjamin at the EMA at KSC, by video of the video coming down from ISS. All the plates look great :)

Commander Wilmore inserts APEX rack

Butch Wilmore reaches into Veggie to place one of the racks that holds the APEX plates

APEX is Getting Started on the ISS

With the leak situation all cleared up, the ISS crew is back to working up the science activities. This morning ISS commander Butch Wilmore will pull the APEX-03 plates out of cold stowage and insert the plates into the veggie growth unit to start the experiment. We are happy to have Butch conducting APEX and we enjoyed working with him during crew training.

Barry "Butch" Wilmore during APEX-03 UF training at JSC
BTW Good information on the ISS and the current crew is found on this NASA site.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

ISS potential ammonia leak creates delays

As you may be aware, the ISS crew is reacting to a potential ammonia leak. They have evacuated to the Russian module while the situation is resolved. Experiments are minor compared to crew safety so there will be some delay in all experiments till the situation is safely resolved.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Docking and Unloading

Dragon has met up with ISS and things look excellent for unloading tomorrow. During the unloading of Dragon the UFSpacePlant plates will be kept in their cold stowage, to stay dormant. At present the start of the APEX-03 experiment will be on Wednesday morning.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Yahoo! Headed to orbit and the ISS!

We are all smiles here at UFSpaceplants! Holy cow it is great to see Dragon headed to the ISS, finally, and we are all both relieved and excited. We watched the launch from Gainesville and were lucky enough to have weather to see it very clearly.

Now we get down to the business of conducting the experiment: Finalizing schedules, lining up flights to Glenn Research Center for the LMM work, getting the ground controls started, and generally making sure that we effectively move from the grind of get-ready-stay-ready-for-launch and onto the regular cadence of doing the science. A great combination of relief and excitement!

Our thanks go out to all the folks at SpaceX, NASA KSC and NASA HQ that bring this grand event to reality. A lot of work, done by a whole lot of people, makes this happen. We are fortunate to be a part.

SpaceX-5 headed to orbit. Taken from Gainesville on Anna-Lisa's iPhone

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Or the 10th!

Seems that SpaceX is working hard on the actuator issue that scrubbed the flight yesterday. The current plan is to prep for launch on the 10th.

UFSpacePlants are still all set with the Cold Stow team.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Scrub today and reload for the 9th

As you are likely aware, Spx-5 did not launch today. Current plans are for launch on Jan 9.

So what happens to the APEX plates that were sitting in Dragon? For this scrub scenario, the APEX kits (the blue Nomex bags with the plates) will be destowed from Dragon but will stay in the care of the Cold Stow team until the next load. What this means for the APEX launch team (us from UF and also the KSC folks) is that only part of the long process of loading will be undone - rather than reset from the beginning we re-back only to the point where the plates and kits are safe in the hands of Cold Stow. That is a benefit of dealing with seeds, seeds that are primed to germinate but that will stay dormant until they get to ISS,

Other experiments are not quite so fortunate and will have to completely reload all their samples. So they will be hustling to re-prepare for the 9th. We have about another week of time before we would have to reback all the way to planting new plates.

If wishing could make it so...

Monday, January 5, 2015

Dragon is loaded and ready to go!

Through the weekend, we from UF and all the folks at KSC have been working through our loading checklists and procedures. Taking care of checking and packing the plates, signing the official documents, and loading the plates into their nomex bags that then get packed by the Cold Stow folks for launch. It is a long process for sure, but it is fun to see it all come together. And not just for our experiment either! As the turnovers proceeds, more and more science teams see each other as the packages are combined for loading.

Here are the UF Space Plants all dressed up and ready to go. The plates are grouped and stowed for each experiment segment. All were then packed in a cold bag for launch and then will be brought out to ambient when the astronauts initiate the APEX-03 experiment on the ISS.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Launch Date is January 6

As you are likely aware, the launch of Spx-5 did not occur in December. It slipped - also called a Launch Slip or Scrub or Push, but they are all ways of saying it didn't happening on time. What happens when a launch scrubs or slips so close to the actual launch date? What does this mean for a biologist with experiments set to launch on that flight?

Well that answer depends mostly on how long the launch has been delayed before the next expected launch is to happen.  Usually when a launch slips right before lift-off, it is usually only delayed a day or so, and most of the time the experimental set-up can accommodate this sort of short delay.  In our case the plants are prepared and turned over to launch as seeds in a dormant state and can easily accommodate short delays. However this dormancy cannot be maintained indefinitely. 

What did this mean for our experiment? Bear with me while I delve into our timeline - Sterile, dormant seeds  are placed on sterile petri plates (see earlier post) approximately 10 days before turn-over to NASA so we can make sure they can be tested, confirmed and generally are good to fly. By the time the dormant plates make it up to the ISS and the astronauts get them unpacked, it will be about 2.5 weeks before the seeded plates are inserted into the plant growth hardware to initiate germination and growth. However the seeds will not stay viable indefinitely, and if the experiment does not get started within 4 weeks of the time the seeds are planted, we start to compromise germination. This means that for a launch delay of three weeks, we replanted the entire experiment this week. Fun!

Stay tuned. Those freshly replanted plates are headed to KSC this weekend for loading into Dragon.