Throughout their six-month mission, the Crew-6 astronauts worked on numerous science experiments and technology demonstrations, many of which were sponsored by the International Space Station (ISS) National Laboratory. Results gleaned from these research investigations will benefit people back on Earth, as well as help prepare humans for future deep space missions.
The crew— NASA astronauts Stephen Bowen and Woody Hoburg, along with United Arab Emirates astronaut Sultan Alneyadi and Russian cosmonaut Andrey Fedyaev— returned to Earth early yesterday morning after launching to the orbiting laboratory in March.
“Every day on station is unique and different,” said NASA astronaut Woody Hoburg. “We could be doing anything from spending all day in a glovebox doing science experiments to doing science on ourselves, it’s all incredible.”
Here’s a look back at some of the science the Crew-6 astronauts worked on during their time in orbit.
Foams and Emulsions
Common household products—from salad dressing to foam body wash—could get a boost thanks to microgravity research from the City College of New York (CCNY). The investigation, which launched on SpaceX’s 27th Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission, looked at the structure and stability of foams (gas bubbles dispersed in liquids or solids) and emulsions (tiny droplets of one liquid dispersed in another fluid) in microgravity.
Microgravity helps to preserve the structure of foam products and emulsions for longer, allowing the research team to test the effectiveness of nanoparticles in stabilizing them. Results could help lead to more eco-friendly ways to create foam and emulsion products and extend shelf life.
Building a Better Kneecap
The knee is one of the largest and most complex joints in the body, which means it’s also highly susceptible to injury. Two half-moon-shaped pieces of cartilage provide necessary cushion within the knee, but damage to this cartilage can result in one of the most common orthopedic injuries—a torn meniscus.
Current treatments for a torn meniscus involve removing or repairing the torn segment, which can increase risk of arthritis or knee replacement. Researchers from Redwire Space turned to the microgravity environment of the ISS to 3D print human menisci that could one day be used in transplants, improving treatment options. The first whole meniscus printed with live human cells returned to Earth with the Crew-6 astronauts.
Cardiac Cells in Space
In order to better understand microgravity’s effects on the human heart, researchers from Johns Hopkins University and Stanford University sent engineered heart tissues to space. Microgravity is known to weaken heart muscles at an accelerated rate, similar to the aging process on Earth, making space an ideal environment to study the progression of heart disease.
Results from these investigations will help researchers determine if heart tissues in microgravity can be used as an effective model to better understand the progression of heart disease and develop novel therapeutics that can improve patient care on Earth.
A collaboration between Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley could yield higher-quality graphene aerogels than can be produced on Earth. This lightweight material is both thermally and electrically conductive, which makes it a valuable material for a wide array of applications, including batteries and advanced space suits.
Researchers synthesized small samples of graphene aerogel in space and will analyze the properties of the final materials back on Earth. If successful, this project could help lead to superior products using graphene aerogel.
Protein Crystals for Therapeutics
Pharmaceutical company Bristol Myers Squibb (BMS) utilized the ISS National Lab to improve the crystallization of biologic medicines, which are protein-based therapeutics derived from living cells. The sustained microgravity environment on the space station provides ideal conditions for growing high-quality protein crystals, which could allow BMS to improve the formulation and stability of therapeutics so they can be more easily injected under the skin.
Students can chat with the astronauts onboard the ISS via HAM radio through a program called Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS). During his flight, NASA astronaut Stephen Bowen talked with students from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, in Canada.
ARISS, an ISS National Lab educational partner program, arranges 60-80 of these contacts each year, connecting students from around the world with astronauts on the space station.
Astrobees are free-flying robotic helpers that buzz around the ISS assisting the astronauts with a multitude of tasks, including testing out new technology that could aid in future spaceflight endeavors. The trio of cube-shaped robots, named Queen, Honey, and Bumble, also test student-designed code through the Zero Robotics ISS National Lab educational partner program.
Genes in Space
The Crew-6 astronauts worked on the latest Genes in Space™ student investigation, proposed by Pristine Onuoha, a student from East Chapel Hill High School. Her experiment tested a method to measure telomere lengthening in space. Telomeres are sections of DNA that protect chromosomes from damage. Results from research on telomere lengthening could aid in the development of future therapeutics to combat the aging process in people on Earth or those living in space.