This month marks a decade’s worth of science deliveries to the International Space Station (ISS) for Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus spacecraft. As one of two U.S. cargo vehicles that routinely deliver research investigations and crew supplies to the orbiting laboratory, Cygnus plays a vital role in space station research. Northrop Grumman is currently preparing its 20th Cygnus spacecraft for launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on January 30, 2024. It will carry a variety of investigations aimed at improving life on Earth.
Here’s a look back at some of the investigations that have flown on Cygnus over the past decade.
Capturing Life as an Astronaut
Ever wondered what it is like to float in space like an astronaut? A project by Felix and Paul Studios that launched on a Cygnus spacecraft used special virtual reality (VR) cameras designed to work in microgravity to capture mesmerizing views of the space station. The footage was used to create “Space Explorers: The ISS Experience,” an Emmy award-winning series from Felix and Paul Studios and TIME. Additionally, Felix and Paul created a traveling VR exhibit called the Infinite that allows visitors to see through the eyes of an astronaut as they navigate the ISS.
Inspiring Students Through STEM Projects
Multiple projects related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education have launched on various Cygnus spacecrafts over the years. One project saw two Barbies launch to the space station to help inspire young girls to pursue their dreams. NASA astronauts Kayla Baron and Raja Chari worked with the Barbies to make educational videos featuring space station research projects.
Cygnus has also launched multiple projects designed by student researchers through programs like Genes in Space™. In one such experiment, Kristoff Misquitta investigated whether spaceflight-induced changes in liver function could have an impact on how well drugs work. Results from his investigation could help improve our understanding of how spaceflight affects drug metabolism, which could aid in the design of more effective treatments for astronauts on long-duration spaceflight missions.
Cookies in Space!
In 2019, Nanoracks launched a Zero G Kitchen Oven as part of a technology demonstration investigation to explore new methods of food production in space. The project examined how to heat and then cool the space oven in a manner that is safe for crew members. As part of the project, crew members tested how well cookies heated up in the oven, helping to advance the technology.
Radiation exposure is a primary concern for space exploration, especially on future lunar and other deep space missions. In an effort to ensure that astronauts can live and work safely and effectively, researchers at StemRad and Lockheed Martin sent a special vest to the space station to study how well it can protect astronauts from space radiation.
While onboard the ISS, multiple crew members, including Crew-4’s Jessica Watkins, have tested a prototype of the AstroRad vest for comfort and wearability. A second prototype vest flew on NASA’s Artemis-1 mission in 2023.
Optimizing Space-Based Research Through Computing
Hewlett Packard Enterprises (HPE) sent its commercial off-the-shelf supercomputer, HPE Spaceborne Computer-2 to space on a Cygnus spacecraft in 2021. The project, which built upon a previous iteration of the system, aimed to introduce an entirely new level of onboard high performance computing capability to the ISS and to researchers on the ground.
An upgraded version of HPE Spaceborne Computer-2 is set to fly to station on the upcoming NG-20 mission. The upgraded supercomputer aims to improve research capabilities on the orbiting laboratory, including providing quicker data processing times.
Launched in 2022, the Universal Intelligent Glass Optics (UNIGLO) investigation looked at the effects of microgravity on processing multiple types of complex glasses. The experimental module leveraged artificial intelligence (AI) technology to help adapt materials processing techniques to the space environment. As part of the project, a special sensor measured the effects of microgravity on processing more advanced and complex glasses for various applications in space and on Earth.
Exploring Bubble Dynamics
Researchers from the University of Notre Dame sent a fundamental physical science experiment to station to better understand bubble dynamics on nanostructured surfaces. The microgravity environment of the orbiting laboratory allowed the research team to study thermal bubbles in ways not possible on Earth. Results could lead to improved medical diagnostics and potential new methods for water purification.
Story Time From Space
Story Time From Space, a Space Station Explorers partner program, first rocketed to the ISS in 2014. Since then, multiple Cygnus spacecraft have carried children’s books carefully chosen to spark interest in STEM topics to the orbiting laboratory. Astronauts record themselves reading the books from space as a way to engage school-age children with reading and science.
Redwire Corporation launched the first iteration of its BioFabrication Facility (BFF) on a Cygnus spacecraft in 2019. Designed to bioprint human tissue in space, the BFF was put through its paces in space before returning to Earth for some necessary upgrades. After launching back to the space station last year, researchers at Redwire were able to use the BFF to successfully bioprint a human meniscus (a protective piece of cartilage that helps the knee move freely).
Improving Consumer Products
Microgravity has proven to be beneficial in the development of new and improved consumer products. A variety of products, from shampoos and detergents to shaving cream and more, are composed of colloids (mixtures of tiny particles suspended in liquids). To find ways to improve the stability of such products, household product company Procter & Gamble (P&G) turned to the microgravity environment of the space station to better understand the forces at work. Having a greater understanding of the interactions between the particles could lead to more sustainable and improved products. P&G incorporated materials from the company’s space-based research into the latest formulation of its Febreze Unstopables Touch Fabric Spray.
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