“Long-duration crewed exploration missions require about 98% water recovery, and there is currently no state-of- the-art technology in brine processing that can help achieve this goal,” NASA officials wrote in a fact sheet. “This brine processor system plans to close this gap for the urine waste stream of the space station.”
The Cygnus mission is also carrying a new sleeping quarters for the space station’s seven-person crew. There are currently five crew members on the space station’s U.S. segment, with four astronauts who flew to the outpost on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule in November, and astronaut Kate Rubins, who arrived in October on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
But the U.S. segment only has four sleep stations. Astronaut Mike Hopkins, commander of the Crew Dragon mission, has slept inside the SpaceX capsule docked to the space station.
Other hardware inside the Cygnus supply ship includes spare parts and support equipment for the space station’s toilets, and tanks of air to recharge the breathable atmosphere inside the space lab.
One of the research experiments on the NG-15 mission will investigate how microgravity affects the manufacturing of protein-based artificial retinas. Led by a Connecticut-based startup company named LambdaVision, the experiment is a follow-up to an investigation flown to the space station in 2018 that produced “very encouraging” results, according to Nicole Wagner, president and CEO of LambdaVision.
The company uses a “layer-by-layer” process to manufacture artificial retinas, which could be implanted in patients suffering from retinal degenerative diseases.
“This is the second of what we expect to be many, many flights (to the space station),” said Jordan Greco, chief scientific officer at LambdaVision. “This particular layering trial allows allow us to continue to gather critical information on the design of the system and to continue to probe the influence of microgravity on this layering process.”
“The work that we’re sending on NG-15 is we’re sending the protein materials, and we’re actually going to manufacture the artificial retina on the ISS. So we’re doing this layer by layer process on-board the International Space Station, and then those films will then be returned back to Earth for analysis,” Wagner said.
With funding support from NASA, LambdaVision is looking at extending the layer-by-layer manufacturing process to other applications besides artificial retinas, Wagner said.
The retina implants being developed by LambdaVision can restore “high-resolution vision” to patients by replacing the function of light-sensing rods and cones inside the eye, according to Wagner. The artificial retinas consist of a light-activated protein.
“We are just thrilled to have a chance to establish a foundation for producing products in low Earth orbit with true clinical benefits to patients, and in our casem for patients that are blinded by this devastating retinal degenerative disease,” Greco said.
Another experiment on the NG-15 mission will measure muscle strength in multiple generations of worms, including animals reared in space. Humans lose strength during long-duration space missions, but scientists want to better understand the biological changes caused by microgravity.
“To understand the biology, our project is focused on taking these … worms and looking at how the strength of these worms is changing,” said Siva Vanapalli, a professor of chemical engineering at Texas Tech University, and principal investigator of the experiment.
The experiment launched with 1,000 worm larvae that will grow during the mission. The worms will produce offspring several times in space, according to Vanapalli.
A new device, called NemaFlex, will measure the worms’ muscle forces continuously. “If we do observe that our device is able to record these changes in strength, that opens up tremendous opportunities in conducting experiments on different drugs and figuring out how to maintain and improve the health of astronauts,” Vanapalli said.
The Cygnus ferried to the space station a high-performance commercial off-the-shelf computer from Hewlett Packard Enterprise. Engineers will test the computer’s ability to process scientific data in space, potentially enabling researchers to produce quicker results from their experiments, according to NASA.
The cargo mission also carries a radiation detector that will fly on NASA’s Orion spacecraft. A successful test of the radiation monitor on the space station would validate the unit to fly on the first crewed Orion mission, Artemis 2, to the moon in 2023, NASA said.
Several small nanosatellites are stowed aboard the Cygnus cargo craft for release into orbit in the coming months.
The Gunsmoke-J technology demonstration satellite is a 3U CubeSat for the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, which aims to prove the usefulness of an Earth-imaging payload for tactical use by military combat troops.
“This science and technology effort will provide new and advanced capabilities to the tactical warfighters in a small satellite that is about the size of a loaf of bread,” the Army said in a press release last year. “The effort will also help inform future acquisition decisions.”
The Gunsmoke-J satellite and two other small satellites for unspecified U.S. government customers launched inside the Cygnus spacecraft’s pressurized module. Before the craft departs the International Space Station later this year, astronauts will place the satellites on rail deployer on the Cygnus hatch for separation after the freighter leaves the complex.
Spaceflight, the Seattle-based rideshare launch broker, arranged launch services for the Gunsmoke-J and the two other U.S. government satellites.
Several other CubeSats are also aboard the Cygnus cargo freighter. One is named IT-SPINS, and it will collect images of the ionosphere over the night side of the Earth during a six-month research mission. The IT-SPINS CubeSat, about the size of a toaster oven, was developed at Montana State University.
A CubeSat named DhabiSat was developed by students at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi. Students developed the CubeSat with help from Yahsat, a communications satellite company in Abu Dhabi, and Northrop Grumman.
Paraguay’s first satellite, a CubeSat known as GuaraniSat 1, also launched Saturday. Paraguay’s space agency says the CubeSat was developed in partnership with engineers in Japan and universities and research centers in Paraguay.