7% of Scott Kelly’s Genes Changed After a Year in Space

On March 1st, 2016, American astronaut Scott Kelly returned to Earth after spending a total of 340 days aboard the International Space Station (ISS). As part of NASA’s goal to send astronauts on long-duration space flights to Mars and beyond, this record-setting stay in space was designed to test the limit of human endurance in a microgravity environment.

Also known as the Twin Study, this experiment consisted of Kelly spending nearly a year in space while his identical twin (Mark Kelly) remained on Earth. Since Kelly’s return, the two have been subjected to medical tests to see what long-term effects microgravity has had of Scott’s Kelly’s physique. The final results of this test, which were just released, reveal that Scott has experienced changes at the genetic level.

The study was conducted by NASA’s Human Research Program, and the preliminary findings were released at their Investigator’s Workshop on the week of January 23rd, 2017. According to these findings, Scott Kelly showed indications of inflammation, changes in his telomeres and telomerase (parts of the chromosonal system related to aging), a decrease in bone density and gastrointestinal changes – all of which were expected.

NASA's astronauts twins, Scott Kelly (l) and Mark Kelly (r). Image: NASA
NASA’s astronaut twins, Scott Kelly (l) and Mark Kelly (r). Image: NASA

As NASA reported in their preliminary findings:

“By measuring large numbers of metabolites, cytokines, and proteins, researchers learned that spaceflight is associated with oxygen deprivation stress, increased inflammation, and dramatic nutrient shifts that affect gene expression… After returning to Earth, Scott started the process of readapting to Earth’s gravity. Most of the biological changes he experienced in space quickly returned to nearly his preflight status. Some changes returned to baseline within hours or days of landing, while a few persisted after six months.” 

At the same time, the study took into account possible genomic and cognitive changes between the two brothers. These findings were recently clarified by NASA, which indicated that 93% of Scott Kelly’s genes returned to normal after he returned to Earth while the remaining 7% points were missing. These were attributed to “longer-term changes in genes related to his immune system, DNA repair, bone formation networks, hypoxia, and hypercapnia.”

In other words, in addition to the well-documented effects of microgravity – such as muscle atrophy, bone density loss and loss of eyesight – Scott Kelly also experienced health effect caused by a deficiency in the amount of oxygen that was able to make it to his tissues, an excess of CO2 in his tissues, and long-term effects in how his body is able to maintain and repair itself.

At the same time, the report indicated that Scott Kelly experienced no significant changes when it came to cognitive performance. The preliminary findings touched on this, indicating that Scott showed a slight decrease in speed and accuracy when undergoing cognitive performance testing compared to his brother. This decrease was more pronounced when he first landed, but was attributed to readjustment to Earth’s gravity.

Mathias Basner – a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, who was in charge of conducting the tests – also found no real difference in cognition between 6 month and 12 month missions. This is especially important since typical stays aboard the ISS last six months, whereas long term missions to Mars would take 150-300 days – depending on the alignment of the planets and the speed of the spacecraft.

A two way trip to Mars, as well as the time spent in Mars lower-gravity environment (37.6 % that of Earth’s), could take multiple years. As such, the Twin Study was intrinsic to NASA’s efforts to prepare for its proposed “Journey to Mars“, which is expected to take place sometime in the 2030s. These and other studies being conducted aboard the ISS seek to determine what the long-term effects on astronaut health will be, and how they can be mitigated.

The NASA Twin Study was the result of a partnership between 10 individual investigations, 12 colleges and universities, NASA’s biomedical labs and the National Space Biomedical Research Institute Consortium.

Scott Kelly’s stay in space and the Twin Study will also be the subject of a PBS documentary titled “Beyond a Year in Space“. Be sure to check out the teaser trailer here:

Further Reading: MLive

We’d Like One of These For Here on Earth. NASA’s New Mobile Mars Laboratory Concept Rover

When it comes time to explore Mars with crewed missions, a number of challenges will present themselves. Aside from the dangers that come with long-duration missions to distant bodies, there’s also the issue of the hazards presented by the Martian landscape. It’s desiccated and cold, it gets exposed to a lot of radiation, and its pretty rugged to boot! So astronauts will need a way to get around and conduct research in comfort and safety.

To meet this challenge, NASA created a vehicle that looks like it could give the Batmobile a run for its money! It’s known as the Mars Rover Concept Vehicle (MRCV) a working vehicle/mobile laboratory that was unveiled last week (June 5th, 2017) to kick off NASA’s Summer of Mars. Those who attended the event at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex were fortunate to be the first to see the new Mars explorer vehicle up close.

Running from June 5th to September 4th, 2017, the Summer of Mars showcases the planning, components and technologies that will make NASA’s proposed “Journey to Mars” happen by the 2030s. According to Rebecca Shireman, the assistant manager of public relations for the Kennedy Visitor Complex, the program will also provide a survey of NASA’s studies of the Red Planet.

NASA’s Summer of Mars. which is running until Sept. 4th, will showcase all the planning that will go into NASA’s Journey to Mars. Credit: NASA

As she said in a NASA press statement:

“It’s an all-encompassing effort to review the history of our efforts to explore Mars and look ahead to what is being planned. We hope this will encourage young people to want to learn more about being a part of the effort to go to Mars.”

Astronaut Scott Kelly was also on hand to help unveil the vehicle, which could prove to be the prototype for future off-world transportation.  Kelly also took the occasion to tell audiences about the year he spent aboard the ISS – which lasted from March 27th, 2015, to Feb. 3rd, 2016 – and the vital research he took part in. But in the end, the MRCV was the main attraction of the event.

Measuring 8.5 meters (28 feet) long, 3.65 m (14 feet) wide, and 3.35 m (11 feet) tall, this vehicle is equipped with massive wheels that are designed to handle dunes, rocks and craters – all of which are very common on Mars. It also has a mobile lab attached to the rear, which is capable of being detached for the sake of conducting autonomous research in-situ.

The front end, meanwhile, is designed for scouting, and features life support, navigation and communication systems provided by the Global Positioning System. Rather than relying on gasoline or a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTP) like the Curiosity rover, the MRCV relies on an electric motor which is powered by solar panels and a 700-volt battery.

The building of the Mars Rover Concept Vehicle. Credit: Parker Brothers Concepts

While it is not likely to be seeing the red sands of Mars in its lifetime, it is hoped that future generations of astronauts (including those who make the journey in the 2030s) will rely on mobile research labs like this one in order to explore the Martian surface, and use the mobile laboratory to conduct research whenever and wherever its called for.

To the casual observer, this vehicle may look a little Batman-esque. Not surprising, considering that the vehicle was built by the same people who built a replica the Batmobile featured in the Christopher Nolan remakes – Parker Brothers Concepts of Port Canaveral. To build the MRCV, they incorporated input from NASA experts to ensure that it was built with the conditions and resources of Mars in mind.

Between mid-July and August, NASA will be conducting a tour along the eastern seaboard, showcasing the MRCV in several major cities. But before it ships out, people will have a chance to see it at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex for a few more weeks. After the tour is complete, the rover will return to the visitor complex to be part of the new Astronaut Training Experience (ATX) attraction opening this coming fall.

For a full list of the attractions and events taking place at the Kennedy Space Center during the Summer of Mars (or to book tickets online) be sure to check out their website.

The Kennedy Space Center’s Rocket Garden at sunset. Credit: NASA

I do wonder, would it be too much to hope that NASA will start working on a civilian model of this vehicle? I can imagine plenty of people around the world would be willing to pay good money to have something like this in their garage! And who doesn’t like the idea of being able to do a little off-roading followed by some in-situ research?

Further Reading: NASA, Kennedy Space Center

 

NASA Twins Study Researchers Take Genetic Data To Next Level

People who plan and conduct space missions never tire of telling us how hard it is to do things in space.

Our next big goal is getting humans to Mars, and establishing a colony there. There are a multitude of technical and engineering hurdles to be overcome, but we think we can do it.

But the other side of the coin is the physiological hurdles to be overcome. Those may prove to be much more challenging to deal with. NASA’s twins study is poised to add an enormous amount of data to our growing body of knowledge on the effects of space travel on human beings.

NASA's astronauts twins, Scott Kelly (l) and Mark Kelly (r). Image: NASA
NASA’s astronaut twins, Scott Kelly (l) and Mark Kelly (r). Image: NASA

Astronaut twins Scott and Mark Kelly are the basis of NASA’s study. Scott spent a year in space, returning to Earth on March 1st 2016, after spending 340 days aboard the ISS. Mark, himself a retired astronaut, remained on Earth during Scott’s year in space, providing a baseline for studying the effects on the human body of such a prolonged period of time away from Earth.

In February of 2016, NASA released preliminary results of the study. Now, the team studying the results of the twins study has started integrating the data. The way they’re doing this sets it apart from other studies.

“No one has ever looked this deeply at a human subject and profiled them in this detail.” – Tejaswini Mishra, Ph.D., Stanford University School of Medicine.

Typically, individual studies are released to appropriate journals more or less one at a time. But in the twins study, the data will be integrated and summarized before individual papers are published on separate themes. The idea is that taken together, their impact on our understanding of prolonged time in space will be much greater.

“The beauty of this study is when integrating rich data sets of physiological, neurobehavioral and molecular information, one can draw correlations and see patterns,” said Tejaswini Mishra, Ph.D., research fellow at Stanford University School of Medicine, who is creating the integrated database, recording results and looking for correlations. “No one has ever looked this deeply at a human subject and profiled them in this detail. Most researchers combine maybe two to three types of data but this study is one of the few that is collecting many different types of data and an unprecedented amount of information.”

“Each investigation within the study complements the other.” – Brinda Rana, Ph.D., U of C, San Diego School of Medicine

Mike Snyder, Ph.D, is the head of a team of people at Stanford that will work to synthesize the data. There are roughly three steps in the overall process:

  1. Individual researchers in areas like cognition, biochemistry, and immunology will analyze and compile their data then share their results with the Stanford team.
  2. The Stanford team will then further integrate those results into larger data sets.
  3. Those larger data sets will then be reviewed and analyzed to confirm and modify the initial findings.

“There are a lot of firsts with this study and that makes it exciting,” said Brinda Rana, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry, University of California San Diego School of Medicine. “A comparative study with one twin in space and one on Earth has never been done before. Each investigation within the study complements the other.”

NASA compares the twins study, and the new integrated method of handling all the results, to conducting a symphony. Each study is like an instrument, and instead of each one playing a solo, they will be added into a greater whole. The team at Stanford is like the conductor. If you’ve ever listened to an orchestra, you know how powerful that can be.

“The human systems in the body are all intertwined which is why we should view the data in a holistic way,” said Scott M. Smith, Ph.D., NASA manager for nutritional biochemistry at the Johnson Space Center. He conducts biochemical profiles on astronauts and his research is targeted to specific metabolites, end products of various biological pathways and processes.

“It is a more comprehensive way to conduct research.” – Chris Mason, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Physiology and Biophysics Weill Cornell Medicine

Chris Mason Ph.D., at Weill Cornell Medicine said, “Both the universe and the human body are complicated systems and we are studying something hard to see. It’s like having a new flashlight that illuminates the previously dark gears of molecular interactions. It is a more comprehensive way to conduct research.”

Scientists involved with the twins study are very clearly excited about this new approach. Having twin astronauts is an extraordinary opportunity, and will advance our understanding of spaceflight on human physiology enormously.

“There is no doubt, the learnings from integrating our data will be priceless,” said Emmanuel Mignot, M.D., Ph.D., director of Center for Sleep Science and Medicine, Stanford University School of Medicine. He studies the immune system and is enthusiastic to study specific immune cell populations because many of the other immune studies focus only on general factors.

A summary of the early results should be out by early 2018, or possible late 2017. Individual papers on more detailed themes will follow shortly.

Culprit Found In Blurry Astronaut Vision Mystery

The ability to take part in long-term space missions is a rare privilege, usually enjoyed by only a handful of men and women within every generation. But that privilege comes with a pretty high price. In addition to all the hard work, training, and sacrifice that is needed to go into space, there are also the health effects of spending prolonged periods in a microgravity environment.

Until recently, the most well-document of these effects were muscle degeneration and loss of bone density. But thanks to a new study released by the Radiological Society of America, it is now understood how microgravity can impair eyesight. This is certainly good news for ISS crews, not to mention the astronauts who will be taking part in long-range missions to Mars and beyond in the near future.

For years, NASA and other space agencies have been seeking to understand how time in space can adversely affect eyesight. Nearly two-thirds of astronauts who have taken part in long-duration missions aboard the International Space Station (ISS) have been diagnosed with Visual Impairment Intracranial Pressure (VIIP) syndrome. Symptoms include blurred vision, flattening at the back of eyeballs, and inflammation of the head of the optic nerves.

Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly of NASA rests in a chair outside of the Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft just minutes after he and cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov of the Russian space agency Roscosmos landed in a remote area near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan late Tuesday, March 1 EST. Credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly of NASA resting after returning to Earth in March, 2016. At the time, Kelly established the record for longest time spent in space. Credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Previously, scientists believed that the primary source of VIIP was a shift of vascular fluid toward the upper body that takes place when astronauts spend time in the microgravity of space. But thanks to the new study, which was led by Dr. Noam Alperin and his team of researchers from the University of Miami, the cause of the syndrome has been properly diagnosed.

Dr. Alperin is a professor of radiology and biomedical engineering at the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami and the lead author of the study. According to the study he and his colleagues produced – which was presented on Monday, Nov. 28th, at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago – the culprit is cerebrospinal fluid (CSF).

This clear fluid is chiefly responsible for cushioning the brain and spinal cord, circulating nutrients and removing waste materials. At the same time, the CSF system is designed to accommodate significant changes in hydrostatic pressures, like when a person goes from lying down or sitting to a standing position. However, this system evolved within Earth’s own gravity environment, and exposing it to microgravity presents unique challenges.

As Dr. Alperin explained in a RSNA press statement, which coincided with the annual meeting:

“People initially didn’t know what to make of it, and by 2010 there was growing concern as it became apparent that some of the astronauts had severe structural changes that were not fully reversible upon return to Earth. On earth, the CSF system is built to accommodate these pressure changes, but in space the system is confused by the lack of the posture-related pressure changes.”

Astronaut Jeff Williams just established a new record for most time spent in space by a NASA astronaut. Credit: NASA
Astronaut Jeff Williams, who recently broke Kelly’s record for most time spent in space by a NASA astronaut. Credit: NASA

To arrive at this conclusion, Dr. Alperin and his colleague performed a series of before and after MRI scans on seven astronauts who took part in long-duration missions aboard the ISS. The results were compared against nine astronauts who took part in short-duration missions aboard the now-retired Space Shuttle. With the help of some special imaging algorithms, they looked for correlations between changes in CSF volumes and VIIP.

The results of their study Their study, titled “Role of Cerebrospinal Fluid in Spaceflight-Induced Visual Impairment and Ocular Changes“, showed that astronauts who participated in long-duration missions experienced a comparably higher flattening of their eyeballs and protrusions in their optic nerves. These astronauts also had significantly higher post-flight increases in CSF around their optic nerves and in the cavities of the brain where CSF is produced.

This study is both timely and significant, given the growing important of long-duration space missions. At present, it is expected that operations aboard the ISS will last for another decade. One of the most important activities there will be the study of the long-term effects of microgravity on human physiology, which will be intrinsic to preparing astronauts for missions to Mars and other long-range destinations.

Magnetic-resonance (MR) image of an eye before and after a long-duration space flight. Credit: RSNA
Magnetic-resonance (MR) image of an astronauts eye before and after a long-duration space flight. Credit: RSNA

In short, identifying the origin of the space-induced ocular changes will help NASA and other space agencies to develop the proper countermeasures to protect the crew from potentially harmful changes to their eyesight. It will also come in handy for private space ventures that are hoping to send human beings on one-way trips to locations where the gravity is lower than on Earth (i.e. the Moon and Mars).

“The research provides, for the first time, quantitative evidence obtained from short- and long-duration astronauts pointing to the primary and direct role of the CSF in the globe deformations seen in astronauts with visual impairment syndrome,” said Alperin. If the ocular structural deformations are not identified early, astronauts could suffer irreversible damage. As the eye globe becomes more flattened, the astronauts become hyperopic, or far-sighted.”

As the old saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. In addition to having regiments that will help maintain their musculature and bone density, astronauts taking part in long-term missions in the future will also likely need to undergo treatments to ensure their eyesight doesn’t suffer.

Further Reading: RSNA

SpaceX Dragon Returns to Earth After Splashdown with Critical NASA Science

A SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft splashed down in the Pacific Ocean at 2:51 p.m. EDT today, May 11, with more than 3,700 pounds of NASA cargo, science and technology demonstration samples from the International Space Station.  Credit: NASA
A SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft splashed down in the Pacific Ocean at 2:51 p.m. EDT today, May 11, with more than 3,700 pounds of NASA cargo, science and technology demonstration samples from the International Space Station. Credit: SpaceX

A SpaceX cargo Dragon spacecraft loaded with nearly two tons of critical NASA science and technology experiments and equipment returned to Earth this afternoon, Wednesday, May 11, safely splashing down in the Pacific Ocean – and bringing about a successful conclusion to its mission to the International Space Station (ISS) that also brought aloft a new room for the resident crew.

Following a month long stay at the orbiting outpost, the unmanned Dragon was released from the grip of the stations Canadian-built robotic arm at 9:19 a.m. EDT by European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Tim Peake.

After being detached from its berthing port at the Earth-facing port on the stations Harmony module by ground controllers, Peake commanded the snares at the terminus of the 57 foot long (19 meter long) Canadarm2 to open – as the station was soaring some 260 miles (418 kilometers) over the coast of Australia southwest of Adelaide.

Dragon backed away and soon departed after executing a series of three departure burns and maneuvers to move beyond the 656-foot (200-meter) “keep out sphere” around the station.

European Space Agency astronaut Tim Peake captured this photograph of the SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft as it undocked from the International Space Station on May 11, 2016. The spacecraft was released from the station’s robotic arm at 9:19 a.m. EDT. Following a series of departure burns and maneuvers Dragon returned to Earth for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean at 2:51 p.m., about 261 miles southwest of Long Beach, California.  Credit: NASA
European Space Agency astronaut Tim Peake captured this photograph of the SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft as it undocked from the International Space Station on May 11, 2016. Following a series of departure burns Dragon returned to Earth for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean at 2:51 p.m., about 261 miles southwest of Long Beach, California. Credit: NASA

“The Dragon spacecraft has served us well, and it’s good to see it departing full of science, and we wish it a safe recovery back to planet Earth,” Peake said.

Dragon fired its braking thrusters to initiate reentry back into the Earth’s atmosphere, and survived the scorching 3000+ degree F temperatures for the plummet back home.

A few hours after departing the ISS, Dragon splashed down in the Pacific Ocean at 2:51 p.m. EDT today, descending under a trio of huge orange and white main parachutes about 261 miles southwest of Long Beach, California.

“Good splashdown of Dragon confirmed, carrying thousands of pounds of @NASA science and research cargo back from the @Space_Station,” SpaceX notified via Twitter.

It was loaded with more than 3,700 pounds of NASA cargo, science and technology demonstration samples including a final batch of human research samples from former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly’s historic one-year mission that concluded in March.

“Thanks @SpaceX for getting our science safely back to Earth! Very important research,” tweeted Kelly soon after the ocean splashdown.

Among the study samples returned are those involving Biochemical Profile, Cardio Ox, Fluid Shifts, Microbiome, Salivary Markers and the Twins Study.

The goal of Kelly’s one-year mission was to support NASA’s plans for a human ‘Journey to mars’ in the 2030s. Now back on the ground Kelly continues to support the studies as a human guinea pig providing additional samples to learn how the human body adjusts to weightlessness, isolation, radiation and the stress of long-duration spaceflight.

Among the other items returned was a faulty spacesuit worn by NASA astronaut Tim Kopra. It will be analyzed by engineers to try and determine why a small water bubble formed inside Kopra’s helmet during his spacewalk in January that forced it to end prematurely as a safety precaution.

Dragon was plucked from the ocean by SpaceX contracted recovery ships and is now on its way to port in Long Beach, California.

“Dragon recovery team on site after nominal splashdown in Pacific,” said SpaceX.

“Some cargo will be removed and returned to NASA, and then be prepared for shipment to SpaceX’s test facility in McGregor, Texas, for processing,” says NASA.

Currently Dragon is the only station resupply craft capable of returning significant quantities of cargo and science samples to Earth.

The Dragon CRS-8 cargo delivery mission began with a spectacular blastoff atop an upgraded version of the two stage SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, boasting over 1.5 million pounds of thrust on Friday, April 8 at 4:43 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

The primary goal of the Falcon 9 launch was carrying the SpaceX Dragon CRS-8 cargo freighter to low Earth orbit on a commercial resupply delivery mission for NASA to the International Space Station (ISS).

Relive the launch via this video of the SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon CRS-8 liftoff from my video camera placed at the pad:

Video Caption: Spectacular blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying Dragon CRS-8 cargo freighter bound for the International Space Station (ISS) from Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL at 4:43 p.m. EST on April 8, 2016. Up close movie captured by Mobius remote video camera placed at launch pad. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The SpaceX commercial cargo freighter was jam packed with more than three and a half tons of research experiments, essential crew supplies and a new experimental inflatable habitat for it deliver run.

After a two day orbital chase it reached the ISS and the gleeful multinational crew of six astronauts and cosmonauts on Sunday, April 10.

Expedition 47 crew members Jeff Williams and Tim Kopra of NASA, Tim Peake of ESA (European Space Agency) and cosmonauts Yuri Malenchenko, Alexey Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka of Roscosmos are currently living aboard the orbiting laboratory.

CRS-8 counts as the company’s eighth flight to deliver supplies, science experiments and technology demonstrations to the ISS for the crews of Expeditions 47 and 48 to support dozens of the approximately 250 science and research investigations in progress.

In a historic first, the arrival of the SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft marked the first time that two American cargo ships are simultaneously docked to the ISS. The Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-6 cargo freighter arrived two weeks earlier on March 26 and is now installed at a neighboring docking port on the Unity module.

The Dragon spacecraft delivered almost 7,000 pounds of cargo, including the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), to the orbital laboratory which was carried to orbit inside the Dragon’s unpressurized truck section.

BEAM is a prototype inflatable habitat that the crew plucked from the Dragon’s truck with the robotic arm for installation on a side port of the Tranquility module on April 16.

Robotic arm attaches BEAM inflatable habitat module to International Space Station on April 16, 2016. Credit: NASA/Tim Kopra
Robotic arm attaches BEAM inflatable habitat module to International Space Station on April 16, 2016. Credit: NASA/Tim Kopra

Minutes after the successful April 8 launch, SpaceX accomplished their secondary goal – history’s first upright touchdown of a just flown rocket onto a droneship at sea.

The recovered booster arrived back at Port Canaveral a few days later and was transported back to the firms processing hanger at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) for testing and eventual reflight.

Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket arrives back in port overnight at Port Canaveral, Florida on April 12, 2016 following successful launch and landing on April 8 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.  Credit: Julian Leek
Recovered SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket arrives back in port overnight at Port Canaveral, Florida on April 12, 2016 following successful launch and landing on April 8 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: Julian Leek

The next NASA contracted cargo launch to the ISS by SpaceX is currently slated for late June from Cape Canaveral.

The next Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo launch is slated for July from NASA Wallops.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

This artist’s concept depicts the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module attached to the International Space Station’s Tranquility module. Credits: Bigelow Aerospace
This artist’s concept depicts the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module attached to the International Space Station’s Tranquility module.
Credits: Bigelow Aerospace

Weekly Space Hangout – Mar. 4, 2016: Dr. Michelle Thaller

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Guests: Dr. Michelle Thaller, the assistant director for Science Communication at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. From 1998 to 2009 she was a staff scientist at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center, and later Manager of the Education and Public Outreach program for the Spitzer Space Telescope, at the California Institute of Technology.

Kimberly Cartier (@AstroKimCartier )
Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg)
Dave Dickinson (www.astroguyz.com / @astroguyz)
Jolene Creighton (fromquarkstoquasars.com / @futurism)
Nicole Gugliucci (cosmoquest.org / @noisyastronomer)
Carolyn Collins Petersen (thespacewriter.com / space.about.com / @spacewriter )

Their stories this week:
Scott Kelly reruns to Earth after nearly a year in space

Fast Radio Bursts, now with more repeating

NASA commissions a new supersonic jet

Searching for Ice-Bound life on Earth to find it on other planets and moons

A New Look at the Ancient History of Mars

Temperature on Titan

ESA Planning to Build an International Village on the Moon!

Finally going back to Venus

Remember that FRB from last week? Might be a false alarm…

We’ve had an abundance of news stories for the past few months, and not enough time to get to them all. So we’ve started a new system. Instead of adding all of the stories to the spreadsheet each week, we are now using a tool called Trello to submit and vote on stories we would like to see covered each week, and then Fraser will be selecting the stories from there. Here is the link to the Trello WSH page (http://bit.ly/WSHVote), which you can see without logging in. If you’d like to vote, just create a login and help us decide what to cover!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Google+, Universe Today, or the Universe Today YouTube page.

You can also join in the discussion between episodes over at our Weekly Space Hangout Crew group in G+!

Scott Kelly Arrives Back On Earth and the USA from Year in Space! Enjoys Dip in His Pool

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly landed at Houston’s Ellington Field around 2:30 PM, Mar. 3, 2016, marking his return to the U.S. following an agency record-setting year in space aboard the International Space Station.  Kelly was greeted in Houston by Second Lady of the United States Dr. Jill Biden, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology Dr. John P. Holdren, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, and Kelly’s identical twin brother and former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly. Credit: NASA
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly landed at Houston’s Ellington Field around 2:30 AM, Mar. 3, 2016, marking his return to the U.S. following an agency record-setting year in space aboard the International Space Station. Kelly was greeted in Houston by Second Lady of the United States Dr. Jill Biden, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology Dr. John P. Holdren, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, and Kelly’s identical twin brother and former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly. Credit: NASA

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – NASA’s first ever ‘Year in Space’ astronaut Scott Kelly was in good shape and smiling broadly for the Earth bound photographers after safely returning to Earth from his orbiting home of the past year on the International Space Station (ISS), for a smooth touchdown in the steppes of Kazakhstan late Monday evening, March 1.

He soon jetted back to the USA for a grand arrival ceremony back home in Houston in the wee hours of the morning, today, March 3, 2016.

“Great to be back on Earth, said Kelly. “There’s no place like home!”

Kelly landed on US soil at Houston’s Ellington Field early this morning at about 2:30 a.m.

Kelly was welcomed back to the USA by Second Lady of the United States Dr. Jill Biden, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology Dr. John P. Holdren, NASA Administrator and former astronaut Charles Bolden, and Kelly’s identical twin brother and former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly.

Before departing the station after a 340 day stay, Kelly said that among the things he missed most on Earth were fresh air and food and freedom of movement. And swimming in his pool.

Well he quickly made good on those wishes and after arriving back home before daylight soon took a dip in his backyard pool.

Kelly posted a video of his pleasant pool plummet in all its glory on twitter:

“Man, that feels good!” he exclaimed.

Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly of NASA rests in a chair outside of the Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft just minutes after he and cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov of the Russian space agency Roscosmos landed in a remote area near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan late Tuesday, March 1 EST.  Credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly of NASA rests in a chair outside of the Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft just minutes after he and cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov of the Russian space agency Roscosmos landed in a remote area near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan late Tuesday, March 1 EST. Credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The long trip back home began after Kelly boarded his Russian Soyuz TMA-18M return capsule along with Russian cosmonaut crewmates Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov.

Kelly and his Russian cohort Mikhail Kornienko comprised the first ever crew to live and work aboard the ISS for a record breaking year-long mission aimed at taking concrete steps towards eventually dispatching human crews for multiyear-long expeditions to the surface of Mars and back.

Volkov spent a normal six month increment aboard the station.

Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly of NASA is seen after returning to Ellington Field, Thursday, March 3, 2016 in Houston, Texas after his return to Earth the previous day. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

The goal of the 1 year ISS mission was to collect a variety of data on the effects of long duration weightlessness on the human body that will be used to formulate a human mission to Mars.

Kelly and Kornienko originally launched to the station on March 27, 2015 along with Russian crewmate Gennady Padalka.

The trio undocked from the station inside their cramped Soyuz capsule, pulled away, fired breaking thrusters and plummeted back to Earth a few hours later, surviving scorching reentry temperatures as the passed through the Earth atmosphere.

They safely landed in Kazakhstan at 11:26 p.m. EST on Tuesday night, March 1, 2016 (10:26 a.m. March 2 Kazakhstan time), concluding Expedition 46.

The Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft is seen as it lands with Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly of NASA and Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov of Roscosmos near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan on Wednesday, March 2, 2016 (Kazakh time). Kelly and Kornienko completed an International Space Station record year-long mission to collect valuable data on the effect of long duration weightlessness on the human body that will be used to formulate a human mission to Mars. Volkov returned after spending six months on the station. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
The Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft is seen as it lands with Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly of NASA and Russian cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov of Roscosmos near the town of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan on Wednesday, March 2, 2016 (Kazakh time). Kelly and Kornienko completed an International Space Station record year-long mission to collect valuable data on the effect of long duration weightlessness on the human body that will be used to formulate a human mission to Mars. Volkov returned after spending six months on the station. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Kelly set an American record for longest time in space on a single mission by living and working for 340 days straight aboard the ISS.

Kelly and Kornienko share the history making distinction of comprising the first ever ‘1 Year Crew’ to serve aboard the massive Earth orbiting science research outpost in space.

With a cumulative total of 520 days in space, Kelly has amassed the most time for an American in space. Kornienko has accumulated 516 days across two flights, and Volkov has 548 days on three flights.

During the yearlong mission 10 astronauts and cosmonauts representing six different nations including the United States, Russia, Japan, Denmark, Kazakhstan and England lived aboard the space station.

The station currently remains occupied by a three person crew hailing from the US, Russia and England. A new three person crew launches later in March.

NASA’s next commercial resupply launch to the station is slated for March 22 by a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying an Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo freighter with over 7000 pounds of fresh science experiments and crew supplies.

Technicians process the Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft inside the Kennedy Space Center clean room facility that is launching on the OA-4 mission on Dec. 3, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Technicians process the Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft inside the Kennedy Space Center clean room facility that is launching on the OA-4 mission on Dec. 3, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, ULA Atlas rocket, Orbital ATK Cygnus, ISS, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Mar 4: “SpaceX, ULA, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly Returns from a Historic Year in Space on Station

NASA astronaut and Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly and his Russian counterpart Mikhail Kornienko enjoy the cold fresh air back on Earth after their historic 340-day mission aboard the International Space Station.  Credits: NASA TV
NASA astronaut and Expedition 46 Commander Scott Kelly and his Russian counterpart Mikhail Kornienko enjoy the cold fresh air back on Earth after their historic 340-day mission aboard the International Space Station. Credits: NASA TV

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly and his Russian cohort Mikhail Kornienko successful returned to Earth late Tuesday night (March 1), after spending nearly a year in space aboard the space station on a mission to gauge the limits of human endurance in microgravity and blaze a path forward to eventual human expeditions to the Red Planet.

After boarding their Russian Soyuz capsule, Kelly and Kornienko along with the third member of their crew Russian cosmonaut Sergey Volkov safely landed in Kazakhstan at 11:26 p.m. EST (10:26 a.m. March 2 Kazakhstan time). Continue reading “NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly Returns from a Historic Year in Space on Station”

Weekly Space Hangout – Feb. 26, 2016: Fast Radio Bursts & Missing Baryons

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Guests:

Kimberly Cartier (@AstroKimCartier )
Dave Dickinson (www.astroguyz.com / @astroguyz)
Jolene Creighton (fromquarkstoquasars.com / @futurism)
Nicole Gugliucci (cosmoquest.org / @noisyastronomer)

Their stories this week:
Mysterious Fast Radio Bursts Solve Missing Baryon Problem

Search Narrows for Planet Nine

WFIRST Unveiled

Double Shadow Transit Season Begins

Pulsar “Web” search for gravitational waves

Milky Way Survey of Gas and Dust Completed

Mars in 3 days? Hm.

Scott Kelly to return to Earth on March 1 – why was he in space for a year?

We’ve had an abundance of news stories for the past few months, and not enough time to get to them all. So we’ve started a new system. Instead of adding all of the stories to the spreadsheet each week, we are now using a tool called Trello to submit and vote on stories we would like to see covered each week, and then Fraser will be selecting the stories from there. Here is the link to the Trello WSH page (http://bit.ly/WSHVote), which you can see without logging in. If you’d like to vote, just create a login and help us decide what to cover!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Google+, Universe Today, or the Universe Today YouTube page.

You can also join in the discussion between episodes over at our Weekly Space Hangout Crew group in G+!

Commercial Cygnus Cargo Freighter Departs ISS After Resuming US Resupply Runs

Cygnus before we let her go as we flew above Bolivia this morning, Feb. 19, 2016. Credit: NASA/Scott Kelly/@StationCDRKelly
Cygnus before we let her go as we flew above Bolivia this morning, Feb. 19, 2016. Credit: NASA/Scott Kelly/@StationCDRKelly

A commercial Cygnus cargo freighter departed the International Space Station (ISS) this morning (Feb. 19) after successfully resuming America’s train of resupply runs absolutely essential to the continued productive functioning of the orbiting science outpost.

NASA astronauts Scott Kelly and Tim Kopra commanded the release of the privately developed Orbital ATK “S.S. Deke Slayton II” Cygnus resupply ship from the snares of the stations Canadian-built robotic arm at 7:26 a.m. EST – while the space station was flying approximately 250 miles (400 km) above Bolivia.

“Honor to give #Cygnus a hand (or arm) in finalizing its mission this morning. Well done #SSDekeSlayton!” Kelly quickly posted to his social media accounts.

The Orbital ATK “S.S. Deke Slayton II” Cygnus craft had arrived at the station with several tons of supplies on Dec. 9, 2015 after blazing to orbit on Dec. 6 atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on the company’s fourth NASA-contracted commercial station resupply mission dubbed CRS-4.

Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft named SS Deke Slayton II is released from the International Space Station’s Canadarm2 on Feb 19, 2016. Credit: NASA/Scott Kelly/@StationCDRKelly
Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft named SS Deke Slayton II is released from the International Space Station’s Canadarm2 on Feb 19, 2016. Credit: NASA/Scott Kelly/@StationCDRKelly

To prepare for today’s release, ground controllers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center first used the station’s 57.7-foot-long (17.6- meter-long) robotic arm, Canadarm2, to unberth Cygnus from its place on the stations Earth-facing port of the Unity module at about 5:38 a.m.

Cygnus came loaded with over three tons of critically needed supplies and research experiments as well as Christmas presents for the astronauts and cosmonauts living and working on the massive orbital lab complex during Expeditions 45 and 46.

Today’s activities were carried live on NASA TV. This brief NASA video shows a few highlights from Cygnus departure:

Altogether, Cygnus spent approximately 72 days attached to the station. During that time the crews unloaded all the research gear for experiments in areas such as biology, biotechnology, and physical and Earth science.

“All good things must come to an end. #Cygnus, your mission was a success! Farewell #SSDekeSlayton,” said Kelly.

Mission controllers at Orbital ATK’s Dulles, VA space operations facility soon commanded Cygnus to fire its thrusters to gradually maneuver away from the station.

The Cygnus spacecraft is released from the International Space Station’s Canadarm2 on Feb 19, 2016.  Credit: NASA TV
The Cygnus spacecraft is released from the International Space Station’s Canadarm2 on Feb 19, 2016. Credit: NASA TV

Before departure, the crew had loaded Cygnus back up with about 3000 pounds of trash for disposal.

On Saturday, after the spacecraft is far away from the station, controllers will fire the engines twice to pushing the vehicle into Earth’s atmosphere for a fiery reentry where it will harmlessly burn up over the Pacific Ocean.

Meanwhile, Kelly himself will also be departing the ISS in about ten days when his historic ‘1 Year ISS Mission’ concludes on March 1, when he returns to Earth on a Russian Soyuz capsule along with his cosmonaut crewmates Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov.

December’s arrival of the Orbital ATK Cygnus CRS-4 cargo freighter – also known as OA-4 – represented the successful restart of American’s critically needed cargo missions to the ISS following a pair of launch failures by both of NASA’s cargo providers – Orbital ATK and SpaceX – over the past year and a half. It was the first successful US cargo delivery mission in some 8 months.

Cygnus was named the ‘SS Deke Slayton II’ in memory of Deke Slayton, one of the America’s original seven Mercury astronauts. He was a member of the Apollo Soyuz Test Flight. Slayton was also a champion of America’s commercial space program.

Inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility high bay clean room at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the Orbital ATK Cygnus pressurized module is being processed for Dec. 3, 2015 launch, Dan Tani, former astronaut and now Orbital ATK VP for Mission and Cargo Operations, center, poses with Cygnus and mural of Deke Slayton, along with Randy Gordon, Launch Support Project manager for NASA, and Kevin Leslie, ULA Mission manager. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility high bay clean room at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the Orbital ATK Cygnus pressurized module is being processed for Dec. 3, 2015 launch, Dan Tani, former astronaut and now Orbital ATK VP for Mission and Cargo Operations, center, poses with Cygnus and mural of Deke Slayton, along with Randy Gordon, Launch Support Project manager for NASA, and Kevin Leslie, ULA Mission manager. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CRS-4 counts as the first flight of Cygnus on an Atlas and the first launch to the ISS using an Atlas booster.

This is also the first flight of the enhanced, longer Cygnus, measuring 5.1 meters (20.5 feet) tall and 3.05 meters (10 feet) in diameter, sporting a payload volume of 27 cubic meters.

“The enhanced Cygnus PCM is 1.2 meters longer, so it’s about 1/3 longer,” Frank DeMauro, Orbital ATK Vice President for Human Spaceflight Systems Programs, said in an exclusive interview with Universe Today.

This Cygnus also carried its heaviest payload to date since its significantly more voluminous than the original shorter version.

“It can carry about 50% more payload,” DeMauro told me.

“This Cygnus will carry more payload than all three prior vehicles combined,” former NASA astronaut Dan Tani elaborated.

The total payload packed on board amounted to 3513 kilograms (7745 pounds), including science investigations, crew supplies, vehicle hardware, spacewalk equipment and computer resources.

Among the contents are science equipment totaling 846 kg (1867 lbs.), crew supplies of 1181 kg (2607 lbs.), and spacewalk equipment of 227 kg (500 lbs.).

Orbital ATK’s Cygnus Spacecraft carrying vital cargo to resupply the International Space Station lifts-off aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Dec. 6, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orbital ATK’s Cygnus Spacecraft carrying vital cargo to resupply the International Space Station lifts-off aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Dec. 6, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Orbital ATK holds a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract from NASA worth $1.9 Billion to deliver 20,000 kilograms of research experiments, crew provisions, spare parts and hardware for eight Cygnus cargo delivery flights to the ISS.

Orbital ATK has contracted a second Cygnus to fly on an Atlas on the OA-6 mission, currently slated for liftoff around March 22, 2016. Liftoff was delayed about two weeks to decontaminate an infestation of mold found in cargo already packed on the Cygnus.

NASA has also contracted with Orbital ATK to fly three additional missions through 2018. Orbital also recently was awarded six additional cargo missions by NASA as part of the CRS-2 procurement.

Orbital ATK hopes to resume Cygnus cargo launches with their own re-engined Antares rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia this summer.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer