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Small seeds on Cygnus cargo ship could lead to giant leap for farming in space

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Plants grow in a prototype of the habitat that will be used on the International Space Station to study which strains of crops do best in a weightless environment. (Washington State University Photo)

When Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket launches a robotic Cygnus cargo spaceship toward the International Space Station, as early as Monday, it’ll be sending seeds that could show the way for future space farmers.

The Antares liftoff is currently set for 4:39 a.m. ET (1:39 a.m. PT) on Monday from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, with an 80 percent chance of acceptable weather. NASA’s live-streaming coverage of the countdown begins at 1 a.m. PT Monday.

More than 7,200 pounds of supplies, equipment and experiments will be packed aboard the Cygnus. One of the smallest payloads consists of seeds for the Final Frontier Plant Habitat — part of a $2.3 million, NASA-funded initiative that involves researchers from Washington State University, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the University of New Mexico and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The automated habitat was delivered during previous cargo resupply missions and set up for planting. Once the Cygnus’ cargo arrives, astronauts can proceed with the habitat’s first official science experiment, which is aimed at determining which genetic variants of plants grow best under weightless conditions.

“The overall significance is what it could mean for space exploration,” WSU biochemist Norman Lewis, the project’s leader, said in a news release. “Whether it’s colonizing planets, establishing a station or for long-range space travel, it’s going to require maintaining air and food for artificially supported environments.”

The experiment builds on decades’ worth of previous plant-growing efforts in space — including the Veggie experiment, which yielded space-grown lettuce for the space station crew. (“Tastes good … kinda like arugula,” NASA astronaut Scott Kelly said.)

This time, the astronauts will plant six different types of Arabidopsis, a flowering plant that’s closely related to cabbage and mustard. Five of the plant varieties have been genetically altered, either to affect they way the plants capture carbon or affect their ability to produce lignin, a fibrous substance that provides structural support for plants. The same varieties will be grown under Earth-gravity conditions at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

After several weeks of growth, the zero-G plants will be harvested and shipped back to Earth for comparison. The plants’ proteins will be analyzed at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to see whether a particular genetic mix is better-suited for cultivation in space.

Another experiment that’s due to be delivered by the Cygnus is the Cold Atom Laboratory, which was designed by researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to produce temperatures colder than anywhere else in the universe.

A research team that also includes physicists from WSU and the University of Colorado will use data sent back from the laboratory to study the behavior of atoms chilled to just a few billionths of a degree above absolute zero.

The researchers are interested in the transition that atoms make from particle-like behavior to wave-like behavior as they’re chilled, in accordance with quantum physics. The phenomenon is hard to study on Earth due to the perturbing effect of gravity, but should be easier to monitor in the space station’s zero-gravity environment.

“Cold atom research on the ISS will give us a fundamental understanding for a part of physics that is so complicated that, even with the most powerful computers on Earth, we cannot find answers,” WSU physicist Peter Engels said. “Our work will, in turn, provide new insights into systems that may be important in the design of future materials and electronics, like ultraprecise gravitational sensors to detect caves underground or hidden oil fields.”

But wait … there’s more. Here are some of the other science payloads packed aboard the Cygnus:

  • The Sextant Navigation investigation will test the use of a hand-held sextant, like the ones used on ships in centuries past, for emergency navigation on missions in deep space as humans begin to travel farther from Earth. The ability to sight angles between the moon or planets and stars offers crews another option to find their way home if communications and main computers are compromised.
  • Biomolecule Extraction and Sequencing Technology, or BEST, advances the use of sequencing processes to identify microbes aboard the space station that current methods cannot detect, and to assess mutations in the microbial genome that may be due to spaceflight.
  • The International Commercial Experiment, or ICE Cubes Service, will make use of a sliding framework permanently installed in the station’s European-built Columbus module and “plug-and-play” Experiment Cubes. The system is a partnership between the European Space Agency and Space Application Services, aimed at increasing commercial access to the station as a research platform.

Other payloads include high-definition cameras that will be installed on the space station’s exterior next month; and 16 CubeSats that will be deployed into orbit, either from the space station or from the Cygnus itself.

Orbital ATK has named this Cygnus craft after J.R. Thompson, a company executive and former NASA manager who passed away last year. If all goes as scheduled, the Cygnus is due to be pulled in for its berthing at the space station a few days after launch.

Over the course of several weeks, the space station crew will unpack the cargo, put trash inside the Cygnus and set it loose. The craft will then deploy its satellites, make a controlled descent and burn up over the Pacific Ocean.

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