Image: Thomas Reiter
ESA astronaut Thomas Reiter works with the European Modular Cultivation System aboard the International Space Station. Astronauts aboard the space station are studying how zero gravity effects plant growth and human sleep patterns, among other experiments.
By staff writer
updated 11/28/2006 7:06:52 PM ET 2006-11-29T00:06:52

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are kicking their science program up a notch some 200 miles above Earth.

NASA science officer and ISS commander Michael Lopez-Alegria and his two Expedition 14 crewmates are breaking new ground aboard their orbital laboratory as they put some of the space station’s newest tools to work.

“The ongoing process as we’ve been outfitting the space station and adding facilities for research has greatly expanded the types of investigations that we can do on the ISS,” said Julie Robinson, NASA’s acting ISS program scientist at the Johnson Space Center.

Lopez-Alegria has lived aboard the ISS since mid-September, when he and Expedition 14 flight engineer MikhailTyurin arrived aboard their Soyuz spacecraft. Also aboard the ISS is European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Reiter, also a flight engineer, who arrived in July during Expedition 13.

Tracking nutrition
Topping the list of fresh science aboard the ISS is Lopez-Alegria’s ongoing effort to record how his diet in space affects his performance in microgravity, Robinson said. Dubbed the Nutrition and Status Investigation, the experiment tracks Lopez-Alegria’s health in relation to the food and supplements he ingests during his six-month mission.

“It’s much more than nutrition,” Robinson said. “We’re looking at oxidative stress, radiation exposure” and other effects.

NASA scientists know that the human body undergoes substantial changes during long-duration spaceflights, including a loss of bone and muscle mass, as well as a steady decline in vitamin D. Understanding such changes, and developing countermeasures to keep the human body healthy, are vital for future long-term missions to the Moon or Mars, researchers said.

While NASA typically records the physiology of its astronauts before and after flight, Expedition 14 is the first mission to allow spaceflyers to take blood samples and store them in flight for later analysis on Earth.

The result will be "the most comprehensive set of tracking" ever done, Robinson said.

At the core of Lopez-Alegria’s experiments is a new freezer at work in the space station’s Human Research Facility 2 (HRF-2) rack inside NASA’s Destiny laboratory. The Minus Eighty Laboratory Freezer (MELFI) for ISS arrived at the ISS in July aboard NASA’s space shuttle Discovery, but its four freezer units are being filled for the first time during Expedition 14.

Monitoring sleep patterns
Lopez-Alegria is also participating in a study to track his orbital sleep and activity patterns to evaluate how his body reacts to life aboard the ISS, where astronauts experience night and day during each 90-minute orbit around Earth.

Slideshow: Month in Space: January 2014 “Previous studies of shuttle crewmembers have indicated that they have a very poor sleep pattern,” Robinson said. “The concern is that these kinds of poor sleep patterns can lead to poor performance over time.”

When living in the unforgiving environment that is the vacuum of space, an alert and functional crew is vital for both work performance and safety.

In order to monitor his own sleep patterns, Lopez-Alegria wears a watch-like device on his wrist known as an Actiwatch that is one part light sensor, one part activity monitor.

“It silently records both his sleep patterns and light exposure,” Robinson explained, adding that Lopez-Alegria also keeps a separate log that is then compared to the Actiwatch data.

Commercial and agriculture experiments
Reiter and Tyruin, a Russian cosmonaut, too are pursuing their own science experiments aboard the ISS.

Tyurin’s research program includes experiments for both science and commercial organizations. Among them investigations into protein crystallization, last week’s orbital golf shot, a biomedical study of heart and blood circulation in space and a space-based effort to monitor and predict natural or man-made disasters on Earth.

Reiter, meanwhile, has spent some research time growing plants under different light and gravity environments using the Modular Cultivation System (EMCS). The system uses a series of centrifuges to grow seedlings under weightlessness, partial gravity or two times Earth gravity (two Gs) after an initial cultivation period at one G.

“Plants have a gravity sensing system, a red light sensing system and a blue light sensing system,” explained Robinson. “At the end of the treatment, we take the seeds and freeze them in MELFI for return to Earth so later, scientists can look at their genes.”

Researchers hope the experiment, known as Tropi, will aid space-based agriculture for future long-duration space missions.

Recording the home planet
Robinson said the Expedition 14 astronauts are not the only ones conducting science aboard the ISS. Some 6,585 students from 107 schools and 12 countries have used an ISS-based camera to study the Earth. They recorded 1,400 images of their home planet under the continuous EarthKAM project.

Meanwhile, NASA’s STS-116 shuttle astronauts are poised to launch towards the ISS on Dec. 7, and will ferry tools for seven new science investigations while returning samples from nine ongoing experiments.

“So it’s an extremely busy period and it’s a period that’s benefiting hundreds of scientists,” Robinson said.

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