CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX might be a few years away from launching human astronauts into orbit, but this weekend, the company is due to send a miniature crew of live passengers into space.
An intrepid all-female group of 20 mice will ride inside SpaceX's Dragon space capsule when it blasts off atop a Falcon 9 rocket on a delivery run to the International Space Station.
The mice are among a motley batch of cargo that includes some unusual items and milestones: the first 3-D printer in space, mutant fruit flies, a wind-watching radar, a mouse X-ray machine and a commercial experiment designed to make a better golf club. Dragon's flight — scheduled for launch at 2:14 a.m. ET Saturday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida — will be SpaceX's fourth official resupply mission to the astronaut outpost under a contract with NASA. [See photos from the SpaceX-4 Dragon mission]
Milestone for space mice
The space-bound mice will be the first residents of NASA's new Rodent Research habitat, which scientists will use to study the animals' behavior and health. Years ago, NASA sent mice into space on shuttle flights, but those rodent astronauts rarely spent more than two weeks in space. This mission — primarily intended to test out the new habitat and hardware — will last 30 days.
Astronauts lose muscle and bone strength quickly when they go to space, and the same is expected to happen to mice. Researchers will measure the rodents' loss in bone density throughout the flight using a new X-ray machine built by Techshot, called the Bone Densitometer. It will be the first X-ray source to be on the space station.
At the end of their month-long mission, the rodents will be euthanized and dissected by the astronauts so that certain parts can be frozen and preserved for study back on Earth.
Other organisms are due to travel aboard Dragon, including the yeast that causes athlete's foot, seedlings that are part of an experiment to grow plants in space and 30 fruit flies. Half of those fruit flies are mutants that are particularly resistant to stressors like starvation and dehydration. Researchers will look for behavioral and genetic changes in the two groups of flies.
First 3-D printer in space
Having a 3-D printer on the space station could allow astronauts to make tools and replacement parts that would otherwise have to be delivered from Earth at great expense. The first spaceworthy 3-D printer, built by the California-based company Made In Space, is now ready for launch.
Made In Space has flown its 3-D printers on hundreds of parabolic airplane flights. But the 20- to 30-second spurts of microgravity on those trips don't offer enough time to learn how well 3-D printers function off the planet, since even small items can take 15 or 20 minutes to produce.
After it arrives at the space station, the printer will produce small parts using ABS plastic — the same plastic that Lego toys are made from. Eventually, Made In Space plans to send a bigger commercial 3-D printer that can make parts out of stronger, higher-temperature plastics.
Made In Space's team even had sample of a small 3-D-printed column made of regolith (loose rock present on Earth and other planets) on display here, to show that one day, astronauts might not even have to bring their own raw materials. They might be able to scoop it up from the lunar or Martian dirt under their boots.
3-D printing won't be the only materials science taking place on the space station in the next few weeks. The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space — the nonprofit organization that runs all the science research on the American portions of the space station — partnered with the sports-accessory maker Cobra Puma Golf to launch an experiment that will be aimed at making better, stronger golf clubs.
Tracking Earth's winds from space
In Dragon's trunk, there's another payload designed to improve life on Earth: a special radar that can peer through the clouds in the planet's atmosphere and measure winds swirling over the ocean's surface.
"Unlike many optical satellites that can only see the top of the clouds, radar can really get to the bottom and see the wind speed and direction that affects the people on the ground," said Ernesto Rodríguez, principal investigator for the instrument, called the Rapid Scatterometer or RapidScat.
Whereas scatterometers in the past flew in polar orbits, the RapidScat space instrument will take advantage of the space station's orbit, which covers nearly every point of Earth at different times of day. This data will give forecasters insight into weather patterns, destructive hurricanes, ocean circulation and even carbon sequestration.
SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to fly at least 12 resupply missions to the International Space Station. The arrangement is part of NASA's effort to turn space station resupply over to the private sector in the wake of the space shuttle fleet's retirement in 2011. Another company, Orbital Sciences Corp., has a $1.9 billion cargo contract with NASA.
This week, NASA said it would set aside $6.8 billion over the next several years to support the development of "space taxis" by SpaceX and Boeing, with the aim of transporting astronauts to and from the space station on U.S. commercial craft beginning in 2017.