Cargo of the Space Dragon
April 16, 2014

Cargo Of The Space Dragon

Can dragons fly into space? For the SpaceX Dragon capsule, April 14 marks its third trip to the International Space Station. A supply capsule, the Dragon is essential in bringing much needed supplies up to the orbital laboratory, as well as returning samples and hardware here to Earth. For this, its third trip, the Dragon will be bringing with it four spectacular new projects that will soon be in place.

The first of these is the Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science, or OPALS. OPALS is meant to test the use of laser optics as opposed to radio frequencies to improve communication between Earth and the International Space Station. Use of laser beams are estimated to improve communication data rates by a factor of 10 to 100, as lasers are far more efficient thanks to being hundreds of thousands of times more narrow in comparison to the more commonly used radio waves. OPALS will be able to transfer video from the space station to a receiver located at NASA‘s Optical Communications Telescope Laboratory in Wrightwood, California. A ground relay with then transmit a laser beacon to the station, where an on-board camera system will track the signal in order to maintain connection. This improved transmission rate should be a great benefit to all future missions to the station as they will be able to send greater amounts of data down to the scientists on Earth with no greater draw on power resources.

Another study going on is the T-Cell Activation in Aging investigation, which hopes to identify the defects in T-cell activation during microgravity exposure. T-cells are a type of white blood cell that are essential to run our body’s immune system while T-cell activation is a response of our immune systems to fight foreign antigens. Though it is not understood why, T-cells lose function as our bodies age, but it has been noted that a similar thing happens to those who experience microgravity during spaceflight. This makes the International Space Station a perfect platform from which researchers can investigate functional changes to immunity that happen to everyone as they age. This could help in discovering new treatments for a range of autoimmune diseases like arthritis and diabetes.

Next, we have the Vegetable Production System, or Veggie, which is a new investigation into just how we can produce edible vegetation on a space habitat. Not only will this provide the crew with nutritious fresh food, something obviously hard to come by in space, but it should also act as a sort of comfort zone, helping astronauts feel less out of touch with the Earth. The Veggie unit provides its own lighting and nutrient delivery, but it uses the cabin environment on the space station for its temperature control as well as a source of carbon dioxide to promote growth. This study is meant to focus on the possibilities of human habitability in space, as that could greatly improve long-duration spaceflight. It could also have important implications for improving plant growth and biomass production here on Earth.

Finally, the new High Definition Earth Viewing (or HDEV) study will place four commercially available high-def cameras on the exterior of the station for the purpose of streaming live videos down to Earth for online viewing. In part, this is a test to see just which high definition camera will function best in space for future missions, as using available hardware is more cost-effective than designing whole new space-cameras. Schools who are a part of HUNCH (High Schools United with NASA to Create Hardware) will be operating these cameras and will be the first to see what these cameras are able to record.

Image Credit: SpaceX

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