SpaceX launched its twenty-first Commercial Resupply Services mission (CRS-21)

SpaceX launched its twenty-first Commercial Resupply Services mission (CRS-21), which lifted off from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Center, Florida at 11:17 a.m. EST, or 16:17 UTC. Dragon separated from Falcon 9’s second stage about eleven minutes after liftoff and autonomously docked to the space station on Monday, December 7.

Image credit: SpaceX

This is the first flight of the updated cargo version of Dragon, which is capable of carrying about 20 percent more volume than the previous version of Dragon and has double the amount of powered locker cargo capability. Dragon is now designed for up to five flights to and from the space station, and this cargo version of the spacecraft can stay on station more than twice as long as the previous version of Dragon.

The Falcon 9 first stage rocket booster that supported this launch previously supported launch of Dragon’s first flight with NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (Demo-2), the ANASIS-II mission, and a Starlink mission. Following stage separation, SpaceX landed Falcon 9’s first stage on the “Of Course I Still Love You” droneship, which was stationed in the Atlantic Ocean. This flight marks Falcon 9’s 100th successful launch.

Among the scientific investigations Dragon is delivering to the space station are:

Microbial meteorite miners:

A mixture of meteorite samples and microbes are headed to the space station. Certain microbes form layers on the surface of rock that can release metals and minerals, a process known as biomining. A previous investigation from ESA (European Space Agency), BioRock, examined how microgravity affects the processes involved in biomining. ESA follows up on that work with BioAsteroid, which examines biofilm formation and biomining of asteroid or meteorite material in microgravity. Researchers are seeking a better understanding of the basic physical processes that control these mixtures, such as gravity, convection, and mixing. Microbe-rock interactions have many potential uses in space exploration and off-Earth construction. Microbes could break down rocks into soils for plant growth, for example, or extract elements useful for life support systems and production of medicines.

Examining changes in hearts using tissue chips:

Microgravity causes changes in the workload and shape of the human heart, and it’s still unknown whether these changes could become permanent if a person lives in space more than a year. Cardinal Heart studies how changes in gravity affect the heart at the cellular and tissue level. The investigation uses 3D-engineered heart tissues, a type of tissue chip. Results could provide a new understanding of heart problems in patients on Earth, help identify new treatments, and support the development of screening measures to predict cardiovascular risk before spaceflight.

Counting white blood cells in space:

HemoCue tests the ability of a commercially available device to provide quick and accurate counts of total and differentiated white blood cells in microgravity. Doctors commonly use the total number of white blood cells and five different types of white blood cells to diagnose illnesses and monitor a variety of heath conditions. Verification of an autonomous blood analysis capability on the space station could enhance health care on Earth and is an important step toward meeting the health care needs of crew members on future missions.

Building with brazing:

SUBSA-BRAINS examines differences in capillary flow, interface reactions, and bubble formation during the solidification of brazing alloys in microgravity. Brazing is a type of soldering used to bond materials, such as an aluminum alloy to aluminum or aluminum alloy to ceramics, at high temperatures. The technology could serve as a tool for in-space construction of human habitats and vehicles on future space missions, as well as for repairing damage caused by micrometeoroids or space debris.

A new and improved door to space:

Launching in the trunk of the Dragon capsule, the Nanoracks Bishop Airlock is a commercial platform that can support a range of scientific work on the space station. Its capabilities include deployment of free-flying payloads such as CubeSats and externally mounted payloads, housing small external payloads, jettisoning trash, and recovering external Orbital Replacement Units. ORUs are modular components of the station that can be replaced when needed, such as pumps and other hardware. Roughly five times larger than the airlock on the Japanese Experiment Module already in use on the station, the Bishop Airlock allows robotic movement of more and larger packages to the exterior of the space station, including hardware to support spacewalks. It also provides capabilities such as power and ethernet required for internal and external payloads.

Your brain on microgravity

The Effect of Microgravity on Human Brain Organoids study observes the response of brain organoids to microgravity. Small living masses of cells that interact and grow, organoids can survive for months, providing a model for understanding how cells and tissues adapt to environmental changes. Organoids grown from neurons or nerve cells exhibit normal processes such as responding to stimuli and stress. Therefore, organoids can be used to look at how microgravity affects survival, metabolism, and features of brain cells, including rudimentary cognitive function.

These are just a few of the hundreds of investigations currently being conducted aboard the orbiting laboratory in the areas of biology and biotechnology, physical sciences, and Earth and space science. Advances in these areas will help keep astronauts healthy during long-duration space travel and demonstrate technologies for future human and robotic exploration beyond low-Earth orbit to the Moon and Mars through NASA’s Artemis program.

Source: SpaceX, NASA