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Summary:

The ISS crew will soon be growing veggies, upgrading an on-board robot and releasing a very interesting satellite into space.

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After problems forced a delay from a scheduled launch this weekend, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to take off later this month carrying nearly 5,000 pounds of precious cargo headed to the International Space Station, including the equipment for more than 150 experiments. Here’s a look at five of the more interesting projects that will be on board.

OPALS

OPALS at a NASA test facility last year. Photo courtesy of Jim Grossmann/NASA.

OPALS at a NASA test facility last year. Photo courtesy of Jim Grossmann/NASA.

The Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science will use a laser to communicate with a NASA station on Earth. Laser beams can send data at a much higher rate than traditional radio frequency transmissions. Sending more data at faster rates will be essential as our exploration of the universe moves farther and farther away from Earth.

NASA’s main challenge will be accurately positioning the laser to point at its target. The agency will test OPALS by sending high definition video between Earth and the ISS. It expects that it will be able to send 10 to 100 times more data than is currently possible.

Vegetable Production System

A prototype vegetable box. Photo courtesy of NASA.

A prototype vegetable box. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Growing up, we learned that space food comes in tubes and vacuum-sealed packages. The future looks a lot more palatable, as NASA is trying hard to develop better options for astronauts that promote health and stave off depression.

The Vegetable Production System is both a science experiment and a nutrition experiment. After observing how salad-friendly varieties of lettuce — the largest plants ever grown on the space station — respond to life in microgravity, the ISS crew will eat them. The plants will also remove carbon dioxide from the air and, potentially, provide insight into how NASA can help people journey farther than ever before from Earth.

KickSat CubeSat

Photo courtesy of Spacecraft Research.

Photo courtesy of Spacecraft Research.

Shoebox-size CubeSat satellites have totally changed the types of people and companies who can afford to send a satellite into space. While an aerospace graduate student at Cornell University, Zac Manchester launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2011 to drop that price even further.

His KickSat CubeSat will finally launch this week aboard the Falcon 9. Once it is released from the ISS, it will release 250 palm-sized satellites known as Sprites. Kickstarter backers who pledged at least $300 will have their own personal Sprite that they control.

Robonaut 2’s legs

Robonaut 2 aboard the ISS, san legs. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Robonaut 2 aboard the ISS, san legs. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Robonaut 2 is a humanoid robot built to perform simple, repetitive and dangerous tasks aboard the ISS. But right now, it’s just a head and torso. Falcon 9 will finally deliver its legs and their operating system, finally bringing R2 to its full capabilities.

The legs run on ROS: open source software developed by the Open Source Robotics Foundation. ROS is commonly used by famous Earth-bound robots like Baxter and PR2, but this is its first trip to space.

Falcon 9

The Falcon 9 with attached landing legs. Photo courtesy of SpaceX.

The Falcon 9 with attached landing legs. Photo courtesy of SpaceX.

OK, so the Falcon 9 rocket not going all the way to the ISS. But the rocket that will carry all these projects on the first leg of their journey is itself an experiment. SpaceX has been working on developing rockets that can land on solid ground after take off. This would create huge cost-savings for the industry by extending how many times a rocket can be used.

Right now, SpaceX’s rockets return to Earth by crashing into the ocean, which damages the rocket and makes recovery more expensive than gently setting down at their original take-off location. Traditionally, rockets have just been discarded after one use.

The Falcon 9 rocket scheduled to blast off Sunday will be the first to test a set of landing legs developed at SpaceX. While it will still land in the ocean, it will use the legs to soften its impact with the water. Eventually, SpaceX rockets will transition to landing on solid ground.

  1. Brett draper Monday, March 24, 2014

    If they have robots up there to do work are they going to end up sending robots on a craft to mars to do the work for people to go there.some day

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  2. Reuse of rocket stages will be a huge cost saving for Spacex since they will be the only ones doing so for the forceable future.

    Oh! It gets “damaged”, it’s suppose to break up, recovery has until now not been an option.
    All ! rocket stages has until now burn/brakes up and falls into the ocean, only the SRB’s of the space shuttle has ever been recovered and reused.

    The attempt by Spacex for a soft water landing of the first stage on their last mission has newer been attempted by anyone before !

    The landing legs are not for softening the impact with the water, the center engine is used for slowing the stage to landing velocity, the legs are wait…. LEGS,
    as a secondary function the legs will help to avoid spinning of the stage.

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  3. Could you comment on the Huntingtons Disease experiment that Dr Gwen Owen is involved with.
    Thank you
    George Essig
    gessig3@gmail.com

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