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NASA Ames Launches Nanosatellites, Science Experiments on SpaceX Rocket
April 10, 2014


NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., will launch a variety of experiments into space aboard NASA's next commercial cargo resupply flight of the Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station. These experiments include a next-generation smartphone satellite, 100 stamp-sized nanosatellites and life science experiments to better our understanding of how spaceflight affects the human body, the growth of cells and plants. Future astronauts on long-term space missions in low-Earth orbit, to asteroids, other planets and beyond will benefit from these technologies and need to understand how to prevent illnesses during space travel.

The company's third commercial resupply mission to the space station is scheduled to lift off on a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 1:58 p.m. PDT Monday, April 14. If the launch is postponed, the next launch opportunity is Friday, April 18 at approximately 12:25 p.m. The mission will deliver several tons of supplies, including new science and technology research experiments.

The three Ames-supported satellites, which were selected for launch by NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative, are scheduled to deploy from the Falcon 9 rocket or Dragon spacecraft into low-Earth orbits between 200 and 250 miles (325 and 400 kilometers) above Earth.

PhoneSat 2.5 is a one-unit (1U) cubesat spacecraft built at Ames. It measures 10 centimeters square (approximately four inches on each side) and uses commercially available smartphones. This latest PhoneSat is fifth in a series and has three objectives: determine if a low-cost commercially available attitude determination and control system can work in space; verify if a smartphone can support space-based communications systems; and provide further confidence in the PhoneSat concept and components by investigating its ability to survive long-term in the radiation environment of space. PhoneSat 2.5 is equipped with a higher-gain S-Band antenna, which serves as a pathfinder for future NASA missions, including the Edison Demonstration of Satellite Network (EDSN) mission scheduled to launch later this year. EDSN plans to launch eight identical 1.5U cubesats (10-by-10-by-15 centimeters and 2.5 kilograms) based on the PhoneSat architecture in order to demonstrate the utility of multiple small spacecraft cooperatively working together. PhoneSat 2.5’s smartphone camera will attempt to transmit photographs to the ground station at Santa Clara University in California to gather information for future low-cost star trackers. The PhoneSat series of technology demonstration missions is funded by the Small Spacecraft Technology Program, in NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters and the Engineering Directorate at Ames.

SporeSat is an autonomous, free-flying spacecraft that will investigate how germinating plant cells sense and respond to gravity. Researchers are studying spores in space to gain a more detailed understanding of molecular and biophysical mechanisms for gravity sensing. Specifically, it will investigate how germinating single-celled spores of the aquatic fern Ceratopteris richardii sense and respond to gravity. The 3U spacecraft built at Ames, weighs approximately 12 pounds and measures 10-by-10-by-30 centimeters (14 inches long, four inches wide, four inches tall). The science payload includes three lab-on-a-chip devices, called BioCDs, developed by researchers at Purdue University in Lafayette, Ind., for variable gravity electrophysiology studies of single cells. Each disc-shaped BioCD holds up to 32 spores. During the experiment, two of the BioCDs will spin to simulate gravity and the third will remain stationary. SporeSat was developed through a partnership between Ames, which managed the development of the mission, and the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Purdue, where Jenna Rickus and Amani Salim are the principal investigators. SporeSat is funded by the Space Biology Project at Ames and the Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications Division in the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters.

KickSat is a 3U cubesat technology demonstration mission designed to deploy and operate in space a prototype 3.5-by-3.5 centimeter (1.4-by-1.4 inch) Sprite “ChipSats” developed at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., with support from the Ames Office of the Chief Technologist. A 1U avionics bus provides power, communications, command and data handling, and attitude control functions, while a 2U deployer houses 100 Sprites in individual spring-loaded slots. Each Sprite is a tiny spacecraft with power, sensor and communication systems on a printed circuit board. It is intended as a general-purpose sensor platform for micro-electro-mechanical and other chip-scale sensors with the ability to downlink data to ground stations from low Earth orbit. Chipsats like the Sprite represent a disruptive new space technology that has the potential to both open space access to hobbyists and students and enable a new class of science missions. The hardware for the KickSat mission was funded by the crowdsource-funding website Kickstarter.

In addition to deploying three Ames-supported nanosatellites, Dragon also will deliver several life science experiments developed in collaboration with Ames, including:

T-Cell Activation in Aging is an investigation of the genetic and molecular mechanisms that underlie diminished T-cell activation that occurs in the aging population and astronauts. T-cell activation is a critical event during which T-cells, which are specialized immune system cells, recognize infections within the body and initiate a defensive response. The National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health, is the sponsoring agency for the mission.

“This experiment’s unique approach to studying molecular mechanisms that contribute to decline of T-cell function will add to our understanding of the effects of zero gravity on the immune function, as well as provide insights about immune suppression, a major issue affecting older people,” said Felipe Sierra Ph.D., director of the National Institute on Aging Division of Aging Biology. “Hopefully, this will help lead to new interventions to prevent infection not only for those on space travel but also for those with compromised immune systems, including the elderly.”

Ames is the integration partner and provides science team support to the principal investigator. The European Space Agency developed the payload and provides experiment hardware, payload integration and operations support for the mission. Millie Hughes-Fulford, former NASA Astronaut and researcher at Northern California Institute for Research and Education at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, is the principal investigator.

Heart Effect Analysis Research Team conducting FLy Investigations and Experiments in Spaceflight  (HEART FLIES) will use the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, to study the effects of spaceflight on the structure and function of the heart. The investigators will evaluate heart rhythm, contractility, pumping function, and heart muscle structure in both space-flown and ground-based control flies, and also will characterize the effects of spaceflight on gene expression patterns in heart tissue. This experiment is supported by Ames, Stanford University, the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, Nanoracks LLC., and Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). HEART FLIES was competitively selected for payload transportation to the space station by the Space Florida International Space Station Research Competition. Peter H.U. Lee is the principal investigator for this experiment. Lee  was at Stanford University at the time of the grant award, and now works in the Department of Surgery at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Sharmila Bhattacharya of Ames, and Rolf Bodmer and Karen Ocorr of the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., are co-investigators.

Micro-7 is the first spaceflight study of gene and microRNA expression in non-dividing cells. The study also will investigate how spaceflight affects the response of non-dividing cells to DNA damage. The data from Micro-7 will provide insight into how gene expression regulates cellular adaptation to spaceflight and the specific role of microRNA in this process. Missions conducted in deep space—such as a mission to Mars—will expose crew members to higher levels of DNA-damaging radiation than on Earth or in low Earth orbit. Knowledge of how cells adapt to spaceflight and whether microgravity affects cellular response to DNA damage is important for assessing future health risks for astronauts and predicting mutation rates for microorganisms. This experiment is supported by NASA’s Space Biology Project at Ames and BioServe Space Technologies at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Honglu Wu of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston is the principal investigator.  

Dragon also will deliver legs to the humanoid robot on the space station, Robonaut 2 (R2). The legs will provide R2 the mobility it needs to help with regular and repetitive tasks inside and outside the space station. The goal is to free up the crew for more critical work, including scientific research. R2 was developed by Johnson and is part of the Human Exploration Telerobotics Project. The project is managed by the Intelligent Robotics Group at Ames and involves research and development at Ames, Johnson and the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Support for the project is provided by the NASA Technology Demonstration Missions program.

For more information about Ames contributions to the SpaceX mission, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/ames/spacex-3

For more information about the SpaceX resupply mission, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/spacex


Text issued as Ames release 14-025AR

Rachel Hoover
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.

International Space Station in orbit
International Space Station in orbit.
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Page Editor: Rachel Hoover