Last updated September 13, 2017 at 9:30 am
Hurricane Harvey could not beat NASA, and the future for Astronaut’s urine. These and more in this edition of Go/No Go, the fortnightly wrap of space flight news.
Johnson Space Center Hunkers Down
The massive storms and flooding that hit Houston forced the closure of the Johnson Space Center, one of NASA’s major space flight facilities.
Rainfall exceeded 1 metre at the campus which houses NASA’s Mission Control, however NASA reported that staff and the facility were safe. However in the interests of personnel safety the centre was forced to close to all non-mission-essential staff. “Unless you are mission essential, stay off the road and stay safe,” officials said in a post on the JSC website. The people who were required to report for duty however were reportedly camping inside buildings on campus as flood waters had cut off access.
Mission control for the International Space Station, based at Johnson, remained operational through the storm and was fully capable of supporting the station at all times.
Astronauts on the ISS kept an eye on the storm from space, taking photographs and observations of the storm as it cut across the south of the US.
Johnson is expected to reopen to full capacity on September 5.
“Houston, we have a hurricane.” Our thoughts & prayers are with folks feeling Harvey’s wrath, as dawn breaks after a long night of rain. pic.twitter.com/XR1RvZpkrD
— Jack Fischer (@Astro2fish) August 26, 2017
James Webb Space Telescope Forced Into Hiding
The James Webb Space Telescope, currently undergoing pre-launch testing at Johnson, was largely unaffected by Hurricane Harvey. Costing over US$8.6 billion, it was being closely watched during the storm.
The telescope, slated for launch in October 2018, is currently undergoing a 100-day test inside the world’s largest vacuum chamber, with the evocative name “Chamber A.” The test is simulating the vacuum conditions in space. There were no reports of flooding badly affecting Building 32, which hosts the test. While European Space Agency astronomer Sarah Kendrew tweeted that they were using “mops and buckets” to sop up rainwater near workstations in Building 32, she also reported that none of the leaks were near Chamber A. “The telescope,” she tweeted, “is totally fine.”
Image courtesy of NASA and Chris Gunn
NASA targets Mars samples in the 2020’s
After many rover missions to Mars, NASA is targeting the first ever mission to collect samples from the Martian surface and return them to Earth.
While the Martian rovers are packed with scientific equipment and regularly return new information about the surface, geology, climate and chemistry of Mars, no samples have ever been returned to Earth for analysis. However NASA has set its sights on doing exactly that by the end of the 2020’s, according to the associate administrator of NASA’s science mission directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen.
The plan would be to use a rover being sent in 2020 to collect vials of soil and rock specimens and deposit them in sealed containers on the ground. A second mission launched in 2026 would dispatch a lander to Mars, with a carrier module attached to a small rocket booster to launch the samples back into space. The 2026 lander would collect the samples using either its own small rover, or use the 2020 rover if it was still operational, and load them into the carrier module called the Mars Ascent Vehicle.
However, as it stands, this idea would stretch NASA’s planetary science budget.
Image courtesy of NASA and JPL
NASA review delivered
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have released a new report into NASA’s activities.
NASA’s large strategic missions like the Hubble Space Telescope, the Curiosity rover on Mars, and the Terra Earth observation satellite should continue to be a primary component of a balanced space science program that includes large, medium, and smaller missions, according to the report, which noted that these activities are essential to maintaining the United States’ global leadership in space exploration. Essentially – keep doing what you’re doing.
The report also suggested NASA establish minimum scientific goals and maximum budgets for large scale projects, as well as scientific goals at certain budget levels. By doing this, NASA would be able to alter how missions are implemented and reduce their scope if faced with budget constraints, or alternatively, increase the scope of missions if budgets are boosted. Although cost-evaluation and cost-management mechanisms developed at NASA over the past decade have proved to be effective, NASA should continue to use its various cost estimation and management tools to better assess and control the costs and risks of the missions and ensure they remain a viable option, the report says
Turning astronaut urine into tools
Scientists from Clemson University in South Carolina have been working on a new use for astronaut urine – using yeast to convert it into plastic.
They have genetically modified Yarrowia lipolytica yeast to produce plastic products. The yeast uses the nitrogen found in urea in the urine, and sugars, lipids and other nutrients produced by algae fed with carbon dioxide (which could be sourced from astronaut’s exhalations). The ISS already houses a 3D printer, which could theoretically use this plastic product to manufacture all sorts of tools and equipment.
At the moment however the yeast/urine/algae system is not usefully efficient, with a 1000 litre tank required to produce enough plastic for even a small spanner.
The yeast’s party trick also doesn’t stop at plastic. The same urine and algae products can also be used to feed different yeast with genetic modifications to produce dietary nutrients such as omega-3. Different modifications can also be introduced to produce different nutrients. “Astronauts will need to be able to produce nutrients and materials they need during Earth-independent long-term space travel,” said lead researcher Mark Blenner. “They simply don’t have the space to transport all possible needs – and certain nutrients, drugs, and materials can degrade over the course of three-plus year mission.”
However the ISS already has the universe’s most efficient water purification system, with the astronaut’s urine being turned back into drinking water. In the future striking a balance between various uses may make urine one of the most valuable resources available to space travellers.
Spaceflight changes proteins in the body
Russian scientists have looked at the effects of space flight on the human body at the molecular level, and have found that time in space reduces the amount of certain proteins, which then return to pre-flight levels at different rates.
The proteins which were changed by space flight seemed to nearly all relate to just a handful of processes in the body. These included blood clotting, fat metabolism, and the immune system. One Russian scientist involved in the study remarked that the immune system seemed to act as if it is confused and “tries to turn on all possible defence systems.”
The researchers took blood plasma samples from cosmonauts 30 days before long duration ISS missions, immediately after they returned to Earth, and then seven days later. 19 proteins were found to have levels changed by time in space. While most of these returned to normal levels after one week back on Earth, two proteins involved in transporting fat and iron through the blood stayed at significantly lower levels. Different proteins were also found to be at normal levels straight after landing, but then had changed seven days later, indicating a period of reacclimatisation to gravity.
Future studies may involve cosmonauts taking blood samples while in space to study the changes occurring while the body acclimatises to the low gravity environment.