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International Space Station after undocking of STS 132

The ISS Now Has Better Internet Than Most of Us After Its Latest Upgrade

  • Recently NASA upgraded the connection of ISS as a result of which it can transmit data at double the existing rate. ISS can now send and receive data at a speed of 600 megabit-per-second (Mbps)
  • For increasing the data rate, components in the global communications system were also upgraded
  • A new digital ground architecture for Space Network was upgraded along with circuits in the land data lines connecting various components on Earth. 
  • Data processors at NASA were changed along with the ISS software-based modem.

Data connectivity is very crucial in this age. We are constantly connected to each other through the web and it gets very important when it comes to research that can lead to deep space destinations such as the Moon and Mars. 

Recently NASA upgraded the connection of ISS as a result of which it can transmit data at double the existing rate. To ensure seamless transfer of mission data to control centres on Earth an effective communication system gets the top priority. ISS can now send and receive data at a speed of 600 megabit-per-second (Mbps)  at any point in time. Similar upgrades will be deployed in the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway proposed by NASA. 

George Morrow, acting centre director of Goddard Space Flight Center said that for every NASA mission, the communication system plays a very important role. It helps in the transfer of data from human spaceflight and space research missions to Earth. Upgradation in the communication transfer for ISS displays commitment in the services for current and future NASA missions. 

ISS has given the astronauts an opportunity to conduct research which would not be possible on Earth since its operations started in 2000. This has allowed learning about the effects of long duration in space on human bodies and testing of different technology in the presence of microgravity. All these experiments need very high speed of data transmission between ISS and Earth. Now it would be possible to conduct experiments which need higher resolution data. 

Risha George, upgrade project lead said that the project showed that advanced radiofrequency waveforms can be used for increasing the rate of data transmission and thereby improve the performance for high-speed communication services. They can also be used for missions in the future like the Gateway which will be a stepping stone to human exploration on Mars. Data communication between ISS and Earth takes place with the help of ground-based antennas known as Space Network and system of Tracking and Data Relay Satellites(TDRS).

These satellites are placed in a high orbit over various strategic locations so they can relay data to the ground, which is then sent to various NASA centres using landlines where it is interpreted. The entire process has a delay of less than a second. For increasing the data rate, components in the global communications system were also upgraded. A new digital ground architecture for Space Network was upgraded along with circuits in the land data lines connecting various components on Earth. 

Upgrades were also made to the ISS software-based modem, improved data-processors were installed at various NASA centres, as well as new software and hardware at the ground stations. Rigorous testing followed to check that the upgrades functioned properly. During the upgradation, the network still supported more than 40 missions in real-time. Penny Roberts, upgrade project lead for the space station said that it was possible due to cooperation from NASA which can take the partnership to scale new heights. 

Soyuz TMA 7 spacecraft

Humanoid robot, Skybot F-850 to be the commander of a Soyuz spacecraft

The Russian Soyuz spacecraft will be carrying a humanoid robot as the commander of the capsule when it leaves for the International Space Station.

The robot named Skybot F-850 is one of the latest models of FEDOR robots from Russia that have been developed to serve as a stand-in for humans for tasks such as driving cars. And not only it is going to enter into space; for the first time, a robot will be in the position of commanding a spacecraft – Soyuz. It will be monitoring spacecraft conditions during the uncrewed flight as it leaves the atmosphere and enters the land of zero gravity.

The development of FEDOR robots started in 2014. This Skybot F-850 is made from materials which can withstand the operating conditions in space. To make sure that the ISS is not damaged in any way, its actions have been intentionally limited and is controlled by special movement algorithms. With the help of AI, Skybot can function independently or it can also be controlled by an operator wearing a control suit.

Its hands are meticulously designed for handling human tools. It can unlock a door, turn a valve and use a fire extinguisher. There are also videos of it, driving cars and even using automatic pistols which prompted Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister to make it clear that the robot does not serve as a weapon, but uses artificial intelligence in assisting humans in several other places. It is the first Russian robot on ISS but robots developed by NASA and ESA are in use on the space station for a long time.

Robonaut 2, a NASA robot without legs worked with astronauts when it flew to the ISS in 2011 and worked till 2014. It was brought back to earth as it developed problems after that. CIMON, ESA’s social robot is on the ISS since 2018. It can recognize faces, capture images and assist astronauts in communicating with Watson, IBM’s NLP computer on Earth.

The most advanced robots have been from the Astrobee project of NASA. They will take over from the SPHERES satellites, which served 10 years as an experimental hardware platform.

The Astrobees are more advanced than SPHERES. They will be serving as payload carriers and gradually take over regular tasks in ISS such as equipment inventory and instrument surveys. Astrobee’s project manager, Maria Bualat said that in a crewed spaceflight, crew time is very precious. Assistant robots will be performing the repetitive and dangerous tasks which the crew has to perform now. Development work for robots to operate in space itself is also in progress. These robots can perform works such as repairing external leaks so that astronauts do not have to perform an extravehicular activity.

Veggie Harvest

NASA announces the first fruit to be grown on International Space Station

The International Space Station (ISS) might get spicier as scientists are hoping to send Española chili pepper plants in November this year. If this happens then it could make peppers the very first fruit to be grown by US astronauts in space.

Ray Wheeler, NASA plant physiologist said that they were looking for the varieties of the plants which do not grow very tall and at the same time are very productive in the controlled environments which the researchers would be using in space.

Astronauts have often desired for more spicy and flavored foods, thus having an availability of hot flavored food would be quite great. In addition to the fact, the peppers contain vitamin C in very high proportions which is also important for space diets.

Although there are many varieties of chili peppers, Española peppers have been chosen since they grow at very high altitudes, can be easily pollinated and also have short growing time. Since 1982, astronauts have been successfully growing plants in space when Soviet Salyut 7 spacecraft crew grew the first model plant Arabidopsis. Since 2003, Russian cosmonauts have also been eating their own space produce, however, it was not till 2015 that American astronauts first tasted their own space lettuce.

Now a wide variety of vegetables have been grown on ISS which includes lettuce, peas, radishes and Chinese cabbage. Botanically, peas are part of a fruit and Russians have been growing them in their segment of the ISS. However, no US astronaut grew a fruiting plant in space yet which signifies that Española peppers could be the first one.

Due to microgravity, plants have some trouble growing as the root systems are quite complex and they normally use Earth’s gravity for orienting themselves. However, astronauts have figured out methods so that plants can grow successfully using special types of light. In 2018, a new growth system known as The Advanced Plant Habitat was sent to the ISS joining the Vegetable Production System for growing fresh food.

This is very significant for NASA’s plan to eventually send human beings to Mars. Once astronauts land on Mars it will be very difficult to send them freshly grown food back from the Earth. Thus growing their own food will be a top priority. Jacob Torres, a horticultural scientist said that all the rockets needed to land on Mars can be built, however, it will be useless if astronauts do not have food to eat. Researchers are presently working on several varieties of crops to be grown in space with a wide variety of vitamins and nutrients.

HOW IT WORKS: The International Space Station

The International Space Station (ISS) is a space station in low Earth orbit. Its first component was launched in 1998, with the first long-term residents arriving in November 2000. It has been inhabited continuously since that date. The latest major pressurized module was fitted in 2011, with an experimental inflatable space habitat added in 2016. As of December 2018, the station is expected to operate until 2030. Development and assembly of the station continue, with several new elements scheduled for launch in 2020. The ISS is the largest human-made body in low Earth orbit and can often be seen with the naked eye from Earth.

The ISS consists of pressurised habitation modules, structural trusses, solar arrays, radiators, docking ports, experiment bays and robotic arms. ISS components have been launched by Russian Proton and Soyuz rockets and US Space Shuttles.

The ISS serves as a microgravity and space environment research laboratory in which crew members conduct experiments in biology, physics, astronomy, meteorology, human biology, and other fields. The station is suited for the testing of spacecraft systems and equipment required for missions to the Moon and Mars. The ISS maintains an orbit with an average altitude of 400 kilometres (250 mi) by means of reboost manoeuvres using the engines of the Zvezda module or visiting spacecraft. It circles the Earth in roughly 92 minutes and completes 15.5 orbits per day.

The above video showcases International Space Station from inside and tell how astronauts live there

international space station

Researchers find bacteria infested ISS to be as dirty as a gym

In a paper published in the Microbiome journal on Monday, researchers found that the International Space Station has become littered with microbes, namely Staphylococcus, Pantoea and Bacillus, that are found to carry numerous infectious diseases, and are very much capable of thriving in extreme conditions such as in a space station.

The ISS was built in 1998 and has been visited by approximately 222 astronauts with 6 re-supply missions nearly every year until August 2017. Every time an astronaut goes up to the station, they can potentially bring in bacteria allowing to thrive within the sealed space station. Though the capsules that astronauts travel are built in sterile environments before they are sent into orbit and routine monitoring takes place. On Earth, our immune system works against infections we have to fight on a day-to-day basis, however, in space, the odds are against us since, our immune systems don’t get along with the conditions of microgravity.

Aleksandra Checinska Sielaff, a post-doctoral researcher at Washington State University who collaborated with NASA’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) on the study of this paper, says that they are not fully certain if these bacteria are harmful to the humans. Nonetheless, based on her observation she infers that whether the bacteria can cause diseases in astronauts on the ISS is yet unknown, however, it would depend on numerous factors, such as the health status of each individual and the function of these microbes in the space environment. Though these bacteria live in space, however, they didn’t come from space. They are passengers just like our astronauts who travelled to the International Space Station from Earth. Many of these bacteria are also found on the surface of our skin. For example Staph.

It’s very much important to monitor these bacteria in order to ensure that they don’t become infectious and antibiotic-resistant.

These bacteria are capable of forming biofilms which are the communities of tightly knitted bacteria, which are usually found accumulated in places like shower heads. Apart from health concerns, biofilms can cause mechanical blockages and corrosion.
If these microbes, one day become infectious or antibiotic-resistant, or both, we will have to deal with the first real space public health issue.

As of now, it looks as if the space hubs like ISS can be home for bacteria, only as long as the humans go there. Therefore, before we set out on missions to colonise space, we need to bring these bacteria under control!

international space station

A recent experiment strengthens hope for life on Mars

Our chances of finding life on Mars have vastly increased, thanks to a groundbreaking new experiment. Scientists have discovered that certain simple organisms that are found on Earth can safely survive Mars’ brutal conditions for months on end. They stuck a canister filled with microbes to the outside ISS (International Space Station), exposing them to cosmic radiation and the vacuum of space for 18 gruesome months. Some of the tiny creatures somehow survived, thus proving that similar life could be hiding out on the red planet.

Dr. Jean-Pierre Paul de Vera at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) in Cologne was quoted saying that some of the organisms and biomolecules have shown great resistance to radiation in the open space and even returned to Earth as ‘survivors’ of space.

He added that certain single-cell organisms would be the appropriate candidates for life forms that we could imagine on Mars. The result also adds credibility to the theory that life on Earth actually came from Mars. Experts think that our neighbor was home to microorganisms nearly 4 billion years ago and that an asteroid strike sent some chunks of Martian rocks flying into space. These chunks then collided with an early kind of our planet, depositing the microbes and leaving the foundations for all life on Earth. Scientists had already previously doubted whether any life could actually be able to survive the perilous trip from Mars, but the DLR study shows some organisms are more than proficient.

Terrestrial organisms that were stuck on the outside of the International Space Station (ISS) have been able to survive 533 days in the vacuum, intense ultraviolet radiation, and extreme temperature variations of space.

Out of all the planets in the Solar System, Mars seems like the most likely candidate to host life. But it’s extremely inhospitable, dusty, scorched, and inferior in gravity and oxygen, and has harsh radiation due to its thin atmosphere. It is cold and wracked by dust storms that can plummet the planet into darkness.

We have yet to detect life there, but there are a few ways we can test how viable its presence is. One is searching for life on planets similar to mars for environments on Earth.

In the current German Aerospace Center (DLR) led experiment called BIOMEX,  organisms such as bacteria, algae, lichens and fungi were unprotected to Mars-like conditions aboard the space station.

We know, hypothetically, that Mars has a bunch of the things we know life practices, including an atmosphere, elements such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorus, water ice, and maybe even liquid water.

Expose R2 in space

The Expose-R2 facility. (Roscosmos)

So, organisms were cultivated in Martian soil simulants. They were then placed outside the space station in the Expose-R2 facility.

Hundreds of samples were thereby included in the experiment, some with the soil simulant and a virtual Mars atmosphere to boot.

There they stayed for almost 18 months between 2014 and 2016 before being brought back down to Earth for further analysis.

None of the equipment sent to Mars so far has detected life or any divulging signs of it. But eloquent that it could exist there, and what kinds of organisms are most likely to survive – will help to develop tools that could detect life on future Mars missions.

NASA astronauts Christina Koch, left, and Anne McClain

The first all-female spacewalk has just been scheduled by NASA

The astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are scheduled to conduct the first all-female spacewalk on March 29 if it goes according to the plan. These astounding women are Anne McClain and Christina Koch. They will set out on a space venture together for about 400 km above the Earth and make history.

According to the significance of their mission, the spacewalk will take place during Women’s History Month.

“It was not orchestrated to be this way,” said NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz. “These spacewalks were originally scheduled to take place in the fall — they are to upgrade batteries on the space station.”

This spacewalk of McClain and Koch’s will be the second of three planned excursions for Expedition 59. This spacewalk is supposed to be launched next week on the very Pi Day at 3:14 pm ET (8:14 pm UTC).

One NASA flight controller expressed her excitement about working on the mission.

Before this historic spacewalk, McClain is also slated to perform a spacewalk with astronaut Nick Hague on March 22.

“Of course, assignments and schedules could always change,” Schierholz said.
NASA’s 2013 astronaut class, half of which was made up of women, had McClain and Koch as its members.

“Wanted to be an astronaut from the time I was 3 or 4 years old,” said McClain in a 2015 NASA video interview. She also has a position of major in the US Army and has served as a pilot too.

“I remember telling my mom at that time, and I never deviated from what I wanted to be. Something about exploration has fascinated me from a young age.”, she added.

McClain is currently aboard the ISS, where she is accompanied by an adorable Earth plush toy.

Koch, on the other hand, is an electrical engineer and she is supposed to join McClain on March 14 and have her first ever space flight, according to NASA. Space is just the latest exciting frontier Koch has conquered: her work and passion have taken her on expeditions to the South Pole and the Arctic.

She was asked in a February interview about the importance of conducting her mission during Women’s History Month. On this, she said, “It is a unique opportunity, and I hope that I’m able to inspire folks that might be watching.”

Noting she did not have many engineers to look up to growing up in Jacksonville, North Carolina., she added, “I hope that I can be an example to people that might not have someone to look at as a mentor … that it doesn’t matter where you come from or what examples there might be around you, you can actually achieve whatever you’re passionate about.”

“If that’s a role that I can serve,” she said, “it would be my honor to do that.”