Hardware Developed By CU Boulder Launched By SpaceX Rocket

The SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft lift off on the CRS-9 mission. Image Credit: NASA/Frank Michaux

The SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft lift off on the CRS-9 mission. Image Credit: NASA/Frank Michaux

July 18, 2016 – High-tech space hardware designed and built at the University of Colorado Boulder for biomedical experiments was successfully launched aboard the commercial SpaceX Dragon capsule to the International Space Station (ISS) early this morning.

Developed by BioServe Space Technologies, a center headquartered in the aerospace engineering sciences department, the hardware will support experiments ranging from the mitigation of bone loss in space to the effects of low gravity on stem cell-derived heart cells.

The BioServe hardware includes a customized laboratory microscope that will allow researchers on ISS to observe differences between biological structures that have similar levels of transparency, said BioServe Director Louis Stodieck. In addition, researchers and students at the NASA-sponsored center developed an atmosphere control module that will enable the successful culturing of mammalian cells in orbit.

A Falcon 9 rocket built by SpaceX carried the Dragon capsule into space from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at roughly 12:45 a.m. EDT on Monday, July 18.

The bone loss mitigation experiment is being directed by University of Minnesota Professor Bruce Hammer to test the accuracy of a new device that simulates microgravity for cell and tissue cultures by manipulating magnetic fields in space. The heart experiment, led by doctoral student Arun Sharma of Stanford University, is designed to measure shape and behavior changes in heart cells in microgravity, research that has implications for both astronauts and people on Earth, said Stodieck.

BioServe researchers and students have flown hardware and experiments on more than 50 missions aboard NASA space shuttles, the ISS and on Russian and Japanese government cargo rockets. BioServe previously has flown payloads on commercial cargo rockets developed by both SpaceX, headquartered in Hawthorne, California, and Orbital ATK, Inc. headquartered in Dulles, Virginia.

Experiments in the microgravity of space are valuable for both research and education, said BioServe engineer Shankini Doraisingam. By conducting experiments in microgravity, scientists can learn more about biochemical changes in cells and organisms that the force of gravity on Earth may be masking, she said.

Since its inception in 1987, BioServe has partnered with more than 100 companies and performed dozens of NASA-sponsored investigations, said Stodieck.

In addition to scientific research, BioServe has been involved in a number of educational experiments involving developing butterflies and web-spinning spiders in space that have reached thousands of K-12 students around the world, said BioServe Associate Director Stefanie Countryman.

BioServe partners include large and small pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, universities and NASA-funded researchers. Both undergraduate and graduate CU Boulder students are involved in BioServe research efforts.


In addition to BioServe hardware, astronauts aboard the International Space Station are expecting almost 5,000 pounds of new cargo. Packed tightly inside the unpiloted Dragon spacecraft are a host of supplies for the station crew along with critical materials for dozens of the more than 250 scientific investigations slated to take place during the next several months. As an orbiting laboratory, the space station offers a unique platform to conduct research focused on improving aspects of life on Earth, decoding the challenges of long-duration spaceflight for astronauts traveling to deep-space in the future and for monitoring global changes on our home planet.

Dragon also carries a component for the station that will set it up for a new era of human spaceflight: international docking adapter, or IDA. The hardware is a ring weighing more than 1,000 pounds that will provide a standardized connection point to the station for visiting spacecraft including the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon, both now in development in partnership with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Engineered to an international docking standard and with numerous sensors and instruments attached, the adapter is designed to work with automated guidance systems on arriving spacecraft so they can safely dock to the station with little, if any, involvement from the crew in the spacecraft. The station’s robotic arm will retrieve the IDA from the unpressurized trunk of the Dragon and spacewalkers will complete the installation of the adapter in August.

The rest of the cargo, including the research payloads, is riding inside the Dragon’s pressurized compartment. Once berthed to the station, the Dragon’s hatch will be opened so station crew members can move inside to gather the supplies. Once berthed to the station, the Dragon’s hatch will be opened so station crew members can move inside to gather the supplies.

One of the scientific projects is the work of students at Eagle Crest High School in Aurora, Colorado. As part of NASA’s HUNCH program, which stands for High Schools United with NASA to Create Hardware, students created an experiment to help reveal how nano-scale structures can be created. The experiment will see how silver crystals form wires as small as one atom wide. Crystals can form larger structures in microgravity because they don’t collapse under their own weight.

Housed inside a NanoRacks NanoLab, the experiment will be performed in a very small box about 4x4x6 inches. It is an automated experiment that astronauts will click into place and let run for about four weeks. Then they will unplug the box and pack it in foam inside the same Dragon capsule for the return to Earth.

“They’ve come up with a novel way to do this and see how the nano crystals will form in microgravity compared to here on Earth,” said Mary Murphy, senior internal payloads manager for NanoRacks. “They want to see if they can better understand how the structures are formed in order to find is a better way to produce structures on the ground.”

The experiment was the last of the HUNCH projects to be evaluated aboard NASA’s zero-gravity aircraft – the “vomit comet” – before the research was assigned to fly to the space station. The aircraft testing offered about 30 seconds of weightlessness at a time compared to the around-the-clock microgravity conditions of the station.

“It’s very special when students get to have experiments tested on the International Space Station,” said Abby Dickes, manager of Creative and Strategic Planning for DreamUp, the organization that helps coordinate student-performed research efforts via launch services provider, NanoRacks. “The students are some of the most exciting researchers to work with- the passion to see their experiment succeed is contagious, and together, we are making a difference for the future of space exploration.”

The first stage of the SpaceX rocket was successfully landed at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida following the successful launch of the Dragon Capsule toward ISS.