TIC-TOC: Targeting Improved Cotton Through Orbital Cultivation

We are very excited to announce that we have been selected as part of the International Space Station (ISS) Cotton Sustainability Challenge organized by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) with funding from the Target Corporation.

Cotton is a major agricultural commodity around the world, with in excess of 25 million tons being produced annually and employing many millions of people in its cultivation, processing and distribution. Yet cotton production has significant environmental impacts related to factors such as high water consumption and often intensive agrochemical applications. The ISS Cotton Sustainability Challenge provides us with a remarkable opportunity to use the spaceflight environment to help understand cotton plant growth and development with the aim of spurring development of more stress resistant, water efficient and environmentally friendly cotton. We will be using the unique microgravity environment of the ISS National Laboratory to help understand how gravity interacts with the cotton root system to optimize how the plant mines the soil for mineral resources and determines its ability to scavenge for water.

We are at the very beginning of this journey, so stay tuned for updates as flight preparations progress. We also have to say a huge thank you to the Target Corporation, CASIS and the myriad support staff who will make this flight opportunity a reality.

“Let’s grow cotton in space!” Artwork by Kai Rasmussen, Gilroy Lab undergraduate researcher and curator of astrobotany.com.

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APEX-05: It’s Almost SpaceX-13 Launch

It’s Friday December 15 and “Sooty”, the affectionate name for the reused SpaceX rocket covered in soot from its previous launch, is still on the pad. Launch is scheduled for 10:36 today, with the possibility of slipping into next year.

We spent the past couple of days resetting our experiment for today’s launch opportunity, replanting seeds and packaging them for placement into the Dragon capsule, and then planting the ground controls. The cold stowage team who do the final payload loading are working miracles in pulling our previous samples from SpaceX 13 while it is on the launch pad and then replacing them with the newly planted material, all in time for pre-flight operations for the rocket for today’s launch deadline. It may all be in a day’s work for a rocket scientist but it is still pretty impressive to witness the dance that occurs around a delayed launch. As one of our colleagues at Kennedy Space Center just said, fingers AND toes crossed for the SpaceX CRS-13 launch today.


Kennedy Space Center cold stowage experts pack our experiment into the double cold bag prior to loading into SpaceX’s Dragon capsule for the CRS-13 launch.

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APEX-05… Launch Day Slips

Well, it’s Monday December 11 and that’s past the 8th. Yup, launch delay. This comes with the territory of space research, so when we heard earlier in the week, we just got down to work for the new launch date, re-planning our pre-flight operations, re-scheduling flights home and most importantly, letting the folks looking after our pets in Madison know to feed the cats for a few more days. We’re now readying for launch tomorrow, December 12th, with a launch scrub (i.e. last minute launch cancellation) date of the 13th with a possible option to launch on the 15th.

On Saturday (Dec 9th), we spent pretty much the whole day planting up our seeds, wrapping them in foil and packing them into their foil flight bags.


Blue Nomex Bags hold our plates during their trip in the cold bag inside Dragon capsule from Earth to the ISS.

Yesterday we handed them over to the ‘cold stowage’ team. Our experiment goes up at 4˚C temperatures to help prevent premature germination and so gets packed with cold bricks to keep it cool for the trip. Watching the cold stowage team pack is pretty amazing. Let’s just say they probably all played a lot of Tetris growing up.


Our experiment packed by the Cold Stowage team into the Double Cold Bag with some bubble wrap, cold packs and items for 2 other experiments.

Today is Monday and we are in at Kennedy Space Center once again, this time to spend the day planting the mirror samples from Saturday for the ground controls for the experiment. The cold bags from Sunday are also being packed into the Dragon capsule today – as our experiment is perishable biology, we get “late stow”, with our samples being put on the rocket as late as possible before the launch. Tomorrow, we plan to watch the samples we plated out on Saturday start their 250 mile climb to the ISS on SpaceX-13. It’s 90% chance for a launch, and we’re all super-excited.


SpaceX’s mission patch for CRS-13, scheduled to launch on a “flight proven” Falcon9 rocket at 11:46am December 12, 2017.

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APEX-05: Toast III Launch Prep at KSC

The spacey part of the Gilroy lab has moved to Florida for a while as we gear up for the launch of APEX-05 (Advanced Plant EXperiment-05), our latest experiment to go to the International Space Station (ISS). It’s the third experiment in our Test Of Arabidopsis Space Transcriptome series (TOAST III). The goal of the experiment is to test how the reduced access to oxygen induced by the weightless environment of space affects how plants grow on orbit. The ISS has an atmosphere like that on Earth with ~21% O2, so where does the low oxygen effect come from? When there is no gravity, there is no buoyancy; a hot air balloon floats in the air because it is buoyant, i.e., as the hot air inside the balloon expands it “weighs less” than the surrounding colder air and so it floats upwards. In the weightlessness of spaceflight, weighing less no longer counts and so buoyancy disappears. When there is no buoyancy, there is no longer any buoyancy-driven convection in gases (warm gases rising and causing the mixing in of other gases from below). On Earth, when living things like plants and people use up oxygen when they breathe, this convective mixing replaces the lost gases. With no such mixing in space, organisms can use up their local oxygen and go into a state of oxygen deprivation called hypoxia. For TOASTIII we will be growing plants on the ISS, freezing them, and then bringing them back to Earth to analyze the levels of all their genes (their transcriptome) to see if we can observe patterns of low oxygen stress to try to understand how this loss of convective oxygen supply alters plant growth in space.


The second part of our analysis is using a microscope on the ISS, called the Light Microscopy Module (LMM). We plan to look at plants that we have engineered with a visual reporter of a response to stress. We should be able to literally see which cells are undergoing stress responses such as reduced access to oxygen as they occur in real time. The Light Microscopy Module is a new piece of hardware for us and it has also recently undergone a major upgrade with a new camera and imaging setup being installed on Station. We were therefore really excited to be able to visit NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland earlier in the week on the way down to Kennedy Space Center to spend a day getting familiar with the instrument (it is run out of Glenn) and especially meeting the amazing team that runs it. As you can imagine remotely running a microscope traveling at 17,000 miles per hour (that’s how fast the ISS is orbiting!) and ~250 miles above your head plus getting the resulting images down is no small feat. The LMM team at Glenn, including Tibor, Andrea, Amber and Lou, are a super team to work with and we’re looking forward to heading out for Glenn in a few weeks when we start our on orbit LMM operations for real. More to come on that adventure as it happens.

After visiting Glenn, two of our team (Sarah Swanson and Simon Gilroy) traveled on to Florida, arriving at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Wednesday Nov 29th. From then until now, things have been simultaneously hectic and on hold. On arriving, we immediately set about unpacking our gear, testing the preflight equipment and generally getting set up for the experiment. That’s a couple of day’s worth of work but we were on schedule, so no worries about hitting the December 4th launch target. We are flying on SpaceX-13 and as you come to expect for any flight there have been some launch delays; this is rocket science after all. Our launch had been pushed back from September 13th to November 1st and then to Dec 4th and so setting up from November 29th gave us exactly the time needed to be ready to hand over our samples the requisite 2 days before launch. However, launch has now been pushed back again to “No Earlier Than” (NET) December 8th. The good thing is we get a few more days to set up (always a help) and time to work on some other projects at Kennedy such as using the LMM setup there to analyze our samples further. The third member of our team, Richard Barker, was able to change his travel plans and arrived yesterday. If there’s one thing you learn when doing flight experiments, plan meticulously but don’t get too attached to those travel dates. So we are in set up mode at the moment, with fingers firmly crossed that launch will occur on the 8th. More to come as we move in on launch day.

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Space Biology in the Gilroy Lab!

A new video about the space biology research in the Gilroy Lab was just released this week. It was made by the University of Wisconsin and I think it is pretty darn cool. Have a look and see what you think!

The Gilroy Lab at UW-Madison: Growing Plants in Space

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“The Martian” movie – How real?

Simon Gilroy is interviewed by local news channel 3 about how real the plant science is in “The Martian” movie.

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 2.03.58 PM

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BRIC-17 NASA Video Feature

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BRIC-19 Returns Home

Our BRIC-19 space-flown seedlings and the corresponding Earth-grown seedlings arrived back to our lab in Madison Wisconsin safe and sound. Their trip back from the Space Station began when the astronauts removed our samples from the freezer on the ISS and packed them into a cold bag, which was then placed into SpaceX’s Dragon capsule along with many other research items from the space station. The Dragon and its precious payload left the space station and after re-entry made its splashdown in the Pacific where a barge retrieved the capsule.

Splashdown of the CRS-4 Dragon capsule holding our BRIC-19 experiment. Photo by SpaceX.

Splashdown of the CRS-4 Dragon capsule holding our BRIC-19 experiment. Photo by SpaceX.

After unpacking in Houston, our BRIC-19 samples made their way back to Kennedy Space Center (KSC) by truck. Then, I met the NASA team at KSC to unpack our science from the BRIC space hardware; this was the moment of truth! We carefully opened the petri dish holders and had a first look at our space-grown plants and the ground-grown controls. We were thrilled to see that every one of the 40 petri plates in our experiment had excellent growth and no contamination. Fantastic!

Sarah Swanson and the NASA team at Kennedy Space Center unpack samples from the petri dish holders. Photo by Sandy Swanson.

Sarah and the NASA team at Kennedy Space Center unpack samples from space hardware. Photo by Sandy Swanson.

We couldn’t have been happier with the results so far, but now back in the Gilroy Lab in UW-Madison critical work begins analyzing the shape and size of each BRIC-19 plant in addition to assessing the differences in gene expression.

Botany professor Simon Gilroy (left) and postdoctoral researcher Won-Gyu Choi unwrap four canisters of plants packed in dry ice.

Botany professor Simon Gilroy (left) and postdoc Won-Gyu Choi unwrap forty petri plates of plants packed in dry ice. Photo by D. Tanenbaum, UW-Madison.

Gilroy Lab postdoc Won-Gyu Choi will meticulously isolate the RNA from the seedlings in each petri plate, test its quality, and then the biotech center on campus will run an analysis called RNA seq. From this we will get the raw data about gene expression; this snapshot will allow comparison of how wild type plants regulate their growth in microgravity compared to seedlings which have a gene involved in plant mechanical responses that is always on or always off. Likewise, the GeneLab portion of BRIC-19 will allow comparison of the gene expression of a number of varieties (ecotypes) of Arabidopsis so that we can discover if one type of plant is more suited for growth in microgravity.

The were a number of news reports published when our seedlings were returned. It was great fun talking to the press about our work, the reporters did a great job communicating the details of our space biology research! Check out these published write-ups:

UW team’s plants return to Earth after growing in space (University Communications)

Out of this world: Fitchburg researchers send plants to space (Fitchburg Star)

UW researchers team up with NASA to investigate plants sent to space (Badger Herald)

UW-Madison botany researchers explore plant growth in space (Daily Cardinal)

Plants return to Earth after growing in space (Science Daily)

Sarah Swanson and Simon Gilroy at Kennedy Space Center. Photo by NASA.

Sarah Swanson and Simon Gilroy at Kennedy Space Center. Photo by NASA.

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BRIC-19 On-Orbit: Images!

I just have to share some fantastic images of astronaut Reid Weisman actuating the fixative onto our space-grown Arabidopsis seedlings. This task was completed on-orbit on October 2. Many thanks to NASA for the outstanding photos!

Astronaut Reid Weisman prepares to actuate the fixative onto our BRIC-19 samples.

Astronaut Reid Weisman prepares to actuate the fixative onto our BRIC-19 samples.

The actuation for one of our pre-flight tests (called the Payload Verification Test, PVT) had issues back in May. The actuator is like a caulking gun mechanism which pushes a pin into the canister, plunging the fixative onto the petri plate inside which holds our seedlings. In May for our PVT one of the actuations stuck partway; when a tool malfunctions during PVT it is a big deal. After NASA did a bunch of further tests with the tool, it was determined that it was an isolated incident and that the tool and hardware should perform OK in flight. And it did!

Reid Weisman handling our BRIC-19 experiment. He is working in the Columbus module, where many experiments are conducted.

Reid Weisman handling our BRIC-19 experiment. He is working in the Columbus module, where many experiments are conducted.

Right now our four BRIC canisters are stored in the -80 freezer on the space station. At the end of the week, our BRIC-19 experiment will be packed into a cold bag for return to Earth inside the Dragon capsule. Unberthing of the Dragon is now scheduled for Saturday, October 25. Hopefully our experiment will be back to Kennedy Space Center in Florida by the end of next week.

The acutation tool is used by astronaut Reid Weisman to push the fixative onto our microgravity-grown seedlings.

The acutation tool is used by astronaut Reid Weisman to push the fixative onto our microgravity-grown seedlings.


After Reid Weisman fixes our BRIC-19 seedlings, the canister will be placed in the freezer to await return to Earth in SpaceX's Dragon capsule.

After Reid Weisman fixes our BRIC-19 seedlings, the canister will be placed in the freezer to await return to Earth in SpaceX’s Dragon capsule.

Categories: Plants in Microgravity | 2 Comments

BRIC-19 Launch and Berthing

It’s Sunday evening and we couldn’t be happier! The rain slowly tapered off during Saturday afternoon and then the clouds began to break up and at about 10:35 pm on Saturday we received the word that the weather was OK for a launch. So, we drove to Kennedy Space Center and when we arrived, we realized that it was a perfectly clear and still night with the constellations laid out above us in a cloudless sky. In short, a great night for a launch!

At about 1:15 am we drove to the causeway across the Banana river at Kennedy Space Center. This spot is only a few miles away from the launch pad and has great views of the rocket. Exactly on cue at 1:52 am SpaceX 4 lit up the area as its engines ignited and the rocket rose off the pad and climbed into the night sky. A few seconds later, a rumbling wall of sound hit us. Rocket launches are amazing to watch but this one was even more special as we knew our experiment was sitting inside the Dragon capsule on top of that ball of sound and fire! We watched until the rocket’s glow disappeared into the night sky and the rumble faded and was eventually lost in the sounds of the river.

SpaceX's CRS-4 launch as viewed in a time lapse photo taken on the NASA causeway. Image by SpaceX.

SpaceX’s CRS-4 launch as viewed in a time lapse photo taken on the NASA causeway. Image by SpaceX.

High fives all around but no time to celebrate yet. Five am and we were at the Space Station Processing Facility prepping our control samples for integration. 7 am, the NASA team arrived and over the next few hours we got our control samples into their PDFUs and assembled into their BRICs. Then we said our goodbye’s to the NASA team and headed back to our hotel. The only thing left to do was to pack for the trip home tomorrow morning. But first there’s one tradition that I suspect we observed along with many groups around the world who have been working on this SpaceX4 Cargo Resupply Mission. We broke open a bottle of champagne and then promptly fell asleep.

The Dragon capsule holding our experiment  en route to the ISS. Photo by NASA.

The Dragon capsule holding our experiment en route to the ISS. Photo by NASA.

Back in Madison, we were glad to hear that the Dragon capsule docked successfully with the ISS on Tuesday morning. Our experiment was unpacked from the cold bag and hopefully our seedlings are growing as I type this. We will be picking up our samples from Kennedy Space Center once they come back from the International Space Station at the end of October.

The Dragon is berthed to harmony node on the ISS. Photo by NASA.

The Dragon is berthed to harmony node on the ISS. Photo by NASA.

Categories: Plants in Microgravity | 2 Comments

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