Monthly Archives: March 2013

BRIC-17 On-Orbit

As I type this, the BRIC-17 plant biology experiments are in microgravity, orbiting the earth on the International Space Station. BRICs A and B contain plant cell cultures from the University of Florida, BRICs C and D contain our Arabidopsis seedlings for the Gilroy Lab TOAST experiment from the University of Wisconsin.


Mission patch for NASA’s Expedition 34, the mission running currently that includes our BRIC-17 plant biology experiment.

NASA has been fantastic about keeping us updated via email as to the astronaut’s on-orbit activities concerning our BRIC-17 experiments. A few minutes ago, we just received an email from NASA:

> I bring to you more good news.  This morning, on-orbit, Dr. Simon Gilroy’s
> Canisters C and D successfully actuated at approximately 7:57AM Eastern.
> Also, earlier Canisters A and B were transferred into MELFI 1, Dewar 3 at
> approximately 3:50AM Eastern.

This report means that the fixative solution (RNAlater) was successfully injected by astronaut Marshburn into our 10 petri plates containing our microgravity-grown seedlings. We are glad to hear that all went well with the fixative injection because a test of the BRICs a week before launch indicated there could be issues with actuation. After a day at room temperature to allow the fixative to work, our two BRICs will be placed into the MELFI (Minus Eighty-degree Laboratory Freezer for ISS) by space station commander astronaut Ford until they can be packed into a cold bag for the return trip to Earth in the SpaceX Dragon capsule (which is still docked to the space station).


The Minus Eighty Lab Freezer on the ISS (MELFI; image from NASA).

A minus-eighty freezer is standard equipment required for most life science research. The Gilroy Lab has an upright minus-eighty in the hallway just outside of our lab to store our bacteria stocks, concentrated solutions, some dry chemicals, and frozen samples. It is heavy, has a loud compressor, a huge footprint, and is an energy hog; all these things would cause problems on the ISS. I was curious to see what the ISS minus-eighty freezer was like. Needless to say the MELFI is a high-tech marvel of engineering, if you want to read more about it NASA has a good description of the MELFI.


Astronauts packing samples into the MELFI. Gloves are needed to handle samples due to the low temperature (NASA).

Our BRICs need a minimum of 4 days in the MELFI to be sure that they are completely chilled down for packing into the cold bag. When the Dragon capsule had a delay in docking just over a week ago, there was some concern that if berthing was more than a couple days late then our BRICs would not have enough time in the MELFI at the end of the experiment. This would’ve necessitated cutting our experiment by a day, which means one less day of growth in microgravity and thus smaller plants. The good thing is that even such a long delay would’ve required only minimal adaptation to our experimental design. We simply would’ve analysed smaller plants, perhaps combining shoot and root for the RNA isolation instead of separating the tissue for analysis. Luckily, docking was delayed by only a day so our plants were able to grow for 8 days in microgravity as originally planned.

Categories: Plants in Microgravity | 1 Comment

NASA Write-up of Our Experiment

Bob Granath at NASA has posted a write-up of our TOAST and the other BRIC-17 experiment. He did a great job summarizing our goals in sending Arabidopsis to the space station to study plants grown in microgravity. There are also some good pictures of the space hardware that is holding our petri plates right now inside the space station, with an identical set of BRICs in the International Space Station Environmental Simulator (ISSES) at Kennedy Space Center as the ground control.

Experiment Canisters Aid in Helping Study Plant Growth in Space


A Biological Research in Canisters experiment package with five Petri dish fixation units (PDFU) installed. The PDFUs each contain a Petri dish with the biological sample to be flown in space. (NASA)

Another NASA article details the launch and berthing of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule holding our BRICs. After the successful Friday morning launch powered by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and release of the Dragon capsule in low earth orbit, a nail-biting hours long session occurred as SpaceX attempted to get Dragon’s thrusters working. The thrusters are needed to get the capsule close enough to the space station so that the capsule can be grappled by the Canada arm.


The cold bag with our BRICs inside being weighed prior to stowage in the Dragon capsule. (NASA)

The BRIC-17 teams had a hastily called meeting Friday afternoon when the thruster problem became apparent.  We discussed the scientific ramifications of a delay in berthing with the space station. Potentially, the delay could have been up to 2.5 days, which would have shortened the growth time of our plants in microgravity by two days to allow enough time in the freezer before returning to earth. Luckily, SpaceX was able to get the thrusters working and Dragon successfully berthed to the space station on Sunday morning, only a day late, thus allowing our experiment to run for the originally planned span of time.

SpaceX’s live feed: “Happy Berth Day!”

The Dragon capsule is scheduled for splashdown back on Earth on March 25, with return of our space-flown BRICs on March 29. Let’s hope everything continues to go well and we can de-integrate our samples from the BRICs for analysis in April!

launch 5

Falcon 9 SpaceX CRS-2 Launch, © SpaceX, Ben Cooper

PS. As promised, here is the footage from the NASA press conference which Simon participated in the day before the launch.

Categories: Plants in Microgravity | 1 Comment

SpaceX CRS-2 Launch!

In a few hours, the Gilroy lab BRIC-17 team will be at the OSB II (Operations Support Building 2) at KSC to watch the launch. OSB is about three and a half miles away from the launch pad, so we hope to have a good view. We’ll be bussed there from the visitor center early in the morning. Following a launch briefing we will wait for the launch at an outside viewing area, camera in hand!

SpaceX CRS-2 Logo

SpaceX CRS-2 Logo

Unfortunately, we will be enjoying the launch after pulling an all-nighter in order to integrate our ground controls into the BRICs with the help of NASA hardware experts. The timing of our experiment is such that our science has to be integrated into the space hardware from 3-5am Eastern time. Our flight BRICs were prepared early Wednesday morning; because the ground control is offset by 2 days we have to make a repeat set of BRICs now (early Friday morning).

What if the launch is cancelled? The scrub schedule is such that the next launch attempt will occur just under 24hr later. If there are two scrubs, our experiment needs to be replaced with a fresh setup. Therefore, if the launch is cancelled both Friday and Saturday, our two BRICs will be pulled from Dragon. The ground controls we set up tonight will then become the flight BRICs and loaded into the Dragon in time for the third launch attempt Sunday morning, and so Sunday morning between 3-5am Eastern time we will have to set up two more BRICs for the new ground controls.


Simon and Won-Gyu in front of the NASA headquarters at KSC.

Tomorrow’s launch chance is at 80%. Everyone, please do us a huge favor and keep your fingers crossed for an on-time departure! (That means you too, Sis!)

In other news, yesterday (Thursday Feb 28) Simon participated in two news events.  The first was an interview with Jerry Hume , a reporter with the local Fox channel 13. We were told that while the transcript will be available online, the video will not because it will only be accessible to cable subscribers. It will air between 5am and noon Friday.


Jerry Hume interviews Simon about our BRIC-17 experiment.

The second news event was a pre-launch NASA press conference to discuss the science going up on SpaceX 2. The location of the press conference was in the NASA auditorium in the KSC press center, and for me it was a thrill to actually be sitting in a place that previously I’ve only seen on TV and online. There were five folks in front of the cameras, plus Josh the moderator:

  • Julie Robinson, program scientist, International Space Station
  • Simon Gilroy, BRIC-17 Lead Investigator,
University of Wisconsin
  • Marshall Porterfield, division director, Life and Physical Sciences
NASA Headquarters
  • Michael Johnson, Chief Technical Officer, NanoRacks
  • Michael Roberts, Research Scientist, CASIS

Simon behind the desk at the NASA pre-launch press conference.

Simon did a great job communicating information specifically about our BRIC-17 experiment and speaking more generally about problems that living organisms have in space. He also fielded a number of questions from reporters ranging  from social media bloggers to tech reporters from the mainstream media. The video of this press conference is not yet available online, when it is I will update with a link.

Categories: Plants in Microgravity | 2 Comments

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