Monthly Archives: September 2014

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

BRIC-19: Planting and Waiting

It’s Saturday September 20th and the Gilroy lab team is back at Kennedy Space Center. SpaceX 4’s launch target was 2:53 am, so of course we were waiting on at KSC to see the rocket climb majestically into the sky. It was raining hard and the clouds were pretty dense but if you are in the spaceflight business, you have to be an optimist. So we were waiting, incessantly checking the online launch progress feed and willing the weather to break.

About an hour before the launch time early this morning, SpaceX decided there was no chance of going and scrubbed the launch. The weather was violating two launch rules: there were thick clouds and “disturbed” weather. That was better than earlier in the day when there were seven “no go” conditions, including the cryptically named Mill Field Rule (something about electrical charge buildup on the ground from the weather) but even one “no go” really does mean no go.

View of the SpaceX Falcon9 and Dragon capsule on the launch pad, ~6:30pm today.

View of the SpaceX Falcon9 and Dragon capsule on the launch pad, ~6:30pm today.

We are watching the weather again today and will be at KSC again for the next launch attempt at 1:52 am Sunday morning. So, why are we back at Kennedy Space Center now rather than sleeping? It’s time to set up the next set of samples so that if we scrub again tonight we are ready for attempt #3 early on Tuesday. Although you have to be an optimist to work in the world of spaceflight, you also have to plan for setbacks.


Categories: Plants in Microgravity | 2 Comments

BRIC-19: Integration and Launch Schedule

Today the Gilroy Lab team awoke at 4am to get to the Space Station Processing Facility (SSPF) building at Kennedy Space Center (KSC). We had a 6 am Pre-Task Flight Integration meeting with the NASA team who places our experiment into the space hardware. However, we had spent all yesterday setting up our samples and had to arrive at the SSPF today a bit earlier to apply the finishing touches. Yesterday we made 40 Petri plates each freshly planted with 64 Arabidopsis seeds. Twenty plates will go into the BRIC hardware to be launched into space but we always make a duplicate set, just in case something goes wrong and we have to set the whole thing up again. Space flight means you plan for just about everything to go wrong, just to ensure it won’t.

Won-Gyu waits for integration with our samples in the sterile hood.

Won-Gyu waits for integration with our samples in the sterile hood.

The Petri dishes had been sitting under lights overnight, a treatment we use to synchronize seed germination once they are on board the International Space Station (ISS). However, it is necessary to cool them down in the fridge before they go into the BRIC spaceflight hardware. The cold prevents the plants from growing for the 4 days it takes to get to the ISS (two days till launch, and then two days in transit to the ISS). The astronauts will unload them from the Dragon capsule and allow them to warm up to room temperature and then they will germinate. In our case the room temperature just happens to be in a room orbiting about 250 miles above our heads!

Won-Gyu and the NASA team integrate our flight samples at the Space Station Processing Facility in the Kennedy Space Center.

Won-Gyu and the NASA team integrate our flight samples at the Space Station Processing Facility in the Kennedy Space Center.

The timing of integration is key because we do not want to plant too far in advance of launch or the seeds will germinate even in the cold and then our experiment will be ruined. Our BRIC-19 experiment is “late stowage” which means it will be packed into a cold bag and placed into SpaceX’s Dragon capsule as late as possible prior to launch (about a day before). That might sound simple but it’s actually a huge challenge for the NASA team to decide when to conduct integration, because more than one delay or “scrub” of the launch means that our experiment may sit around too long to guarantee no germination till it is on the ISS. With more than 2 days of delays, an entire sample set will have to be tossed and replaced with a new one that we need to have already prepared.

Assembled PDFUs holding our samples are ready to be placed inside a BRIC container.

Assembled PDFUs holding our samples are ready to be placed inside a BRIC container.

Here’s the tricky part: NASA has only so much spare hardware for our experiments and in our case it is the number of extra PDFU (Petri Dish Fixation Units), the casettes that each of our samples sits inside of, which is critical. Not only do we need enough (20) for the samples going into space but additionally, every experiment needs a control. In our case, our control will be a mirrored set of PDFUs containing plants that we will grow on Earth at 1x gravity. We will put these inside Kennedy Space Center’s ISS Environmental Simulator (ISSES), a growth chamber that controls its temperature to be identical to that of the ISS. So now we need a total 40 PDFUs (ground control and flight). That’s a lot of PDFUs.

Filling a PDFU with the fixative called RNAlater.

Filling a PDFU with the fixative called RNAlater.

We play some tricks to extend our PDFU stocks. Our samples are good for 2 consecutive days of launch attempts, that is, if the launch is cancelled on day 1 our sample is still good for the next day’s launch attempt. After 2 days we have to replace everything. So the game we play is to integrate our control samples 2 days after our flight samples. If the flight is delayed 2 days, our controls are swapped for our old flight samples and we make new controls. Therefore with a rolling window of launch attempts we will always have a new set of samples that can be turned over every 2 days for flight. That’s even more PDFUs! We have enough PDFUs for up to 3 scrubs; after that we have to get “creative” and recycle the old PDFUs.

PDFUs for the BRIC-19 GeneLAB experiment on the ISS are loaded into a BRIC canister.

PDFUs for the BRIC-19 GeneLAB experiment on the ISS are loaded into a BRIC canister.

So, a rocket launch really is rocket science and as we all know rocket science is hard. Getting everything perfect in the rocket and having acceptable weather for a launch is a huge challenge and it is amazing how regularly rockets actually go up. For CRS-4, the launch schedule has been very fluid as everyone tries to hit the magic combination of hardware readiness, weather and usable launch window. We’re currently on for 2:16 am EST on September 20th with a backup at 1:53am the following morning. So we’re all peering at the weather, and planning how to deal with every contingency. Fortunately, we know that the teams at SpaceX and at NASA are amazing and so the only reason to lose any sleep over the whole thing is the need to get up at 2:00 am on Saturday to watch the launch. But for the sake of our sanity, how about everyone reading this blog please “cross your fingers” that SpaceX’s CRS-4 WILL launch on Saturday morning!

Categories: Plants in Microgravity | 5 Comments

BRIC-19: TOAST II on SpaceX CRS-4

The Gilroy Lab has been again fortunate to secure NASA funding for a second experiment studying the growth of Arabidopsis plants in microgravity on the International Space Station (ISS). This experiment is called BRIC-19: Test Of Arabidopsis Space Transcriptome II (TOAST II) and GeneLAB. Similar to BRIC-17, we will use the BRIC (Biological Research In Canisters) hardware with our plants growing in petri plates inside PDFU (Petri Dish Fixation Units) as we did for BRIC-17. Our experiment will launch on September 19, 2014, tucked inside SpaceX’s Dragon capsule as part of the CRS-4 (cargo resupply mission #4). The Dragon will berth with the ISS two days later on September 21, 2014, at which point the astronauts will unpack our BRICs into the ISS and our experiment will begin.

The astronauts who will be on the ISS during the Gilroy Lab BRIC-19 experiment.

The astronauts who will be on the ISS during the Gilroy Lab BRIC-19 experiment, September – October 2014.

So, what exactly will we be investigating during our second foray to the ISS?

The first half of our BRIC-19 experiment is TOAST II. Just as the lack of weight on board the International Space Station causes astronauts to lose bone mass, the weightless environment causes plants to lose their supporting structures. For the plant this means they grow long and thin in space, lacking to some degree the thickened and strengthened cell walls that they use to hold themselves up on Earth. The reason the plants are stronger on Earth is that they sense the mechanical forces generated by their own weight and lay down support materials in response to these signals. In space, the signals are gone and so the plants don’t produce the support materials. As astronaut Don Pettit (who grew the famous Space Zucchini!) put it: Plants “get lazy” in space.

Part of the machinery that lets the plant sense and respond to these mechanical forces on Earth is a group of genes called the “TOUCH” genes, so named because they are switched on in response to touch. One of these genes, named TOUCH 2, or TCH2, looks to be an important hub for a lot of information processing in the plant and so we think that the product of the TCH2 gene, i.e., the TCH2 protein, is a key regulator of the plant’s ability to sense mechanical forces such as its own weight. Dr. Janet Braam’s research group in Rice University has been able to make mutant plants with forms of TCH2 that is either always “on” or always unable to trigger touch responses. Dr. Braam very generously shared these mutants with us and so we now have plants that have this master mechanical response trigger always on or off. The plan is to compare the ‘always on’ and ‘always off ‘ to a normal plant growing in space and see if activating the touch response pathway even in the mechanically “silent” world of spaceflight can help restore growth that is more like what we normally see on Earth. We will look not only at the plants’ growth but also at their transcriptomes (the expression level of every gene in the plant) to see if the growth and gene expression of have the hallmarks of being at 1 x gravity, even in the weightlessness of space.

BRIC logo

Logo for the NASA team that coordinates the hardware and science experiments for BRIC (Biological Research In Canister).

The other half of our BRIC-19 experiment is called GeneLAB, an exciting new program in NASA where data from experiments on the International Space Station is rapidly released to the entire research community to allow as many people as possible to study the dataset for insight into how spaceflight affects biology. The Gilroy Lab has the honor of sending the first GeneLAB experiment to the ISS!

The idea behind our GeneLAB work is that many plant biologists use the “lab rat” of plant research,  Arabidopsis thaliana (also known as Mouse Ear Cress), to perform their experiments in space. This is a small, extremely well studied plant which has an enormous range of tools to help dissect its functions down to the level of genes and chemicals. Arabidopsis grows naturally in many places around the world and although Arabidopsis thaliana from Poland or China is all ‘Arabidopsis’, the plants in each area have diverged a little bit from each other and so there are varieties of Arabidopsis local to each area. These varieties are called ‘ecotypes’ and each is a little different from the next. So the question we want to answer is, do the different ecotypes used by researchers respond differently to spaceflight? If they do, which ecotype you use for your experiment might be critically important! The way to test this possibility would be to grow different ecotypes on the Space Station and compare them to the same ecotypes grown under the same conditions on Earth. Our GeneLAB experiment is to investigate this idea using three commonly used ecotypes of Arabidopsis. The ecotypes are all named after where they were found and collected, so the ones we will use are named Ws (Wassilewskija, collected in Belarus), Cvi (from the Cape Verdi Islands) and Ler (Landsberg erecta, orginally from Poland). In addition we will be using the Columbia ecotype (from Columbia Missouri, USA) in our TOAST II experiment, giving us a 4-way comparison of ecotype responses. As with TOAST II, we will look at the growth of the plants and then look at the patterns of genes that are switched on and off in each ecotype in response to growing in space.

If all goes as planned, we should get our ISS-grown BRIC-19 samples for analysis following the Dragon splashdown when the capsule returns to earth from the ISS in late October, 2014.


Logo for TOAST II, our BRIC-19 experiment to launch on September 19!

Categories: Plants in Microgravity | 4 Comments

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