The 11th mission for New Shepard suborbital launch vehicle is slated for takeoff Tuesday morning. The craft will be carrying 38 (!) experimental payloads from NASA, students, and research organizations around the world. You’ll be able to watch the launch live tomorrow at about 6 AM Pacific time. New Shepard, though a very different beast from the Falcon 9 and Heavy launch vehicles created by its rival SpaceX, is arguably a better platform for short-duration experiments that need to be exposed to launch stresses and microgravity. Launching satellites — that’s a job for Falcons and Deltas, or perhaps Blue Origin’s impending , and they’re welcome to it. But researchers around the country are clamoring for spots on suborbital flights and Blue Origin is happy to provide them. We are targeting the next launch of tomorrow May 2nd at 8:30 am CDT / 13:30 UTC. The mission will take 38 microgravity research payloads to space. Watch the launch live at — Blue Origin (@blueorigin) Tomorrow’s launch will be carrying several dozen, some of which will have been waiting years for their chance to board a rocket. Here are a few examples of what will be tested during the short flight: : As more people go into space, we have to be prepared for more and graver injuries. Lots of standard medical tools won’t work properly in microgravity, so it’s necessary to redesign and test them under those conditions. This one is about providing suction, as you might guess, which can be used for lung injuries, drawing blood, and other situations that call for negative air pressure. This little guy will be doing microgravity test prints using metal. : Simply everyone knows we can 3D print stuff in space. But just as on Earth, you can’t always make your spare parts out of thermoplastic. Down here we use metal-based 3D printers, and this experiment aims to find out if a modified design will allow for metal printing in space as well. : It sounds like something the Enterprise would deploy in Star Trek, but it’s just a test bed for a new type of centrifuge that could help simulate other gravities, such as that of the Moon or Mars, for purposes of experiments. They do this on the ISS already but this would make it more compact and easier to automate, saving time and space aboard any craft it flies on. The suborbital centrifuge, looking as cool as it sounds. : The largest ever study of space-based health and the effects of microgravity on the human body was just concluded, but there’s much, much more to know. Part of that requires monitoring cells in real time — which like most things is easier to do on the surface. This lab-on-a-chip will test out a new technique for containing individual cells or masses and tracking changes to them in a microgravity environment. It’s all made possible through , which is specifically all about putting small experiments aboard commercial spacecraft. The rest of the many gadgets and experiments awaiting launch are . The launch itself should be very similar to previous New Shepards, just like one commercial jet takeoff is like another. The booster fires up and ascends to just short of the Karman line at 100 kilometers, which (somewhat arbitrarily) marks the start of “space.” At that point the capsule will detach and fly upwards with its own momentum, exposing the payloads within to several minutes of microgravity; after it tops out, it will descend and deploy its parachutes, after which it will drift leisurely to the ground. Meanwhile the rocket will have descended as well and made a soft landing on its deployable struts. The launch is scheduled for 6:30 AM Pacific time — 8:30 AM Central in Texas, at Blue Origin’s launch site. You’ll be able to watch it live .
The genetic and health profiles of Mark Kelly and Scott Kelly were compared during a “Twins Study” focusing on the effects of long-term spaceflight. (NASA Photo) Ten research teams today shared comprehensive scientific results from an unprecedented experiment to gauge the health differences that developed between an astronaut who spent nearly a year in space and his identical twin down on Earth. The study, , traces the results of DNA tests and analyses of biological samples from Scott Kelly, who took on the 340-day mission on the International Space Station in 2015-2016; and from his brother Mark Kelly, a former astronaut who underwent parallel tests on Earth. Many of the findings have been , but today’s open-access research paper and supporting materials provided broader context for the — and pointed to concerns that are likely to be addressed in future space experiments. Previous reports have noted that Scott Kelly experienced changes in his medical condition during his long stint in space, but that most of those changes were reversed after his return. For example, the makeup of Scott’s gut microbiome shifted, perhaps due to a change in diet, and then shifted back after his flight. Patterns of gene expression also changed, particularly in genetic regions associated with the immune system and DNA repair. More than 90 percent of those changes reversed themselves, but some of the changes persisted six months after Scott’s landing. (, only the patterns of which genes were switched on or off.) The detailed findings highlight some concerns about long-lasting effects of long-term spaceflight. Scott’s exposure to radiation in space, for example, led to minor mutations in his chromosomes. “Some of the chromosome rearrangements that we saw, particularly inversions, were persistent,” Susan Bailey, a radiation biologist at Colorado State University, acknowledged during a teleconference. Another genetic change had to do with the length of Scott’s telomeres — that is, the molecular end caps on his chromosomes. They’ve been compared to the protective ends on shoelaces, and they tend to get shorter as a person ages. Geneticists were intrigued to find that Scott’s telomeres actually lengthened during his spaceflight, but became shorter when he was back on Earth. “When we looked at individual telomere length and distributions, he did have many more short telomeres after flight than he did before,” Bailey said. “So in that sense, or from the perspective of aging and health risks, that could be where he might be at increased risk for … cardiovascular disease, for example, or some types of cancer.” The shape of Scott’s eyeballs changed in weightlessness, leading to the types of vision problems that have been found among male astronauts (but not so much among female astronauts). Scott also registered a slight loss in cognitive abilities when he returned to Earth, although it’s not clear whether that’s related to long-term spaceflight. The researchers suspected that it’s more likely the result of the added stress he experienced as he readjusted to earthly routines. The now-retired astronaut has acknowledged that it took at least six months for him to readjust fully. The researchers cautioned against reading too much into their study. “We’re only studying an n of one — in other words, there’s just one twin pair here — and we’re not corroborating the results in this study by looking at other astronauts,” said Andy Feinberg, director of the Center for Epigenetics at Johns Hopkins University and one of the lead investigators on the Twins Study. Nevertheless, the findings point to issues that will have to be resolved as NASA plans for trips beyond Earth orbit, to the moon, Mars and beyond. “We’re looking forward to these results serving as a guide and foundation for future studies and things we need to be aware of and look at in astronauts in upcoming longer-duration missions [going] deeper and deeper in space,” Bailey said. In a , the University of Darmstadt’s Markus Löbrich and the University of Sussex’s Penny Jeggo said studying the health impacts of long-term spaceflight, particularly exposure to space radiation, should be a high priority. The newly published study “represents more than one small step for mankind in this endeavor,” they wrote. Francine Garrett-Bakelman of the University of Virginia School of Medicine is the lead author of the study published in Science, More than 80 other researchers are co-authors.