MISSE: Testing Materials In Space

If you had a really, really, really good telescope and took a peep at the International Space Station (which would be quite a feat for as quickly as it moves across the sky), you might notice what looks like a make-up kit or a watercolor palette dangling from the side of the station.

MISSE-3 just prior to retrieval during an STS-118 spacewalk.

MISSE-3 just prior to retrieval during an STS-118 spacewalk. – Credit: NASA

While some astronauts have taken their makeup into space, and some have found time to create art in orbit, they don’t tend to leave their supplies attached to the outside of the ISS. Ruling those out, instead what you’d probably be looking at is a Materials International Space Station Experiment (MISSE).

MISSE project specimens are placed onto trays and inserted into Passive Experiment Containers (PECs).

MISSE project specimens are placed onto trays and inserted into Passive Experiment Containers (PECs). – Credit: NASA

MISSE projects serve as a laboratory to test and study various material samples as they’re exposed to a space environment. Attached on the outside of the ISS, the specimens are simultaneously exposed to a variety of conditions that would be very difficult, if even possible, to mimic on Earth, including exposure to: atomic oxygen, various levels of radiation, vacuum, extreme temperatures, and zero gravity. While MISSE wasn’t the first project of this type–similar experiments had been carried out on Skylab, Mir, and NASA’s Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF)–it was the most formal and programmatic.

The first two MISSE projects were deployed in 2001, carried to the ISS via the Discovery crew of STS-105. They were originally planned to only be deployed for one year, but as a result of the grounding of the Shuttle program following the STS-107 Columbia disaster, they ended up staying in orbit for 3 years. There were a total of 8 MISSE experiments conducted by NASA, sometimes deployed in multiples and sometimes singly.

NASA astronaut Andrew Feustel swaps the MISSE PEC7A & 7B with PEC8

NASA astronaut Andrew Feustel swaps the MISSE PEC7A & 7B with PEC8 – Credit: NASA

The samples are loaded into trays and installed inside suitcase-like Passive Experiment Containers (PECs). When ready to be deployed, the PECs are carried outside the station during an EVA (extra vehicular activity), and fastened to the station’s exterior. The mounting location has changed throughout the program’s history.

Samples from MISSE 3 and 4 carried 8 million basil seeds that were then provided “to children for science experiments to stimulate interest in space science”. Other samples included paints, lubricants, fabrics, and solar cell technologies. In total, more than 4,000 samples have been tested through MISSE.

As part of NASA’s efforts to privatize routine space projects, MISSE was recently transferred to the private corporation Alpha Space:

MISSE is now a privatized, commercial facility owned and operated by Alpha Space with a permanent placement on the ISS. The facility and its first set of experiments have been manifested to fly to the International Space Station in September of 2017 on the SpaceX Dragon resupply vehicle’s flight SpaceX-13.

Now dubbed MISSE-FF (Material International Space Station Experiment Flight Facility), Alpha Space’s contract is good through at least June 30, 2024 (currently the authorized remaining lifetime of the station). Alpha Space’s plans call for a permanently-mounted tower that will hold multiple PECs at once. If the customers are there (some have already signed contracts), Alpha Space is ready to provide routine testing in the unparalleled environment of space. They expect to begin operations this year (2017).

Animation of Alpha Space's PEC deployment

Animation of Alpha Space’s PEC deployment – Source: Alpha Space

SpaceX Continues To Make History

SpaceX is no stranger to making commercial spaceflight history. They were the first private corporation to launch a liquid-fueled rocket into orbit, send a re-supply spacecraft to the International Space Station, and to land their first-stage rockets back on Earth (for potential re-use), among other milestones. They’re also on the cusp of providing transportation services for International Space Station crew members.

SpaceX Falcon 9 moments before landing on February 19, 2017

SpaceX Falcon 9 moments before landing on February 19, 2017 – Source: SpaceX

On February 19, 2017, SpaceX accomplished another major feat: They became the first private company to launch from the historic Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center.

Launch Pad 39A

SpaceX became the first commercial corporation to lease space and operate out of Kennedy Space Center when, in 2014, they signed a 20-year lease for the historic Launch Pad 39A. It was from this launch pad that Apollo 11 blasted off for the Moon, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to step foot on our lunar neighbor. It also hosted the first Space Shuttle mission, as well as some 90 others. Now, and for at least the next two decades, it’s in the hands of SpaceX, further cementing the foothold that the private sector has made in the space program.

SpaceX and NASA CRS-10 mission patches

SpaceX and NASA CRS-10 mission patches – Source: Public Domain and SpaceX

Launch and Landing

At 9:39am EST, on February 19, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket ignited and thundered into the clouds. The rocket was topped with the Dragon capsule, carrying more than 5,000 pounds (2,267 kg) worth of cargo destined for the International Space Station. Dragon arrived and successfully docked with the ISS a couple of days following launch.

Dr. Michelle Thaller, NASA astrophysicist and contributor to myriad space documentary programs, was at Sunday’s launch and graciously shared her experience with me. “Launches are always wonderfully, viscerally exciting,” she said. “The Falcon 9 has a wonderful, big, booming sound, similar to an Atlas, and it puts on a great fireworks show.”

But that wasn’t the only show in store for the lucky spectators in Florida that day. After shoving Dragon into orbit, the Falcon first stage began its 100-kilometer return trip back to Earth. In fewer than 10 minutes following lift-off, the first stage rocket re-emerged through the clouds and landed at Landing Zone 1, just a few miles away from the launch pad. Thaller described the period of suspense in between the launch and the Falcon landing, and said that in some ways there was more anticipation for the landing than there was for the launch.

[N]othing quite prepares you for what happens 7 minutes later, just as the adrenaline is wearing off. Silently, at first, this 230-foot first stage turns around and comes down out of the sky. Smoothly, surreally, a tower the size of a 15 story building just comes and sets itself down. Only once it’s down do you hear the double pop of a sonic boom. It sort of turns your stomach. Things that big are not supposed to just come out of the sky and land. It’s awesome.

Awesome, indeed. See for yourself:

As a kid, I remember watching cartoons that showed rockets landing on various planets. The rockets would turn themselves around and gently land engine-side down. I would always exclaim, “That’s not how rockets work! They burn up, or have parachutes attached and they land in the ocean! How silly.”

Yet, here we are.

I’ve often been jealous about being born too late to experience the race to the Moon. I’ve been somewhat depressed since watching the last Shuttle mission touch down in 2011. But when I take a step back and look at what is occurring today and what we have to look forward to, I can’t help but recognize what a wonderful time it is to be alive.

You can watch the full webcast of the launch on SpaceX’s YouTube channel.

Tour the International Space Station

The International Space Station is featured in this 2010 image photographed by an STS-132 crew member on board the Space Shuttle Atlantis after the station and shuttle began their post-undocking relative separation.

The International Space Station is featured in this 2010 image photographed by an STS-132 crew member on board the Space Shuttle Atlantis after the station and shuttle began their post-undocking relative separation. – Source: NASA

Have you ever wanted to visit the International Space Station? Without a whole lot of education, extreme determination, and a fair helping of luck, chances are you won’t be visiting it in-person anytime soon. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t take a virtual tour of humanity’s only off-planet home. With the multimedia below, get a feel for what life aboard the International Space Station is like. No spacesuit required.

ESA Panoramas

The European Space Agency (ESA) put together the following 360° panorama of the ISS’s Russian Zvezda module. Notice how there are work surfaces that could only function in a weightless environment. For example, pan straight up towards the ‘ceiling’. (Note: After you hit play, you’ll want to click the full-screen button in the bottom right corner of the video.)

This 360° panorama allows you to explore the International Space Station’s third module, Zvezda. Launched on 12 July 2000, the Russian module supplies life support for the Station and crewquarters. All five of Europe’s Automated Transfer Vehicles docked with the module.

The images to create this view were taken by ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti during her Futura mission in 2015; the cosmonaut in the picture is Gennady Padalka.

Two other views like this are also available on YouTube thanks to the ESA. Check out the Zarya and Unity modules as well.

ESA Interactive Tour

Next up, we have an interactive presentation that you’re going to have to go see for yourself. Check out this interactive tour of nearly the entire ISS. Turn on the map overlay and you can jump to individual sections of the station, or just tour it manually by clicking on the blue arrows. (I managed to get myself lost!) Video clips are interspersed throughout the tour for a more-detailed look.

Just before ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti left the International Space Station after 199 days, she took up to 15 pictures inside each module. Now, the images have been stitched together to create this interactive panorama.

These panoramas offer a snapshot of the International Space Station as it was in June 2015, after moving the Leonardo storage module to a new location.

Wasn’t that cool?

Commander Sunita Williams Tour

One more for today. While not interactive like the other two, this video is one of my favorite tours of the ISS.

In her final days as Commander of the International Space Station, Sunita Williams of NASA recorded an extensive tour of the orbital laboratory and downlinked the video on Nov. 18, just hours before she, cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko and Flight Engineer Aki Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency departed in their Soyuz TMA-25A spacecraft for a landing on the steppe of Kazakhstan. The tour includes scenes of each of the station’s modules and research facilities with a running narrative by Williams of the work that has taken place and which is ongoing aboard the orbital outpost.


The 2012 video is somewhat long, 25 minutes, but by the end of it you find yourself wishing it would go on longer. Commander Sunita Williams takes us all throughout the space station while demonstrating various features and functions. I especially enjoyed her taking us inside the docked Soyuz capsule that she would be dropping back to Earth in, mere hours after creating this video.

SpaceX Launches Itself Towards History

SpaceX COTS 2 Mission Patch

SpaceX COTS 2 mission patch. Credit: SpaceX

Early Tuesday (5/22) morning, commercial spaceflight took an important step forward which, if everything goes as planned, will result in a historic bookmark in world history tomorrow morning. On May 22nd, 2012, at 3:44am (EST), the private aerospace company, SpaceX, became the first private organization to launch a space capsule filled with supplies on an intercept-course with the International Space Station. If everything checks out, NASA will give SpaceX the go-ahead to dock with the ISS. This first docking maneuver will be accomplished with the aid of the ISS’s robotic arm, which will grab a hold of the Dragon capsule and precisely mate it with the ISS. Subsequent missions will dock solely under Dragon’s power.

Based on my timezone and preferences, the launch was too early to wake up for, yet too late to stay up for. I set an alarm and woke up to watch the show. I watched the final couple of minutes of countdown before seeing that Falcon rocket gracefully take flight towards the stars. The launch feed was quite unlike the typical ones you’ll see coming out of NASA’s mission control. Where NASA’s controllers and announcers stoically announce data and rarely deviate from “strictly-business”, joy was ubiquitous following the Falcon launch and that emotion turned into sheer jubilation when the Dragon capsule separated from the Falcon and deployed its solar arrays.

SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer, Elon Musk, described the scene inside SpaceX headquarters:

 “People have really given it their all. We had most of the company gathered around SpaceX Mission Control. They are seeing the fruits of their labor and wondering if it is going to work. There is so much hope riding on that rocket. When it worked, and Dragon worked, and the solar arrays deployed, people saw their handiwork in space operating as it should. There was tremendous elation. For us it is like winning the Super Bowl.”

Regardless of the fact that I was too excited to fall asleep right away after turning off the NASA feed, I’m very glad I sacrificed some of my sleep to watch that historic scene unfold.

Early this morning, the Dragon capsule conducted a “fly-under” of the ISS, bringing it within 2.4 km of the station. A number of maneuvers and tests were conducted to ensure that the Dragon capsule was operating properly and could be completely controlled, in anticipation of tomorrow’s docking. Everything went flawlessly.

I’ll likely be sacrificing some more sleep to catch all the action.  You can too: Live coverage begins at 7:30am ET (3:30am Pacific), and the feed can be found at SpaceX’s website.

Flashing the ISS

In case you missed this story from earlier this week, I wanted to point out an interesting historical event.

For years, people have wondered if the astronauts aboard the International Space Station could see a flashlight, or perhaps laser pointer, pointed at it from the Earth’s surface. While it was theoretically possible and tried a number of times, it had never been done successfully… until March 4, 2012.

Texan amateur astronomers of the San Antonio Astronomy Association and the Austin Astronomy Society put together a plan to prove the possibility. On March 4, these amateur astronomers implemented their experiment. They left the urban lights for dark skies (and as importantly, a dark ground from the vantage point of the ISS) at the Lozano Observatory. There, they set up a one-watt blue laser and a pair of bright spotlights, complete with a simple, yet effective, system to strobe the spotlights: people holding wooden boards. Timing had to be calculated precisely for a couple of reasons. Not only did the ISS have to pass their dark location overhead at night, but it had to be such that the ISS had a view of the Earth without the Sun blinding their view; after all, it is the bright sunlight reflecting off of the ISS that makes is so bright and visible to us on Earth.

Their timing, and a few months of planning, paid off. As the ISS came overhead of the anxious amateur astronomers, they flipped on the laser and began alternating the spotlights on-and-off in two-second intervals. ISS Expedition 30 Flight Engineer, Don Pettit, had been involved in the planning of the experiment and had been communicating with the group in the days leading up to the attempt. At the time that the ground crew began their attempts to flash the space station, Pettit was situated in the ISS Cupola, eyes peeled with his camera snapping pictures. The ISS pass was complete within a few minutes, and the group had to anxiously await feedback from Pettit. The next day, their confirmation came.
Image showing the flash experiment from the ISS.

(Click image for larger size / Image Credit: Don Pettit/Fragile Oasis)

Success! According to Keith Little, Marketing Director of the San Antonio Astronomical Association, Don Pettit told him that not only could he see the spotlights, but easily saw the laser by itself!

It’s wonderful when astronauts orbiting the Earth can work together with amateur astronomers to collaborate on experiments such as this, and its icing on the cake when they make history in the process.

For more information about the event, you can view a video of the experiment from the ground here and listen to an episode of 365 Days of Astronomy pertaining to the event.

Sunday Matinee – John Glenn Chats With ISS Astronauts

As part of the events recognizing the 50th anniversary of John Glenn’s (and the United States’) first orbital spaceflight, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden surprised Senator Glenn with a live video conference with current (Expedition 30) International Space Station Commander Dan Burbank, and Flight Engineers André Kuipers and Don Pettit.

There’s something poetic about watching the first American to orbit the Earth talk to the American’s that, fifty years after John Glenn’s historic flight, live in the Earth’s orbit.

All in all, it was an interesting conversation that’s definitely worth the time to watch.