Cygnus Is Taking E. Coli, Sextants, And A Cold Atom Lab To The International Space Station

Check out the ‘weird’ science experiments that Orbital ATK’s resupply vehicle will be bringing to the ISS on its May 21 launch.

The Cygnus spacecraft in open space.
NASA images / Shutterstock

Check out the ‘weird’ science experiments that Orbital ATK’s resupply vehicle will be bringing to the ISS on its May 21 launch.

Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft is bound for the International Space Station (ISS) to deliver more than 3 tons of cargo to the crew of Expedition 55.

Known as the OA-9 resupply mission, since it’s the company’s ninth delivery contracted by NASA, the Cygnus liftoff has been rescheduled for Monday (May 21) after weather concerns have forced Orbital ATK to scrap the May 20 launch it had originally planned.

Even with this 24-hour delay, the Cygnus mission is highly anticipated and promises to be exceptionally interesting, judging by the unusual nature of its cargo.

The resupply vehicle is tasked with hauling 7,385 pounds (3,350 kilograms) of science experiments, crew supplies, and vehicle hardware destined to arrive on board the ISS. The science experiments that will soon take off into orbit atop an Orbital ATK Antares rocket are particularly exciting, especially since NASA has included a few oddities among them, notes Space.com.

The media outlet makes a list of the “weird” science that’s about to make the trip to space, which was also detailed by NASA earlier this week, both in a news release and in the video below.

The E. Coli Experiment

First off, as the Inquisitr previously reported, the space agency is sending a sample of E. coli bacteria to the ISS in order to test antibiotic resistance in zero-g. The purpose of this experiment is to identify which bacterial genes make the E. coli immune to antibiotics and to find ways of protecting astronauts from contracting antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

BEST — Sequencing The RNA Of ISS Microbes

Also related to the study of bacteria, the Biomolecule Extraction and Sequencing Technology (BEST) experiment is heading up to the ISS to examine how microbes react to zero gravity and whether spaceflight influences the way in which they mutate.

The project will be testing a novel technique of sequencing the genome of microbes found on board the ISS by using their DNA and RNA. This eliminates the need to culture the organisms first, explains principal investigator Sarah Wallace.

“That way, we can identify microbes that cannot be detected using traditional culturing methods, and we aren’t increasing the number of potential pathogens that might be present on the station.”

Playing Around With Sextants

The Cygnus spacecraft will be supplying the crew of Expedition 55 with old-fashioned sextants as part of a science experiment meant to find out if these instruments can be used as emergency navigation tools.

The Sextant Navigation experiment aims to uncover whether the centuries-old instrument can be used as a handheld navigation aid to help astronauts find their way into space by looking at the angles between the moon, stars, and planets.

Such a technique would come in handy to astronauts that are potentially left without communications or sufficient computing capabilities, notes Greg Holt, the project’s principal investigator.

“No need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to celestial navigation. We want a robust, mechanical back-up with as few parts and as little need for power as possible to get you back home safely.”

Anyone Order Some ICE Cubes?

Last year, the ISS released the IceCube mini-satellite and sent it on its Earth-orbiting path. This year, the space station is taking in a different kind of ICE Cube. Officially dubbed ICE Cube Service, where the acronym stands for International Commercial Experiment, this science project represents the first European commercial opportunity to conduct research on board the ISS.

This novel experiment is based on a “unique lab” that is made up of modular containers no bigger than a microwave oven neatly arranged into a laboratory rack as part of a “plug-and-play” model, NASA explains.

Developed by the European Space Agency in partnership with Space Application Services (SpaceAps), the ICE Cubes will be installed in the space station’s Columbus module and will each contain a different experiment, ranging “from pharmaceutical development to experiments on stem cells, radiation, and microbiology, fluid sciences, and more,” NASA reveals.

According to Space.com, one of the ICE Cubes will be dedicated to an experiment that will examine how methane can be produced in microgravity by using bacteria, while another one will hold different plant seeds to study how they germinate in various space conditions.

Hilde Stenuit, from SpaceAps, comments on the nature of the project, revealing that it would free up the access to space for a large number of companies that wish to conduct scientific research on board the ISS.

“The idea is to provide fast, direct and affordable access to space for research, technology and education for any organization or customer.”

CAL, The Atomic Fridge That Will Turn The ISS Into The Coldest Place In The Universe

The icing on the soon-to-be-delivered science cake is without a doubt NASA’s Cold Atom Laboratory (CAL), a physics research facility that acts as an atomic fridge and aims to study ultra-cold atoms in microgravity.

The reason why NASA is shipping off this experiment to space is because the zero-g environment on board the ISS will allow CAL to study these atoms for a longer period of time than it would on Earth.

In order to take a close look at these atoms, CAL will first create a spot within the facility that is 10 billion times colder than the vacuum of space, thus making the space station the coldest known place in the universe, Motherboard reports.

Then, the atomic fridge will use “lasers and magnetic forces to slow down atoms until they are almost motionless,” states the NASA news release. The goal of this unparalleled experiment is to find answers for some of the most puzzling questions of quantum physics.