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Worm muscles, artificial retinas, space laptops: NASA Wallops launches rocket to ISS


Kelly Powers   | Salisbury Daily Times
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WALLOPS ISLAND, Va.— A cold afternoon on Virginia's Eastern Shore was interrupted Saturday as Northrop Grumman's 15th commercial resupply mission tore through the sky above NASA Wallops. 

Its largest audience was nowhere to be seen.

As the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic closed the visitor center and field on Wallops Island, most viewers watched from their computers as the Antares rocket hurled nearly 8,200 pounds of cargo out of Earth's atmosphere. 

At about 12:38 p.m., Northrop Grumman's Cygnus spacecraft was headed toward the International Space Station, packed with scientific investigations, technology demonstrations, commercial products and other critical supplies. 

Northrop Grumman named the 15th spacecraft after pioneering NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, also portrayed in the 2016 film “Hidden Figures" for her role in making human spaceflight possible.

Though most viewers couldn't catch sight of the rocket in person — there's plenty to know about the 21-foot tall craft's payload before it reaches the ISS on Monday. 

On its 15th journey, Cygnus' thousands of pounds in cargo will include a Spaceborne Computer from Hewlett Packard Enterprise, an experiment studying muscle strength in worms, and an investigation into how microgravity might optimize the creation of artificial retinas. 

"Right now, there are hundreds of different experiments going on simultaneously on the International Space Station," Heidi Parris, associate program scientist for the International Space Station Program, said during NASA's launch briefing. 

"And it's putting into motion that work of some of the most brilliant scientific minds in the world."

Watch replay: Antares rocket launches from NASA Wallops

Worms get a microgravity workout

Loss of strength and muscle mass present a major challenge for astronauts on future, long-stretched space voyages, as NASA sees it. And more than 50 years after sending humans to the moon — the closest celestial body to Earth — the plan is still to head to Mars.

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Who can help with that? Roundworms. 

Coming ISS experiment "Determining Muscle Strength in Space-flown Caenorhabditis elegans," or Micro-16, will use these tiny worms to test whether decreased expression of muscle proteins is associated with a decrease in strength. 

Micro-16 will use a new device developed by its research team to measure muscle strength in multiple generations of space-flown worms — and compare that strength to post-flight muscle gene expression. 

Siva Vanapalli, professor of chemical engineering at Texas Tech University, says the worms only live about three weeks. 

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"As you all probably know, on long-duration explorations, a significant challenge is the astronaut health," Vanapalli said in NASA's media briefing. "The strength of the astronauts declines as they spend a significant amount of time on the ISS."

He said his team has documented previous experiments where animals have shown significant changes in gene expression; however, "we don't know if those changes in genes actually translate to any changes in strength," he said. 

Vanapalli noted that outside the effects of space flight, significant diseases in the United States also are marked by the impairment of muscles. 

"So if we do observe that our device is able to record these changes in strength," he continued, "then it opens up tremendous opportunities in conducting experiments on different drugs and figuring out how to maintain and improve the health of astronauts."

Sharpening the space computer  

Think of 2015 Matt Damon in "The Martian." 

Mark Fernandez, solutions architect for Converged Edge Systems at HP Enterprise, spent a moment of NASA's briefing recalling the blockbuster movie. 

"I saw that Matt Damon was sitting in the red dust of the Mars planet, and it took 24 minutes of communication delay for him to get information back to Earth," said the principal investigator of Spaceborne Computer-2. "And then once they solved his problem, it took 24 minutes to get back, and he literally jumped up and was celebrating at almost an hour later when he got his answers.

"Well, when we get to the moon and we get to Mars, we're going to want to take our modern computers with us."

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Spaceborne Computer-2 hopes to build on the success of its first computer sent to ISS — to now explore how commercial, off-the-shelf computer systems can advance exploration by processing data faster in space with edge computing and artificial intelligence capabilities. 

"We want to propose to the community: Do you have an experiment where the time it takes you to get your data back to Earth, and then process it here, is it shorter than the time it will take to process the data on Spaceborne Computer-2 at the edge of the edge on the ISS?" he asked. "That's what we want to do."

This special computer research could prove useful for advancing AI or machine learning anywhere, Fernandez said — whether that's on an oil rig or in a drone surveying crops, trees and cities. 

"As we advance, improve on the ability to compute ... and then deliver those insights back to the scientists that need them in their offices and at home," he said, "then that improves the aspect for all of humanity."

Seeing into the great beyond

Millions of people are blinded by end-stage retinal degenerative diseases like retinitis pigmentosa or age-related macular degeneration

Current treatments can only slow the progression. 

When individuals have these conditions, they lose the light-sensing cells of the eye — the rods and cones — and their eyes become insensitive to light. Thus, they can no longer take light in the room and convert it into a signal that can be sent to the optic nerve and then to the brain. 

LambdaVision, a startup company developing a protein-based artificial retina to restore vision for these patients, soon will see its second experiment sent aboard the ISS. 

"LambdaVision's technology is a small, simple, flexible implant which will be placed in the back of the eye, through a simple surgical procedure, something very similar to a retinal detachment procedure," said Nicole Wagner, its president and CEO. "The goal is to replace the function of the damaged rods and cones of the eyes, and our artificial retinas will provide high-resolution vision to these patients." 

This second experiment is set to study the advantages of manufacturing artificial retinas in space — setting multiple layers of scaffold, polymer and proteins. The structures will then come back to be studied further. 

Assembly of these artificial retinas benefits from the microgravity environment during a layer-by-layer manufacturing approach.

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The "Protein-Based Artificial Retina Manufacturing" experiment evaluates a manufacturing system using bacteriorhodopsin — the light-activated protein responsible for the activity of the artificial retina, replacing the damaged photoreceptor cells in the eye. 

"Now this is really important because what we're doing in terms of these processes and procedures will be critical for anything that needs to be manufactured that will have clinical applications to people here on Earth," Wagner said. 

Wagner said her company hopes to near its clinic stage within the next three to four years. Similar work flew on SpaceX CRS-16 in 2018, and this aims to build on those results.

"Just very thrilled to have a chance to establish a foundation for producing products in low-Earth orbit with true, clinical benefits for patients," said Jordan Greco, chief scientific officer of LambdaVision. "And, in our case, for patients that are blinded by this devastating retinal degenerative diseases."

For now, these experiments and all cargo aboard the S.S. Katherine Johnson can expect to connect with the ISS on Monday, Feb. 22. — then Cygnus will later take its safe, destructive reentry into Earth's Atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean.