As a child, Kate Rubins dreamed of being an astronaut and a scientist. During the past four months aboard the International Space Station, that dream came full circle. She became the first person to sequence DNA in space, among other research during her recent mission, adding to her already impressive experience. She holds a doctorate in molecular biology, and previously led a lab of 14 researchers studying viruses, including Ebola. Here’s a look back at Rubins in her element, conducting research aboard Earth’s only orbiting laboratory.
Kate inside Destiny, the U.S. Laboratory Module
The U.S. laboratory module, called Destiny, is the primary research laboratory for U.S. payloads, supporting a wide range of experiments and studies contributing to health, safety, and quality of life for people all over the world. Destiny houses the Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG), in which Kate worked on the Heart Cells experiment.
Swabbing for Surface Samples
Microbes that can cause illness could present problems for current and future long duration space missions. Understanding what microbe communities thrive in space habitats could help researchers design antimicrobial technology. Here, Kate is sampling various surfaces of the Kibo module for the Microbe-IV investigation.
Culturing Beating Heart Cells in Space
The Heart Cells investigation uses human skin cells that are induced to become stem cells, which can then differentiate into any type of cell. Researchers forced the stem cells to grow into human heart cells, which Rubins cultured aboard the space station for one month. Rubins described seeing the heart cells beat for the first time as “pretty amazing. First of all, there’s a few things that have made me gasp out loud up on board the [space] station. Seeing the planet was one of them, but I gotta say, getting these cells in focus and watching heart cells actually beat has been another pretty big one.”
Innovative Applied Research Experiment from Eli Lilly
The Hard to Wet Surfaces investigation from Eli Lilly, and sponsored by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), looks at liquid-solid interactions and how certain pharmaceuticals dissolve, which may lead to more potent and effective medicines in space and on Earth. Rubins set up vials into which she injected buffer solutions and then set up photography to track how tablets dissolved in the solution in microgravity.
Rubins assisted in the capture of the SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft in July. The ninth SpaceX resupply mission delivered more than two thousand pounds of science to the space station. Biological samples and additional research were returned on the Dragon spacecraft more than a month later.
Sliding Science Outside the Station
Science doesn’t just happen inside the space station. External Earth and space science hardware platforms are located at various places along the outside of the orbiting laboratory. The Japanese Experiment Module airlock can be used to access the JEM Exposed Facility. Rubins installed the JEM ORU Transfer Interface (JOTI) on the JEM airlock sliding table used to install investigations on the exterior of the orbiting laboratory.
Installing Optical Diagnostic Instrument in the MSG
Rubins installed an optical diagnostic instrument in the Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG) as part of the Selective Optical Diagnostics Instrument (SODI-DCMIX) investigation. Molecules in fluids and gases constantly move and collide. When temperature differences cause that movement, called the Soret effect, scientists can track it by measuring changes in the temperature and movement of mass in the absence of gravity. Because the Soret effect occurs in underground oil reservoirs, the results of this investigation could help us better understand such reservoirs.
The Sequencing of DNA in Space
When Rubins’ expedition began, DNA had never been sequenced in space. Within just a few weeks, she and the Biomolecule Sequencer team had sequenced their one billionth “base” – the unit of DNA – aboard the orbiting laboratory. The Biomolecule Sequencer investigation seeks to demonstrate that DNA sequencing in microgravity is possible, and adds to the suite of genomics capabilities aboard the space station. .
Studying Fluidic Dynamics with SPHERES
The SPHERES-Slosh investigation examines the way liquids move inside containers in a microgravity environment. The phenomena and mechanics associated with such liquid movement are still not well understood and are very different than our common experiences with a cup of coffee on Earth. Rockets deliver satellites to space using liquid fuels as a power source, and this investigation plans to improve our understanding of how propellants within rockets behave in order to increase the safety and efficiency of future vehicle designs. Rubins conducted a series of SPHERES-Slosh runs during her mission.
Retrieving Science Samples for Their Return to Earth
Precious science samples like blood, urine and saliva are collected from crew members throughout their missions aboard the orbiting laboratory. They are stored in the Minus Eighty-Degree Laboratory Freezer for ISS (MELFI) until they are ready to return to Earth aboard a Soyuz or SpaceX Dragon vehicle.
Measuring Gene Expression of Biological Specimens in Space
NASA’s WetLab-2 hardware system is bringing to the space station the technology to measure gene expression of biological specimens in space, and to transmit the results to researchers on Earth at the speed of light. Rubins ran several WetLab-2 RNA SmartCycler sessions during her mission.
Studying the First Expandable Habitat Module on the Space Station
The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is the first expandable habitat to be installed on the space station. It was expanded on May 28, 2016. Expandable habitats are designed to take up less room on a spacecraft, but provide greater volume for living and working in space once expanded. Rubins conducted several evaluations inside BEAM, including air and surface sampling.
Better Breathing in Space and Back on Earth
Airway Monitoring, an investigation from ESA (the European Space Agency), uses the U.S. airlock as a hypobaric facility for performing science. Utilizing the U.S. airlock allows unique opportunities for the study of gravity, ambient pressure interactions, and their effect on the human body. This investigation studies the occurrence and indicators of airway inflammation in crew members, using ultra-sensitive gas analyzers to evaluate exhaled air. This could not only help in spaceflight diagnostics, but that also hold applications on earth within diagnostics of similar conditions, for example monitoring of asthma.
Hot Science with Cool Flames
Fire behaves differently in space, where buoyant forces are removed. Studying combustion in microgravity can increase scientists’ fundamental understanding of the process, which could lead to improvement of fire detection and suppression systems in space and on Earth. Many combustion experiments are performed in the Combustion Integration Rack (CIR) aboard the space station. Rubins replaced two Multi-user Droplet Combustion Apparatus (MDCA) Igniter Tips as part of the CIR igniter replacement operations.
Though Rubins is back on Earth, science aboard the space station continues, and innovative investigations that seek to benefit humans on Earth and further our exploration of the solar system are ongoing. Follow @ISS_Research to keep up with the science happening aboard your orbiting laboratory.