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Robot, plants to blast off on upcoming SpaceX mission to ISS

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When the commercial space firm’s Dragon spacecraft launches Saturday, it will be loaded with experiments dedicated to probing everything from bone and eye health to the dexterity of robots.

SpaceX is targeting Saturday for the launch of its next resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS), and it plans to have some fascinating scientific experiments in tow.

When the commercial space firm’s Dragon spacecraft launches along with its Falcon rocket from Kennedy Space Center in Florida in the United States, it will be loaded with research projects dedicated to exploring everything from astronauts’ bone and eye health to the dexterity of robots and how plants handle stress, NASA announced ahead of the launch

It will also include an experiment dedicated “plant growth, ant colonization, and the brine shrimp lifecycle” designed by a group of Girl Scouts from central Florida, the US space agency confirmed.

It is the 23rd resupply mission to the ISS carried out by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and its launch is targeted for 3:37am local time (07:37 GMT) on Saturday.

One experiment will use metabolites created as byproducts during winemaking to see whether “substances such as antioxidants formed when food is broken down might protect bones during spaceflight”, according to NASA.

Another experiment sponsored by the European Space Agency, the European Astronaut Centre and the German Aerospace Center’s Institute of Space Medicine will use a small device to take images of the retinas of astronauts’ eyes to check them for spaceflight-associated neuro-ocular syndrome (SANS).

The condition is “thought to be associated with long-duration exposure to microgravity” and affects more than two-thirds of astronauts, principal investigator Juergen Drescher said in the press release.

“Currently, visual problems that may manifest from SANS are mitigated by providing glasses or contact lenses to crew members,” Drescher explained. “Multi-year missions to Mars may worsen these symptoms, and there is a need for a mobile device for retinal image diagnostics.”

That technology could eventually be used both in space and here on Earth, he added.

An experiment from space robotics startup Gitai Japan Inc will test out the dexterity and manoeuvrability of a robotic arm inside the Bishop Airlock, a pressurised environment.

Gitai’s Chief Technology Officer Toyotaka Kozuki said in the press release that the robot could provide “an inexpensive and safer source of labor in space, opening the door to the true commercialization of space”. On Earth, it could be used to help in disaster relief efforts or nuclear emergencies where sending in humans to help could be dangerous.

Additional experiments on Saturday’s mission include an investigation aimed at testing the strength of materials such as concrete, 3D printed polymers, fibreglass composites and more in space and a study on how to help plants handle microgravity stress in space.

NASA said the Dragon spacecraft will also carry supplies and hardware for the crew currently based at the ISS.

In addition to serving as a taxi service to the ISS, SpaceX has scored a number of major NASA contracts recently, including one to help explore Jupiter’s fourth-largest moon, Europa.

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