SpaceX's Cargo Ship Carries 3-D Printer, Mice and More

June 16, 2018 – 06:33 pm

Image: Rodent research facilityCAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — SpaceX might be a few years away from launching human astronauts into orbit, but this weekend, the company is due to send a miniature crew of live passengers into space.

The mice are among a motley batch of cargo that includes some unusual items and milestones: the first 3-D printer in space, mutant fruit flies, a wind-watching radar, a mouse X-ray machine and a commercial experiment designed to make a better golf club. Dragon's flight — scheduled for launch at 2:14 a.m. ET Saturday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida — will be SpaceX's fourth official resupply mission to the astronaut outpost under a contract with NASA. [See photos from the SpaceX-4 Dragon mission]

Milestone for space mice

The space-bound mice will be the first residents of NASA's new Rodent Research habitat, which scientists will use to study the animals' behavior and health. Years ago, NASA sent mice into space on shuttle flights, but those rodent astronauts rarely spent more than two weeks in space. This mission — primarily intended to test out the new habitat and hardware — will last 30 days.

Image: 3-D printerAstronauts lose muscle and bone strength quickly when they go to space, and the same is expected to happen to mice. Researchers will measure the rodents' loss in bone density throughout the flight using a new X-ray machine built by Techshot, called the Bone Densitometer. It will be the first X-ray source to be on the space station.

At the end of their month-long mission, the rodents will be euthanized and dissected by the astronauts so that certain parts can be frozen and preserved for study back on Earth.

The Rodent Research Hardware System, which will be installed at the International Space Station, includes three modules: the habitat at left, the transporter in the middle, and the animal access unit at right. Dominic Hart / NASA

Other organisms are due to travel aboard Dragon, including the yeast that causes athlete's foot, seedlings that are part of an experiment to grow plants in space and 30 fruit flies. Half of those fruit flies are mutants that are particularly resistant to stressors like starvation and dehydration. Researchers will look for behavioral and genetic changes in the two groups of flies.

First 3-D printer in space

Having a 3-D printer on the space station could allow astronauts to make tools and replacement parts that would otherwise have to be delivered from Earth at great expense. The first spaceworthy 3-D printer, built by the California-based company Made In Space, is now ready for launch.

Made In Space has flown its 3-D printers on hundreds of parabolic airplane flights. But the 20- to 30-second spurts of microgravity on those trips don't offer enough time to learn how well 3-D printers function off the planet, since even small items can take 15 or 20 minutes to produce.


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