June 28, 2012
Credit: Credit: NASA/ESA
DENVER — NASA has plans to upgrade the International Space Station (ISS) in the months ahead to make it more efficient as a research laboratory.
With assembly of the U.S. portion of the lab completed and the U.S.-side crew working to its planned average capacity of 35 hr. a week collectively spent on research, efforts are under way to improve communications links that scientists on the ground can use to help astronauts run their experiments.
Also on the agenda is new hardware to take advantage of the coming availability of commercial cargo deliveries to the orbital lab.
“We don’t believe we should be spending any time and money trying to make the space station any bigger,” Michael Suffredini, NASA’s station program manager, told the first ISS Research and Development Conference here June 26. “What we think we should be spending our resources on is making it able to produce more research.”
Among the upgrades are high-definition video to improve fluids and combustion research by sharpening the view of how flame and various liquids perform in microgravity, and new instruments to allow some kinds of sample analysis in orbit instead of requiring a return to ground labs in scarce “down-mass” capacity.
Today, down-mass is limited to a small amount that can be carried with returning crews on Russian Soyuz capsules. But the rendezvous and berthing of the first SpaceX Dragon cargo carrier at the station clears the way to bring more samples to and from the station. Beginning on the third Dragon mission, NASA will fly six powered middeck lockers to and from the ISS with SpaceX, Suffredini says. The agency also has approved a redesigned middeck freezer called Polar that will double the capacity of existing middeck freezers.
The added down-mass also will permit NASA to maintain 40 mice on the station for experiments, he says, including freezing killed mice after the experiments, returning them to Earth for analysis and delivering more to habitats in the station. If necessary, the number of mice might grow beyond 40, he says.
To improve the links between scientists and the crewmembers who serve as what veteran ISS astronaut Mike Fincke called their “hands, eyes, ears and noses” in space, NASA will begin installing communications upgrades this summer that will double downlink bandwidth to 300 mbps and increase uplinks to 25 mbps. The Improved Communication Unit, which will take the place of seven Orbital Replacement Units on the station, also will allow ground commanding via Ku-band and S-band links, and will add two more channels to the air-to-ground voice links.
“Today we have two comm channels to talk to the crew,” Suffredini says. “That is always busy. So we’re adding two additional comm channels in order to increase our capability to have multiple payload-specific conversations with multiple crews at one time.”