Feb 20, 2022 - Science

The science experiments to expect from SpaceX's Polaris Dawn

SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft above Earth in 2021. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft above Earth in 2021. Credit: SpaceX

The next private SpaceX flight will conduct novel science experiments in space.

Why it matters: The research may help to answer key questions about how humans fare during long periods in space and how to protect them in a future where more people could spend more time off the Earth.

  • "We want to utilize every second possible to benefit our overall goal to advance space exploration and make it accessible for all," mission pilot Scott Poteet says.

Details: Polaris Dawn, the first of three planned flights, is scheduled to launch later this year, carry billionaire Jared Isaacman, who is helping to finance the flights, and three other people to space.

  • In the planned five-day flight — which would go to the radiation intense region called the Van Allen belt and potentially to an orbit farther from Earth than any since the last lunar missions — the crew will collect data about the health effects of radiation, which increases the risk of cancer and other diseases.
  • They also plan to test the laser-based communication system for SpaceX's Starlink satellites, which aim to provide internet access to countries without connectivity, for use in space communication systems for lunar and Martian missions.
  • SpaceX's spacesuit designed to offer protection from radiation and other space elements will also be tested during a spacewalk.
  • The team is fielding an ever-growing list of proposed science experiments from other researchers. They'll be "prioritizing any experiments that have a direct benefit for human health on Earth and in space," Isaacman says.

Another experiment they are seeking approval for would study the effects of microgravity on pressure in the brain during long space flights. An increase in intracranial pressure can cause vision impairment, headaches and other effects seen in many astronauts.

  • Studying what's known as spaceflight associated neuro-ocular syndrome (SANS) could involve implanting a transducer in a crew member's brain that connects to a catheter in the spinal cord to measure fluid pressure before, during and after the mission.

What to watch: The SpaceX Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket that will be used for Polaris Dawn flew to an altitude of about 360 miles during last year's Inspiration4 mission, the first all-civilian crew mission that was also led by Isaacman.

  • Isaacman indicated Polaris Dawn will go further from Earth, raising the question of whether SpaceX will need to complete additional testing before the mission, CNN's Jackie Wattle notes.

Go deeper: How it Happened: The next astronauts (Axios podcast)

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