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Newest science experiments headed to the space station

NASA via AP

SpaceX will launch its 11th resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) next week, but NASA has also stocked some scientific payloads on the trip. They cover a wide range of fields, encompassing everything from key medical research to interplanetary navigation.

The big one: NICER (short for Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer) is an instrument that will be attached to the ISS to help understand the structure and energy of neutron stars — the densest, fastest-spinning, and most magnetic objects in the universe. NICER science lead Zaven Arzoumanian called neutron stars "a giant atomic nucleus" because they're only about 10 miles wide but contain more than double the mass of the Sun.

Another use: NICER will have an enhancement called SEXTANT (Station Explorer for X-Ray Timing and Navigation) which will detect the X-rays given off as neutron stars spin hundreds of times each second. Due to this characteristic, Arzoumanian said that neutron stars are "very accurate clocks distributed all over the sky." SEXTANT can use these "clock" signals to calculate position, eventually allowing spacecraft to navigate anywhere in the solar system using onboard systems.

Other cool things headed to the ISS:

  • Roll-Out Solar Array (ROSA): ROSA is a new unrollable type of solar panel that, according to principal investigator Jeremy Barnik, is "just like a paper towel and on the towels are photovoltaic cells." It's getting sent to the ISS to see how its millimeters-thick solar panels fare in the tough environment of space.
  • NELL-1: NELL-1 is a molecule being tested in microgravity to see how it can preserve bone mass for humans in long-term spaceflight and space habitation. 40 mice will receive the therapy on the ISS, of which 20 will splash back down in the Pacific after a few weeks for further study.
  • Fruit Fly Lab-02: Six boxes of fruit flies are headed up to study the effects of spaceflight on the cardiovascular system. Karen Ocorr, co-investigator for the lab, said that fruit flies' heartbeat is more on pace with humans than rodents, making them a surprisingly better candidate for such a study.
  • Capillary Structures for Exploration Life Support (CSEL): CSEL will test designs for systems that can collect and transport fluid without gravity. Its hope is to be much more reliable than current systems that mimic gravity using mechanical workarounds, so it can be used to collect carbon dioxide and recirculate water during deep space exploration by humans.
  • Multiple User System for Earth Sensing (MUSES): MUSES is a little different than the rest because it's an Earth-imaging platform that will host other payloads on the ISS. Its technology reduces the barrier for entry to bring an instrument to the space station, allowing a company or developing nation to send their own Earth-imaging payload.