SSEP Mission 1 to ISS: Mini-Laboratory Operation

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All information added or updated since this page first went up on October 8, 2011 (just after Mission 1 start) is in GREEN TEXT below.
Information still to be determined (if any) is in RED TEXT below.
Dates and times that are subject to change at NASA’s discretion are in PURPLE TEXT below.

Last update of this page: July 5, 2012, 5:20 pm EDT
This page provides all the information you need regarding the mini-laboratory used for experiments on SSEP Mission 1 to ISS—the NanoRacks Fluids Mixing Enclosure (FME), which NanoRacks has also dubbed a “MixStik”. Here you will find all the specifications for the mini-lab, a description of its straightforward operation, and all the constraints on your experimental design, including constraints due to the time it takes from submission of your experiment, to arrival and operation on ISS, to return to Earth.

Before reading this page, be sure to read the Designing the Flight Experiment page. It will help you understand how to start thinking about a possible experiment.

A Fluids Mixing Enclosure (FME) mini-lab. Shown is a Type 3 FME, containing 3 separate volumes of fluids and/or solids. CLICK FOR ZOOM

1. Introduction to the FME Mini-Lab

The FME is a very simple mini-laboratory designed to carry small samples of fluids and solids—the Experiment Samples—and provides for the samples to be mixed at an appropriate time in orbit. This allows you to explore the effects of microgravity on a physical, chemical, or biological system contained in the mini-lab. Each mini-lab is a cylindrical tube 6.75 inches long (17.1 cm), with an outer diameter of 0.5 inches (1.3 cm). It can contain one, two, or three separate volumes of fluids and/or solids. You can think of the FME as one, two, or three small test tubes that can be mixed in orbit. Figure 1 provides a graphic showing the design of an FME which contains 3 separate volumes.

Each flight experiment for SSEP Mission 1 to ISS must be designed for operation in a FME. The SSEP payload to the International Space Station will contain one FME for each flight experiment. The FMEs will be placed in a Payload Box which can contain up to 24 FMEs (see Figure 2). SSEP flight experiments will share the Payload Box with flight experiments from professional researchers in academia, industry, and government. NanoRacks has the ability to fly multiple Payload Boxes to accommodate a payload of more than 24 FMEs. Once in orbit, the Payload Box is placed in a rack on Kibo—the Japanese Experiment module (JEM) on ISS.

2. Operating the FME Mini-Lab

Figure 2: A FME Payload Box containing up to 25 FMEs. CLICK TO ZOOM

The largest volume in the FME containing fluids and/or solids—the Main Volume— runs along the length of the tube. Up to two sealed cylindrical glass Ampoules (vials), each capable of containing additional fluids and solids, can be placed inside the Main Volume, and are therefore bathed in the fluid contained in the Main Volume. At a prescribed time, an astronaut can bend the flexible FME over a specific Ampoule, cracking open the Ampoule and allowing the Ampoule’s contents to mix with the contents of the Main Volume. You can expect the ampoule to break into a few observable glass pieces.

There are three types of FME depending on how many different ‘test tubes’ your experiment will need—

Type 1 FME: contains only 1 experiment sample in the Main Volume, with no inserted glass ampoules. An experiment using a Type 1 FME by definition requires no mixing.

Type 2 FME: contains 2 experiment samples, one in the Main Volume and a second in a Long Ampoule. Figure 3 provides a graphic of a Type 2 FME.

Type 3 FME: contains 3 experiment samples, one in the Main Volume and two additional samples in two Short AmpoulesAmpoule A and Ampoule B. Figure 1 provides a graphic of a Type 3 FME.

Important notes:

  • A volume containing a fluid does not need to be completely filled. Air voids are fine.
  • The FME should not be heat sterilized using, e.g., an autoclave. The tube containing the Main Volume will likely not withstand temperatures up to 250 deg F (120 deg C). Sterilization should be done by gas, radiation, or chemicals.

3. Fluids Mixing Enclosure (FME) Kits – You Get the Real Flight Hardware and Load It for Flight to ISS

As part of the Baseline Program Cost, each participating community will receive a package of five Fluids Mixing Enclosure (FME) Kits, each Kit providing all the parts for the assembly and loading of a flight certified Type 1, Type 2, or Type 3 FME.

Figure 3: Type 2 FME containing 2 volumes for fluids and solids. CLICK FOR ZOOM

Some background: The operation and design of the mini-lab used for SSEP on the Space Shuttle flights (the Materials Dispersion Apparatus or MDA), required each student team to send their fluids and/or solids in micro test tubes to a payload processing facility at Kennedy Space Center where technicians loaded the samples into the min-lab before launch and harvested the samples on return to Earth. Student teams therefore handed over responsibility for loading and unloading of their experiment to a third party, which also meant that they did not have direct experience with the flight hardware. In addition, due to its complexity and cost, student teams could not receive a replica of the MDA to aid them in experiment design, and in which they could conduct their “ground truth” experiments (see Section 5 below). To provide these capabilities to student teams, two simpler devices were made available that contained replicas of the MDA’s small test tubes. But these devices were not the flight hardware, and did not provide the exact operation of the MDA.

For SSEP Mission 1 to ISS, each FME Kit you receive provides the ACTUAL flight hardware. Each experiment selected for flight will be conducted in a FME that the student team assembles from one of their Kits, loads, seals, and ships or hand-carries to NanoRacks in Houston for flight on the ISS. When NanoRacks receives your FME, they will heat seal two polyethylene bags around it to serve as a second and third level of containment (see Section 6 below), load it in the Payload Box, and deliver the entire payload to NASA for integration into the Soyuz 30 launch vehicle.

On return to Earth, the sealed FME will be shipped back to you, or provided to your team’s representative in Houston. Once received, the student team conducts their own harvesting of the samples from the FME and analysis of the samples.

This approach allows students to get broad experience in all aspects of their experiment design and operation, and there is no third party handling of the experiment samples before they are sealed in the FME destined for space. The other four FME Kits can be used by your community to demonstrate and assess the operation of the FME mini-lab, design and refine experiments, and conduct formal ground truth experiments while the flight experiment is ongoing.The FME Kit is therefore also an exceptional experiment design tool, providing an understanding of precisely how well an experiment mates to the mini-lab to be used on ISS.

While experiments that are being proposed as part of the community-wide design competition most likely can be tested using standard laboratory test tubes and mixing protocols, the selected flight experiment should likely be assessed and refined using an actual FME, before the flight FME is loaded and shipped to Houston. If a participating community would like more than 5 FME Kits, they are available as a package of five Kits for an additional cost.

Important note: The Kit comes with detailed instructions for assembling, sterilizing, loading, and sealing the FME. NanoRacks has also produced an instructional video. The detailed instructions and video are both downloadable from the Document Library.  

4. Mixing the Experiment Samples in the FME Once in Orbit, and Astronaut Handling

Recall that to mix samples in the FME, the glass ampoule is cracked open by flexing the FME like you would activate a glow stick. Each FME is self-contained, allowing each student flight experiment team to define when mixing is to take place for their experiment, which can require up to two interventions by an ISS crew member in the case of a Type 3 FME containing two glass ampoules. To ensure consistency with crew schedules, NanoRacks will likely define a specific time 4 days each week, and which will not include weekends, for crew intervention with the SSEP payload of FMEs.

Important note on the duration of your experiment: the timeline of events from handover of your FME to NanoRacks in Houston, through its return to you after its flight in space, implies that most experiments will need to be in a dormant (inactive) state until arrival on ISS (see Section 6 below for constraints imposed by the timeline, and the refrigeration available as a means of keeping biological samples dormant). The experiment can then be initiated by an astronaut by cracking an ampoule and carrying out a first mix. If your experiment is inactive until initiated with a first mix, then your experiment can be initiated at any time while it is on ISS. This gives you the latitude to define how long your experiment should proceed in microgravity before de-orbiting and returning to Earth. For example, if you only want your experiment to run 3 days on ISS, have your astronaut initiate it 3 days before it returns to Earth. If you want your experiment to run 3 weeks, have it initiated 3 weeks before it returns. The mixing protocol is fully up to you, and independent of any other FME experiment.

It is also possible to define other actions by the astronaut assigned to the SSEP payload. This can include a request to shake the FME at appropriate times, and place the FME into an onboard refrigerator for a prescribed length of time (see “Thermal Control” in Section 6 below.)

5. Ways to Think About Using the Different Types of FMEsSome Examples

There are countless experiments that can be done in the FME mini-lab. To gain an understanding of the kinds of experiments possible in microgravity, first read the Designing the Flight Experiment page, and then the Microgravity Science Background and Microgravity Experiment Case Studies documents available for download at the Document Library. Here are a few practical applications of the FME mini-lab to microgravity experiments—

A Type 2 FME: provides an excellent protocol for a significant class of biological experiments. A dormant organism (refrigerated, freeze-dried bacteria or cells) could be placed in the Long Ampoule or even a single Short Ampoule. A suitable growth medium could be placed in the Main Volume. Once in orbit on ISS, after reheating to room temperature (if needed) the ampoule is cracked and the experiment is initiated. As one example, the Type 2 FME is perfectly suited for an experiment exploring how a seed will germinate in microgravity. The dry seed or seeds can be placed in the ampoule in cotton to wick the growth medium when the ampoule is cracked.

A Type 3 FME: is suitable for any experiment that requires 3 separate samples to be brought together. One example might a biological experiment that explores whether generations of microorganisms produced entirely in microgravity have any visible structural differences relative to those cultured on Earth. Given that the time for each generation can be very short, just the 1 to 2 days of exposure to gravity from the time of Soyuz 29 landing on Earth, through transport of the FME back to Houston and possibly FedExing the FME back to the student team, may ensure that the living generation was produced entirely in a gravity environment. The experiment team might therefore want to introduce a biological fixative to kill the biology, or a growth inhibitor to greatly slow the biology, before the FME is brought back to Earth and re-introduced into a gravity environment. The fixative or inhibitor could be placed in Ampoule B and the ampoule cracked before de-orbit of the FME. For more information, read the Fixatives and Growth Inhibitors document downloadable at the Document Library.

A Type 1 FME: provides a self-contained microgravity environment for an experiment that is ‘pre-loaded’ before launch, and requires no addition of sample materials once in orbit. It may be that just exposure to microgravity is the trigger for the experiment.

Note on the importance of Ground Truth Experiments: a ground truth experiment is one that is identical to the experiment in orbit, except it is conducted on the ground, and at the same time the experiment is conducted in orbit. This allows the student team to do a direct comparison of the flight and ground truth experiments to assess differences due to the apparent removal of gravity on orbit. A ground truth experiment is almost always a vital element of microgravity experiment design given that the purpose of such experiments is to assess the impact of removing gravity from a physical, chemical or biological system. To make such an assessment requires a comparison against a ground truth experiment that was initiated at the same time as the flight experiment. In addition, an experiment team should consider conducting multiple ground truth experiments, since this is straightforward to do, and provides more data that can be used to define an average behavior on the ground.

A ground truth is also vital in the case of an experiment that is not terminated on orbit using e.g., a biological fixative or growth inhibitor. Such an experiment will likely continue after its return to Earth, and re-exposure to normal gravity can ‘contaminate’ the results. But the duration of the experiment on ISS may be substantially longer than the up to 2 days of exposure to gravity before you receive the FME (due to landing, transport back to Houston, and possible FedExing to you). The experiment will have been carried out mostly in microgravity, but also with a short exposure time to gravity. Comparison to a ground truth allows you to assess differences due to the microgravity exposure.

6. Critical Experimental Design Constraints

Just like a professional researcher using a pre-existing laboratory or lab apparatus, you need to design your experiment to the constraints imposed by the equipment you are using, and the environment in which it is to operate. Listed below are the critical design constraints you’ve got to consider for: the Experiment Samples allowed; the FME and its operation on ISS; and how long it will take: 1) from receipt of your FME by NanoRacks in Houston to the time it arrives at ISS, and 2) from your FME’s departure from ISS until it is received by you.

6.1 Experiment Samples—Restrictions on the Fluids and Solids That You Can Use in Your Experiment
Each SSEP experiment selected for flight must pass a NASA Flight Safety Review. The review is conducted by NASA Toxicology at Johnson Space Center, and is meant to ensure that the fluids and solid materials to be used in the experiment—the Experiment Samples—pose no risk to the astronaut crew. The level of risk depends on the toxicity of the experiment samples AND how well they are contained in the mini-lab. The more “levels of containment” that are engineered into the mini-lab, the less the restrictions on the experiment samples. For each SSEP flight opportunity, NCESSE and NanoRacks work hard to ensure a high probability that each of the experiments passes Flight Safety Review. This is done by assessing the safety features engineered into the mini-lab to be used, and what restrictions this assessment imposes on allowable experiment samples.

As a benchmark of success, all of the 27 SSEP experiments selected for flight on Shuttles Endeavour and Atlantis passed Flight Safety Review and flew. However, it is important to note that the final decision on whether an experiment passes the Review is NASA’s and out of the control of NCESSE and NanoRacks.

For SSEP Mission 1 to ISS, the FME mini-lab used has three nested and sealed enclosures surrounding the fluids and solids (see Figures 1 and 3) to guard against an accidental release into the crew cabin. The FME is said to have three levels of containment, and this provides so much redundancy against an accident that virtually any fluids and solids can be used by a student team. However, the following are requirements regarding the fluids and solids used in the FME mini-lab:

a. Restricted Samples: student teams must NOT use any of the following fluids and solids.
A finalist proposal submitted to NCESSE that contains any of the substances listed below will be automatically be rejected, and will not move forward to the Step 2 Review Board for review.

radioactive fluids or solids
hydrofluoric acid

These are the only fluids and solids that NanoRacks has stated cannot be used. However, if your experiment is making use of something that is known to be hazardous, NCESSE advises you to alert us so that we can have NanoRacks assess the hazard and any potential impact on NASA Flight Safety Review. 

b. Human Samples: All human Samples, such as blood, will need to be tested for Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, HIV-1, HIV-2, HTLV-1, and HTLV-2.

c. Material Safety Data Sheets: each student team is required to provide a standard Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for each of their experiment samples (fluids and/or solids). A MSDS should be supplied by the vendor from which you purchase a sample. For those samples where a MSDS is not typically provided by the vendor, e.g., Tilapia fish eggs, NCESSE will provide the team the necessary guidance to submit the needed safety paperwork without undue burden.

d. Specificity of Samples: NCESSE and NanoRacks will require, of each flight experiment team, the same level of specificity for sample biologicals and non-biologicals as was characteristic of samples on the Master List of Samples used for STS-135. The Master List can be downloaded from the Documents Library. This includes, e.g., correctly specifying the concentrations of solids dissolved in a solution.

6.2 FME Volumes for Fluids and Solids

The FME is a mini-laboratory, which means the volumes for experimental samples are small. So be sure you design an experiment with the specifications below in mind.

Type 1 FME:
Main Volume: 11.31 ml; this corresponds to a cubical volume 2.24 cm on a side

Type 2 FME:
Main Volume: 6.28 ml; this corresponds to a cubical volume 1.84 cm on a side
Long Ampoule: 1.85 ml; this corresponds to a cubical volume 1.23 cm on a side; inner diameter: 0.16″ (4.064 mm), length: 6.5″ (165 mm)

Type 3 FME:
Main Volume: 6.28 ml; this corresponds to a cubical volume 1.84 cm on a side
Ampoule A and B: each are 0.92 ml; this corresponds to a cubical volume 0.97 cm on a side; inner diameter: 0.16″ (4.064 mm), length: 3.2″ (81 mm)

6.3 Constraints Due to the Flight Timeline for SSEP Mission 1 to ISS

Important constraints on the design of your experiment are associated with the timeline from turnover of your flight FME to NanoRacks in Houston, to when it arrives back in Houston after its flight in space. Below is a list of the relevant and critical dates for SSEP Mission 1 to ISS

  • Last date for NanoRacks in Houston to receive your flight FME: April 6, 2012
  • Handover of the SSEP Payload to NASA: April 11, 2012
  • SSEP payload is placed aboard ferry vehicle: 2 days to 8 hours before launch (was actually 10 days due to switch from Soyuz to SpaceX Dragon) 
  • Launch: May 22, 2012
  • Docking with ISS and Payload Transfer to ISS: May 24-26, 2012
  • Payload transfer from ISS to Soyuz 29, undocking, and landing in Kazakhstan: July 1, 2012
  • Your FME is ready for pickup in Houston or for FedExing to you overnight: (15-20 hours after landing in Kazakhstan)

These dates are taken directly from the SSEP MIssion 1 to ISS: Critical TImeline page, and lead to these conclusions:

a. it will be a little more than 5 weeks from the time you give your flight FME to NanoRacks to the time it arrives at ISS

b. it will be on ISS for 6.5 weeks before being transferred to Soyuz 29, and the vehicle undocks for return to Earth

c. it will be less than 24 hours from the time Soyuz 29 undocks from ISS to when your FME is ready for pick up in Houston (or FedExing to you)

d. it will be about 12 weeks from the time you give your FME to NanoRacks in Houston to it being ready for pickup in Houston (or FedExing to you) after its return from space

These conclusions likely lead to the following constraints on your experiment design:

a. Your experiment likely needs to be in stasis (in a dormant or inactive state) until it arrives on ISS. So if you are using biological samples, they need to be dormant until the experiment is initiatied on ISS. Some examples of dormant biological samples include seeds; dehydrated macroscopic organisms like brine shrimp; and hundreds of dehydrated and refrigerated microscopic organisms like bacteria, and cells—all of which are commercially available. If the dormant biological sample is placed in an ampoule in the FME, the experiment can be initiated by your astronaut on ISS by cracking the ampoule and mixing the sample with a rehydration or nutrient fluid contained in the Main Volume of the FME.

b. Dormant samples may require refrigeration across the delivery pipeline from shipping of your flight FME by you to Houston, through experiment initiation on ISS, to return of the FME to you after its flight in space. We have arranged refrigeration along most of this pathway, with the exception of the rapid—one day or less—ferry flights on Soyuz to and from ISS (see the Thermal Control section below).

c. Prior to the transfer of your FME to Soyuz 29 for return to Earth, and its re-introduction to a gravity environment for nearly a day before you receive it in Houston (two days if FedEx overnight shipping is required from Houston to you), you might want to terminate a biological experiment by introducing either a “fixative” which kills and preserves the biology, or by introducing a growth inhibitor which dramatically slows biological activity. This can be done in a Type 3 FTE with a fixative or inhibitor in Ampoule B, which can be cracked before the FME leaves ISS. For more information, read the Fixatives and Growth Inhibitors document in the Document Library.

6.4 Thermal (Temperature) Control

There is no active temperature control within the FME. Unless you are requesting external temperature control, such as placing your FME in a refrigerator, you should expect the FME to be subjected to whatever the ambient temperature conditions might be along its route from handover of your FME to NanoRacks in Houston to return of your FME after its flight in space. While aboard ISS, you should expect the ambient conditions of the crew cabin, with a temperature of 70-75° F—a shirtsleeve environment.

SSEP is meant to offer real experiment opportunities on ISS that are interdisciplinary, and at the grade 5-12 level, intersect the science curriculum across the physical science, earth/space science, and biological science strands. That said, SSEP experiments are exceptionally well suited to biology, as long as biological samples can be maintained in a relatively dormant state until reaching ISS. Many biologicals can be put in this state if kept at a temperature of 2 – 8 degrees C. We have therefore ensured access to refrigeration at this temperature over much of your FME’s journey, including the following legs (unless otherwise noted):

a. shipping of your FME from you to NanoRacks in Houston: you can ship with cold packs

b. NanoRacks storage of your FME until handover to NASA

c. NASA receiving your FME through loading aboard Soyuz 30

d. from loading aboard Soyuz 30, to launch, to transfer to ISS (expected duration: potentially less than 1 day) NO REFRIGERATION AVAILABLE

e. aboard ISS for any period(s) over the 1.5 months your FME will be aboard ISS

f. from loading aboard Soyuz 29, to undocking, to landing in Kazakhstan (expected duration: 15-20 hours) NO REFRIGERATION AVAILABLE

g. transport from Kazakhstan to Houston

h. shipping from NanoRacks in Houston to you: can be shipped with cold packs

Though refrigeration is not available for just two short duration legs listed above, many biologicals can be brought to room temperature for a day without any impact to their viability.

For Mission 1 to ISS, there will be no access to an incubator aboard ISS, and only refrigeration is available as a thermal control.

While the payload is being transported to the launch site and back from the landing site, and while in storage at the launch site awaiting loading on Soyuz 30, if any FMEs require refrigeration, the whole SSEP payload of FMEs will be refrigerated. While the SSEP payload is aboard ISS, each student flight team can determine if and when their FME should be refrigerated.

6.5 Other FME Constraints

The FME:

  • is opaque. There is therefore no means to photograph samples once loaded.
  • has no means of active data acquisition on orbit
  • has no onboard light source
  • has no provided power

7. Very Important Information for the Experimenter

Make sure to read the Designing the Flight Experiment page for how to think about framing an experiment, and an overview of the science that might be explored in microgravity. Make sure to read about the suite of Teacher and Student Resources. Make sure to get very familiar with the SSEP Mission 1 to ISS: Critical Timeline, and information on the student team proposal process on the Flight Experiment Design Competition page.

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) is a program of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) in the U.S., and the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education internationally. It is enabled through a strategic partnership with DreamUp PBC and NanoRacks LLC, which are working with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory. SSEP is the first pre-college STEM education program that is both a U.S. national initiative and implemented as an on-orbit commercial space venture.