NASA experiments with expandable module, sends veggies to space station

Story highlights

  • Astronauts aboard the International Space Station are getting a host of new experiments
  • These experiments range from new hardware to growing cabbage

(CNN)There's a reason why the International Space Station is close to Earth. If something goes wrong, it only takes a few days to come back home.

But what happens when we venture further into deep space, to Mars and beyond?
    That's one of the big questions that has inspired NASA to send up a whole new set of experiments for Friday's SpaceX launch. From growing vegetables on other planets to launching a new habitat in orbit, NASA is on a quest to make these scenarios realities in the future as it seeks to be less Earth-dependent.

    Pioneering the way to Mars

    NASA is building capabilities to get astronauts to the Red Planet in the 2030s. To get humans onto Mars, astronauts will have to travel a long time through space, and having adequate room is vital. That's why BEAM, Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, is an essential experiment NASA is sending up to the station on Friday.
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    Right now, every structure the space agency has ever sent into orbit is made of metal, Jason Crusan, director of NASA's Advanced Exploration Systems, told CNN. That's one of the reasons NASA teamed up with Bigelow Areospace to research the possibility of "expandables" becoming the new norm in space habitat engineering -- especially since the technology yields lighter and more compact products.
    "Would you rather live in a large van or a camper?" Crusan asked, commenting on why having extra room is crucial for long-duration space travel.

    Shiny new space station?

    BEAM, which is the size of a small bedroom, will attach onto ISS and stay on the station for two years. During that time, astronauts will run a series of tests to see how the structure is doing. All this information will be important for NASA to determine whether the structure is safe for humans to use in the future.
    Illustration of BEAM attached to the International Space Station.
    "BEAM is a testing station. It's an experimental spacecraft. We don't know what the behavior is going to be," Robert Bigelow, CEO and founder of Bigelow Aerospace, told CNN. But he's optimistic about Friday's launch. By 2020, the billionaire businessman says he plans to launch an expandable structure into orbit.
    Although NASA doesn't envision the structure of ISS changing with BEAM, it sees this technology as literally reshaping the next space station.
    "We are thinking about how to we transition from ISS to a commercial space station in lower Earth orbit in the future, where NASA is hopefully one of many customers," Crusan said.

    Growing food in microgravity

    NASA is stepping up its horticulture game, too. Back in August, the space agency grew lettuce on ISS. Now NASA is sending up an experiment to see whether astronauts can grow Chinese cabbage in orbit.
    "Outredgeous" red romaine lettuce is seen growing in the space station's Veggie plant growth system.
    This specific vegetable was chosen because of its nutrients and taste, scientist Gioia Massa said during a presentation at the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Thursday. NASA planted the same cabbage with first lady Michelle Obama in the White House kitchen garden.
    "The White House is eating the same plants as the astronauts will eat in space," Massa said.
    For future deep space travel and sending crew members to Mars, astronauts will have to grow their own food. The hope for NASA is to understand how plants respond to being in space through this experiment.

    Fighting diseases in orbit

    Mice are heading to ISS so that scientists can figure out how to stop muscle wasting and bone loss during extended space travel. But these experiments aren't going to just benefit astronauts.
    Eli Lilly, the health care company pioneering this research, thinks it may be able to help people on our world too.
    NASA's Rodent Habitat module helps the space agency send mice into orbit.
    Spaceflight causes our muscles to atrophy, especially in the legs and spine. Those are similar symptoms patients with muscle wasting diseases such as ALS experience. Not only will scientists look into why humans experience muscle and bone loss in space, but they will also test an antibody that has been known to prevent muscle wasting in mice on Earth.