Today (July 8) at 11:26 a.m. EST, the Atlantis space shuttle is scheduled for the last-ever NASA shuttle launch, ending a program that sent five shuttles on 134 missions to space. This final mission will last 13 days, and, as usual, it will carry an astonishing array of organisms and equipment all in the name of scientific discovery. Here are a few.
Nearly half a million tomato seeds will spend the two weeks in space and, upon their return, be distributed to 10,000 Canadian classrooms where the students will measure germination success, growth rate, and overall health of the tomato plants after prolonged exposure to space.
- Pee recycler
NASA prefers to call it the Forward Osmosis Bag (FOB) system, but the purpose of this IV-like bag filled with blue liquid is simple—to turn sweat and urine into drinkable water. The International Space Station already uses a wastewater-recycling machine, but it requires a power supply. FOB is a passive system that was adapted from a military version that is already in use, reports Wired Science. If successful in a microgravity environment, it may someday be installed into spacesuits.
- Bone loss in microgravity
Mice from The Pennsylvania State University will spend almost two weeks on the shuttle, and when they return, researchers will compare their bone density to control mice that never left Earth. The team hopes to better understand the effects of weightlessness on the ability of bone marrow stem cells to build bone, and the mechanism of bone loss that result from prolonged bed-rest and aging.
- Space phones
Two smartphones—Apple’s iPhone 4 and Samsung’s Nexus S—will make the trip. NASA is testing the iPhone’s utility as a navigation system, using its internal gyroscope, accelerometer, and camera to determine position in space and altitude above the earth. People on earth can play along by downloading a 99-cent app, reports PC World. The phone will also measure radiation exposure, which may affect the phone’s functionality. Samsung’s phone will be installed inside small, free-flying satellites called SPHERES, making the satellites remote-controllable and capable of collecting survey information and photo and video images outside the spacecraft.
Robonaut is a robot that looks like a person. A torso-only version of this bot has already been built on the International Space Station, but it is not yet sufficiently protected from the environment outside the Station. NASA will work to develop Robonaut’s abilities to eventually work alongside humans, operate space vehicles, and manipulate objects with its dexterous “hands” in a microgravity environment.