The SpaceX Dragon cargo craft in the grips of the Canadarm2 robotic arm as the International Space Station was orbiting above northern Africa. Dragon was released a few hours later for its splashdown in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California on May 5, 2018 ending the SpaceX CRS-14 mission.
Amongst the many experiments Dragon returned to Earth was ESA's InVitroBone facility. The experiment was retrieved after splashdown and the equipment was shipped to the payload manufacturer in Canada for refurbishment and the science samples were sent back to each of the science labs for detailed analysis. As a follow-up, the mission hardware and science went through preparations for a reference test at ESA’s Life, Physical Sciences and Life Support Laboratory at its ESTEC technical centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands.
InVitroBone research teams from Italy and France sent the facility into space on the SpaceX Dragon cargo ferry to the International Space Station. The facility is the size of a desk drawer and held two sets of three experiments that monitored bone cells as they reacted to spaceflight in different conditions.
The less time the bone cells spent on Earth, the better for the scientific results, so the researchers had to get everything ready for the last possible moment – 32 hours before liftoff. Working backwards from that moment required careful planning, coordination and practice.
The consortium wanted to see if the Irisin protein that has been found to increase bone and muscle growth on Earth works in space too. The results can give clues to how the protein works and might one day be used by astronauts to help them stay healthy. Other experiments looked at how human stem cells turn into bone-forming cells – or adipocytes – in microgravity, this is fundamental to understand what is happening in astronaut’s bones.