The National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) is announcing a re-flight of the Aquarius payload of Mission 1 to ISS experiments due to activation/deactivation failure of the Fluids Mixing Enclosure (FME) mini-labs aboard ISS in May/June 2012. Re-flight of an “Aquarius II” payload of Mission 1 experiments will accompany the Mission 2 to ISS Antares payload of experiments on the first operational flight of the SpaceX Dragon, currently scheduled for launch at the end of September 2012.

We have been in communication with the Teacher Facilitators for the 15 Mission 1 to ISS student experiment teams, and the 11 Mission 2 to ISS student experiment teams, to coordinate flight operations. NanoRacks informed NCESSE that all mini-labs must arrive in Houston no later than Friday, August 31, 2012.

In keeping with our deep commitment to science education, and our desire to keep everyone following SSEP apprised of all aspects of flight operations and SSEP science on ISS, a summary of the situation is provided below. It is a story of how failure was identified by our SSEP student research teams, how a formal inquiry was launched and conducted by NanoRacks, and how a comprehensive solution was put in place by NanoRacks, NASA, and NCESSE in order to ensure that the research teams can conduct their science in orbit.


Payload Failure: NCESSE received definitive word that 11 of 15 Mission 1 to ISS experiments had failed due to incorrect activation and de-activation of the mini-labs on ISS in May/June 2012, and we expect that the other 4 experiments were failures as well;

Inquiry: NanoRacks launched a formal inquiry with NASA’s assistance and determined that training provided to the astronaut for operation of the mini-labs by NanoRacks was inadequate, and that modifications to the mini-lab design together with enhanced training would correct the problem;

Re-Flight: NanoRacks and NASA have therefore agreed to re-fly all 15 Mission 1 to ISS experiments as an Aquarius II payload that will accompany the Antares Mission 2 to ISS payload launching on the first operational flight of SpaceX Dragon out of Kennedy Space Center, currently expected the last week in September 2012;

Deadline: NASA has informed NanoRacks when NASA must be in receipt of the Aquarius II and Antares payloads in advance of launch, even though a formal launch date has not been set and regardless of possible launch slips. So that NanoRacks allows time for integration of the mini-labs into the payload boxes, meets NASA’s handover deadline, and ensures that the Labor Day holiday does not have the ability to interfere with shipping of the mini-labs to Houston, NanoRacks has stated that they must receive in Houston the mini-labs for re-flight no later than Friday, August 31, 2012;

New Mini-Lab Must be Used: a redesigned mini-lab must be used, and a package of 5 mini-lab kits is being shipment to each of the communities via USPS Priority Mail.


Report of Initial Failure: On June 2, 2012, the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) reported that a communications error between ground controllers at Marshall Space Flight Center and ISS caused the premature deactivation of 8 of 15 Mission 1 to ISS experiments. These 8 Type-3 FME experiments had their de-activation glass ampoules broken well in advance of their scheduled de-activation. Due to the loss of science, an assessment of the situation led NanoRacks and NASA to commit to re-flying the 8 affected experiments on the next SpaceX Dragon flight. Details of this failure were fully covered in a June 2, 2012 SSEP National Blog Post:


After Return to Earth, Reports of Complete Payload Failure: After the Aquarius Payload returned to Earth on Soyuz 29, and soon after the mini-labs were returned to student research teams, NCESSE began receiving reports of mini-labs that were never activated. Teams harvesting fluids and solids from their mini-labs found that the glass ampoules were never cracked. It appeared that the initially reported premature deactivation of 8 experiments may not have occurred for all 8, and in fact many if not all of the 15 experiments might not have been activated in the first place. We immediately notified NanoRacks, NanoRacks launched a formal inquiry, and we asked all 15 student flight teams to report what they found inside their mini-labs during harvesting.

To date, we have heard from 11 of 15 communities: 10 reported that no glass ampoules were ever cracked; and just 1 reported that for their Type 3 FME both ampoules were cracked, but we expect it was terminated prematurely – it was one of the 8 experiments that were initially reported to be prematurely deactivated. Finally, based on this assessment, we expect that the other 4 experiments were also failures. Either the ampoules were never cracked, or the experiments were pre-maturely de-activated since all 4 were in the batch of 8 experiments that were reported to be prematurely de-activated.


Discussions between NanoRacks and NASA quickly led to the conclusion that for almost all of the mini-labs, the astronaut did not flex the mini-lab tubes by the minimum bend angle required to crack the ampoules. This was due to deficiencies in NanoRacks training of the astronaut operator. In addition, it was deemed that a modification to the mini-lab ampoules – scoring each around the center – would make them easier to crack.

The formal statement from NanoRacks –
“SSEP Mission 1 was not the first mission to use NanoRacks’ Mix Stiks (FME mini-labs). NanoRacks first flew Mix Stiks in January 2011 to the ISS aboard the HTV-2 mission. These Mix Stiks were successfully activated and were returned to Earth on the Soyuz 24S return flight. All Mix Stiks were properly activated.

To streamline training for the astronaut operator before conducting activities with the Mix Stiks, NASA instituted an on-orbit video based-training procedure in late 2011. To comply with this policy, NanoRacks produced a training video for the Mix Stiks that was first used for SSEP Mission 1. This on-orbit training video instructed the astronaut operator to bend the Mix Stik (FME) being activated or deactivated. This instruction, without a physical guide, was too subjective and thus the minimum flexure to break the ampoules was not attained.

To rectify this NanoRacks will:

– Score the ampoules in the Mix Stiks to make them easier to crack

– Reshoot the on-orbit training video to fully document actual activation of two types of Mix Stiks [Type 2 and Type 3] with scored ampoules, and detail the tactile and auditory feedback the astronaut operator should experience (hearing a crack and feeling the ampoule snap.)

– Provide a graphical template, in or on the NanoLab [Payload Box] containing the Mix Stiks, which clearly depicts the minimum bend angle so that the astronaut operator can hold the Mix Stik up to the template while bending, and confirm they bent the Mix Stik as required.

NanoRacks is very confident these steps will ensure proper activation and deactivation of the Mix Stiks.”

NCESSE also wants to point out that the failure of the Aquarius payload was reported in both national and local news outlets:






NanoRacks conducted quantitative tests of the new mini-lab design to determine the appropriate depth of the scoring, and the minimum required bend angle. They also conducted tests to determine if scoring the ampoule might make cracking too easy and the ampoule could therefore be unintentionally cracked through, e.g., a) the vibrations of launch (mechanical stress), or 2) thermal shock of a mini-lab due to a rapid temperature change.

From NanoRacks:
“The team has tested the new, scored ampoules by simulating launch vibration loads and then applying approximately a 10 g shock load. We had lightly scored, medium scored, and heavily scored ampoules. The heavily scored ampoules failed the test. The others passed the tests and we are using the moderately scored ampoules. 5 Mix Stiks with moderately scored ampoules were chilled to about 37 degrees Fahrenheit then rapidly heated to 140 degrees Fahrenheit and then checked for integrity. All 5 Mix Stiks passed this test.

The design for the template is being finalized. It will show a required bending angle of 20 degrees and list the expected auditory and tactile feedback (hearing and feeling the ampoule crack).”

NCESSE received test versions of the Type 2 and Type 3 mini-labs using the new design, which were already in their flight configuration: the scored ampoules were in the main tube, the tube was sealed, the two opaque outer containment bags were heat sealed over the tube, the containment bags had stripes to identify the center of the ampoules, and for the Type 3, color-coded stripes identified which was the activation ampoule and which was the deactivation ampoule. NCESSE tested activation and deactivation based on minimum bend angle. The ampoules broke cleanly, the crack could be clearly heard, and the snap was very clearly felt in the hands. There was no uncertainty about when or whether the ampoule cracked during flexing.


We shipped a package produced by NanoRacks which contains the newly designed Mix Stik mini-labs. Each package includes enough components to construct 1 FLIGHT mini-lab, which has ampoules that are scored, and 4 GROUND TRUTH mini-labs whose ampoules are un-scored. Teams must ship their flight mini-lab to Houston. There are enough components to construct a Type 1, Type 2, or Type 3 version of each of the five mini-labs.

Components included in the package:

1 flight set of ampoules (these are scored)
4 non-flight sets of ampoules (not scored) – to speed up deliver time
5 teflon tubes with screw top with O ring
Rubber stoppers
1 return shipping tube, for shipping the flight mini-lab to Houston.

IMPORTANT NOTE: given this opportunity to redesign the mini-labs, and to also address: 1) the difficulty teams had inserting the Teflon end cap into the Teflon tube, and 2) the difficulty during harvesting in removing the end cap which is by then held in place by a metal retaining pin, NanoRacks has engineered a Teflon screw cap into the new design. (Is that the sound of research teams cheering?)

IMPORTANT NOTE: the volumes for the ampoules and the main volume associated with the outer Teflon tube remain unchanged from the old design.


In keeping with our commitment to this program and to all the SSEP student research teams, the full cost of the re-design and re-flight for Mission 1 to ISS is borne by NanoRacks and NCESSE.

Real spaceflight, real science all the time,
The SSEP National Team


SSEP is undertaken by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) in partnership with NanoRacks LLC. This on-orbit research opportunity is enabled through NanoRacks LLC, which is working in partnership 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 (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education program that is both a U.S. national initiative and implemented as an on-orbit commercial space venture.

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