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In this photo provided by the U.S. Air Force, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, carrying the Spaceflight SSO-A: SmallSat Express, launches from Space Launch Complex-4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., on Monday, Dec. 3, 2018. On Wednesday, a Falcon 9 rocket will help carry SpaceX's latest research module into space. (Michael Peterson/U.S. Air Force via AP)

Why is SpaceX sending worms, lasers and crystals to the International Space Station?

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WASHINGTON (CIRCA) — Tiny worms in pouches, methane, shooting lasers at trees and crystals — they are all part of SpaceX's next cargo launch, taking place Wednesday at 1:16 p.m. ET from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Brevard County, Florida.

According to space.com, the Dragon spacecraft will travel for two days as it catches up to the International Space Station, to which it will carry 5,600 pounds of tools, supplies and equipment to the station's crew. Once the spacecraft is attached to the space station, several experiments will take place, according to the website.

In one experiment, 36,000 worms (a species called C. elegans), all about 1-millimeter long and divided into pouches of about 5,000, will be studied by scientists hoping to learn how to decrease the loss of muscle mass that comes from living in microgravity. The worms will be put into incubators once aboard the ISS and reproduce, meaning an estimated 2 million to 3 million will return to Earth. They'll be frozen — they can survive that state — and be studied later back on Earth.

Sometime in the future on a long space flight, astronauts might need to acquire fuel from the surface of the moon or Mars, possibly in the form of hydrogen, oxygen or methane. For the first time, a program called Robotic Refueling Mission-3 will practice transferring and storing liquid methane in space.

Another experiment actually studies Earth itself. Three near-infared lasers, each firing 242 times per second, will measure the heights and densities of the planet's forests, which will help scientists understand how much carbon is stored in them. About 10 billion measurements will be taken, and scientists also want to be able to study how forest fires spread.

Also, the Perfect Crystals investigation will attempt to grow crystals from a protein that helps protect the human body from oxidizing radiation. Crystals grown outside of gravity will give scientists a better understanding of the proteins' structure.

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