Extra passengers scheduled on Atlantis

NASA's Atlantis next mission will carry very small passengers -- microbes. These microbes have been identified as potential threats to crew health. By sending them to the ISS, the researchers want to know if they could survive in space -- and attack the astronauts. And as the microbes will come back on Earth, what will happen? Read more...

NASA's Atlantis next mission, which is scheduled for August 27, not only will carry human astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), but several kinds of microbes. In "Microscopic Passengers To Hitch Ride On Space Shuttle," the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University writes that these microbes have been identified as potential threats to crew health. By sending these microbes to the ISS, the researchers want to know if they could survive in space -- and attack the astronauts. And as the microbes will come back on Earth, the whole experiment looks like a science fiction story from the golden age. But read more...

Microbes carried by NASA's STS-115 missionHere are images of the different microorganisms that will be part of NASA's STS-115 mission (Credit: NASA). From top to bottom, you can see a picture of Candida albicans, an image of gram negative Salmonella typhimurium and a Scanning Electron Micrograph (SEM) of gram negative Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

As says the news release, "the results of this experiment will help NASA scientists evaluate the risks to astronauts on future exploration missions planned to go to the moon and Mars."

Here is a quote of Cheryl Nickerson, who is leading this program for the Biodesign Institute.

"Spaceflight holds tremendous potential for the development of novel therapeutics, vaccines and diagnostics to treat, prevent and control infectious diseases," Nickerson said. "Our Microbe experiment will be the first to investigate the effects of spaceflight on the disease-causing potential and gene expression profiles of disease-causing microbes."

This NASA's project is aptly named Microbe, but is also known under the name of "Effect of Spaceflight on Microbial Gene Expression and Virulence." Here is how NASA describes the operational requirements.

The microbes will be contained in the glass barrel of a Fluid Processing Apparatus (FPA). The FPA is a tube that contains 2 or 3 separate liquids in addition to the sample. The liquid can be introduced to the sample in a controlled order. The FPA is contained in a Group Activation Pack (GAP). The GAP will hold up to 8 FPAs that can be processed simultaneously. For this experiment, a total of 12 GAPs will be used, 6 for Salmonella and 3 each for Pseudomonas and Candida.
For activation and termination, the crew will turn a hand crank that has been inserted onto the top of the GAP. Growth of the samples will last 24 hours before the experiment is terminated. Once the samples are on the ground and have been stabilized, they will be frozen at minus 80°C then shipped to the laboratory. The growth of some samples will not be terminated and will be maintained as viable cultures at ambient temperature for infection studies upon return to Earth.

So what will happen when these microbes exposed to cosmic radiation come back to Earth? Will they escape from the lab and jump on us? Who knows? Let's hope that NASA has some very strict control procedures for handling these microbes when they're back from space.

Sources: The Biodesign Institute news release, August 23, 2006; and various web sites

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