Tag Archives: Station

Space station mold can survive 200 times more radiation than you or me

Unlike our pinkish, frail frames, mold may be able to survive on the outside walls of our spaceships. Even when drenched in hard radiation.

Mold Cheese.

Image via Pixabay.

The International Space Station isn’t as squeaky-clean as you’d expect: in fact, it turns out that our current home in space is plagued by mold. Every week, astronauts spend several hours scrubbing and cleaning its inside walls to prevent this mold from impacting their health.

However, new research suggests that efforts to completely de-mold the ISS may be in vain. Mold spores can survive even on the outside walls of the station and can bear radiation levels thousands of times harsher than ourselves. The results also point to mold as a useful ally on space travels, which could help supply the crew with biological products such as antibiotics or vitamins.

Stowaways, cosmic rays

“We now know that [fungal spores] resist radiation much more than we thought they would, to the point where we need to take them into consideration when we are cleaning spacecraft, inside and outside,” said Marta Cortesão, a microbiologist at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Cologne, who presented the findings at the 2019 Astrobiology Science Conference.

“If we’re planning a long duration mission, we can plan on having these mold spores with us because probably they will survive the space travel.”

Mold spores can withstand extreme temperatures, ultraviolet light, chemicals and dry conditions. This resiliency makes them hard to kill. Spores of the two most common mold types on the ISS — Aspergillus and Pennicillium — can survive exposure to X-ray levels at over 200 times the deadly dose for humans, the team found. The findings show how important planetary protection protocols designed to prevent spacecraft from contaminating other planets with Earth-borne life are, and that we need to reconsider how much of a threat fungi spores are from this point of view.

The good news is that these two species aren’t generally harmful to humans. They can impact people with weakened immune systems in cases of extreme exposure (i.e. when inhaling a large quantity of these spores). However, Cortesão believes we can coax these molds to work in our favor. Fungi are more similar to us, genetically, than bacteria: they’re made up of complex cells with a structure resembling ours, and they come equipped with the biochemical machinery to synthesize polymers, food, vitamins, and other useful molecules astronauts may need on extended trips beyond Earth.

“Mold can be used to produce important things, compounds like antibiotics and vitamins. It’s not only bad, a human pathogen and a food spoiler, it also can be used to produce antibiotics or other things needed on long missions,” Cortesão said.

In the lab, Cortesão exposed fungal spores with ionizing radiation, high-frequency ultraviolet light, and heavy ions to see how they fared. Ionizing radiation kills cells by damaging their DNA and other essential cellular infrastructure but gets blocked by our planet’s magnetic field (the ISS also benefits from this shielding). Earth’s ozone layer protects us from high-energy UV down here on the surface. However, spacecraft going to the Moon or Mars would be exposed to both.

Cortesão reports that the spores survived exposure to X-rays up to 1000 gray, exposure to heavy ions at 500 gray and exposure to ultraviolet light up to 3000 joules per meter squared. Gray is a measure of absorbed dose of ionizing radiation (joules of radiation energy per kilogram of tissue). Half a gray is the threshold for radiation sickness in humans, while five gray is the lethal threshold.

A 180-day voyage (about as long as we’d need to get to Mars) is estimated to expose passengers to around 0.7 gray. In other words, it could cause some issues for the human crew, but not for the mold.

In the future, the team plans to expand its search to understand how the combination of radiation, vacuum, low temperature, and low gravity in space affects the fungi.

The findings ” Fungal Spore Resistance to Space Radiation” have been presented at the 2019 Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon 2019) on the 28th of June.

Tracy Caldwell Dyson in ISS Cupola.

The International Space Station is teeming with bacteria and fungi

Where humanity goes, microorganisms boldly follow.

Tracy Caldwell Dyson in ISS Cupola.

Self-portrait of Tracy Caldwell Dyson in the Cupola module of the International Space Station observing the Earth below during Expedition 24.
Image credits NASA / Tracy Caldwell Dyson via Wikimedia.

New research is pinpointing exactly who makes up the microflora on the International Space Station. The study — the first comprehensive catalogue of the bacteria and fungi on the inside surfaces of the ISS — can be used to develop safety measures for NASA for long-term space travel or living in space.

Space bugs

“Whether these opportunistic bacteria could cause disease in astronauts on the ISS is unknown,” says Dr Checinska Sielaff, first author of the study. “This would depend on a number of factors, including the health status of each individual and how these organisms function while in the space environment. Regardless, the detection of possible disease-causing organisms highlights the importance of further studies to examine how these ISS microbes function in space.”

Microflora can have a range of impacts on human health, so it pays to know exactly what you’re up against — especially in space. Astronauts show an altered immune response during missions, which is compounded by the difficulty of giving them proper medical care. The team hopes that their catalog can give future space mission planners a better idea of which bugs accumulate in the unique environments associated with spaceflight, how long each strain survives, and their possible impact on the crew and the ship itself.

Despite the exotic setting, the team used pretty run-of-the-mill culture techniques to sample the microflora of eight different locations inside the ISS. These included the viewing window, toilet, exercise platform, dining table, and sleeping quarters. The samples were taken during three flights across 14 months’ time, so the team could get an idea of how the tiny organisms fared over time. Genetic sequencing methods were used to identify the strains in these samples.

All in all, the team reports finding mostly human-associated microbes on the ISS. The most prominent included Staphylococcus (26% of total isolates), Pantoea (23%), and Bacillus (11%). The analysis also revealed the presence of bugs considered to be opportunistic pathogens here on Earth — such as Staphylococcus aureus (10% of total isolates identified), which is commonly found on the skin and in the nasal passages, and Enterobacter, which is associated with the human gastrointestinal tract. Opportunistic pathogens are regulars in gyms, offices, and hospitals, the team explains, suggesting that the ISS’s microbiome is also shaped by human occupation, as is similar in microbiome to other built environments.

But it’s not all about the crew.

“Some of the microorganisms we identified on the ISS have also been implicated in microbial induced corrosion on Earth. However, the role they play in corrosion aboard the ISS remains to be determined,” says Dr Urbaniak, joint first author of the study.

“In addition to understanding the possible impact of microbial and fungal organisms on astronaut health, understanding their potential impact on spacecraft will be important to maintain structural stability of the crew vehicle during long term space missions when routine indoor maintenance cannot be as easily performed.”

Fungal communities were quite stable over the study’s period, but microbial communities changed over time (but not across locations). Samples taken during the second flight mission had higher microbial diversity than samples collected during the first and third missions. The authors suggest that these temporal differences may come down to which astronauts are aboard the ISS at any given time. Dr Venkateswaran hopes this data can help NASA improve on-board safety measures, and that they will pave the way to safe, deep space human habitation.

“The results can also have significant impact on our understanding of other confined built environments on the Earth such as clean rooms used in the pharmaceutical and medical industries,” he adds.

The paper “Characterization of the total and viable bacterial and fungal communities associated with the International Space Station surfaces” has been published in the journal Microbiome.

International Space Station.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria found on the ISS — they’ve been up there for at least two years

That the ISS is laden with germs isn’t, honestly, much of a surprise. But some of them are highly resistant to antibiotics, and that’s worrying.

International Space Station.

The International Space Station as seen on May 2010.
Image credits NASA / Crew of STS-132.

The International Space Station might sound spacey-clean but it is, in fact, crawling with microbes. JPL-NASA scientists report identifying several strains of Enterobacter in samples collected from the space station’s toilet and exercise area. Enterobacter is best known for infecting patients with weakened immune systems in hospitals, and being extremely resistant to antibiotics.

Spacebugs

Luckily, the strains identified on the ISS aren’t pathogenic to (they don’t infect) humans. And, while it’s virtually impossible to have humans without bacteria — we trail our own microbiomes around anywhere we go — just finding any strain of Enterobacter on the station is enough cause for concern.

The genus is infamous for its preying on immunocompromised patients here on Earth; it’s also renowned for its ridiculous resistance to antibiotics. Space is (pardon the quip) an environment out of this world. There’s more radiation, there’s virtually no gravity, there are humans everywhere, crammed up in a tube with a lot of their carbon dioxide. All of these constraints could alter how the microbes live and multiply — these changes, could, in turn, cause them to become pathogenic to humans.

NASA employs quite a handful of microbiologists at its Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who regularly analyze microbe samples sent down from the ISS to see whether space life alters their populations or habits. The microbiologists also keep an eye on any potential biological hazards to either equipment or the astronauts’ health. This is the first time they’ve identified antibiotic-resistant Enterobacter strains in the station.

“To show which species of the bacteria were present on the ISS, we used various methods to characterise their genomes in detail. We revealed that genomes of the five ISS Enterobacter strains were genetically most similar to three strains newly found on Earth,” explained microbiologist Kasthuri Venkateswaran.

“These three strains belonged to one species of the bacteria, called Enterobacter bugandensis, which had been found to cause disease in neonates and a compromised patient, who were admitted to three different hospitals (in east Africa, Washington state and Colorado).”

The samples were collected in 2015. Since no astronauts have been struck down since then, the bugs seem not to be an immediate threat. However, the team says this state of affairs can quickly change — and it would be bad. The space-borne Enterobacter were found to be resistant to a wide range of antibiotics, and virtually completely immune to cefazolin, cefoxitin, oxacillin, penicillin, and rifampin.

Enterobacter cloacae.

Enterobacter cloacae.
Image credits CDC Public Health Image Library (PHIL #6552).

The strains also share 112 genes with clinical strains, associated with virulence, disease, and defense. The team reports that computer models show a 79% probability that the space strains will develop a human pathogen and cause disease.

Right now, however, the astronauts are safe. The possibilities, however worrying, have yet to be tested in living organisms. So the team is working to better understand the situation and develop a response procedure (that they hope never to use) against these bacteria.

“Whether or not an opportunistic pathogen like E. bugandensis causes disease and how much of a threat it is, depends on a variety of factors, including environmental ones,” Venkateswaran said. “Further in vivo studies are needed to discern the impact that conditions on the ISS, such as microgravity, other space, and spacecraft-related factors, may have on pathogenicity and virulence.”

The paper “Multi-drug resistant Enterobacter bugandensis species isolated from the International Space Station and comparative genomic analyses with human pathogenic strains” has been published in the journal BMC Microbiology.

International Space Station.

New, powerful laser system proposed for the International Space Station’s defense

Space is a dirty place, so the ISS needs some lasers to blast it clean, researchers propose.

International Space Station.

The International Space Station.
Image credits NASA.

If you’re a fan of Sci-Fi, we’re in luck — an international group of scientists wants to see our most burning desire made real. They propose to install a laser defense system aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to blast at litter in the near-Earth orbit.

My kinda cleaning

The idea of ‘arming’ the ISS with laser batteries isn’t new but we’re just now getting to a place where we can develop systems compact and reliable enough to be practical aboard the station. To jump-start development, an international team of researchers from France, Italy, Japan, and Russia is pooling their efforts, according to Boris Shustov, member of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS).

The system they’re considering would consist of orbital lasers aboard the ISS. It should be effective against the most common type of space debris around Earth — pieces that only measure a few centimeters.

The idea was first proposed by Japanese researchers back in 2015. The original project draft envisioned lasers using 10,000 optical fiber channels and would draw all of the ISS’s electrical output to work at full capacity, according to the team. That, understandably, isn’t a particularly attractive defensive system. The new project aims to provide the same power output by using 100 “thin rods” in lieu of the optical fibers. This would reduce the overall energy drain to only 5% of the ISS’s output — a twenty-fold decrease.

This version of the laser system would allow the ISS to fire laser bursts for 10 seconds, up to a range of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles), with a recharge time of 200 seconds, according to Russian media. The whole system would weigh about 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds).

It’s a small price to pay, considering the benefits such a system would provide. The ISS still has to make routine adjustments to its orbit to avoid collisions with pieces of man-made junk. These bits are parts of former rockets or spacecraft that have been broken up into small pieces through mutual collisions over the years, or from the effects of space radiation.

They’re quite small, going very fast, and can have disastrous consequences to the ISS’s structural integrity should they hit. There’s also a lot of them. NASA is currently tracking about 17,000 pieces about the size of your fist and half a million pieces roughly the size of a marble. According to their estimates, there are over 200 million pieces over one millimeter in size still floating in Earth’s orbit at speeds in excess of 17,500 mph (over 28.100 km/h).

An impact with any single one of those fragments could jeopardize the ISS and its crew.

Moon.

NASA could have an orbiting moon base by 2023

The project, dubbed the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, would by-and-large operate similarly to the ISS — only it will orbit the moon, not Earth. If everything goes according to plan, it should be ready for its first inhabitants in time for the 54th anniversary of the original moon landing.

Moon.

Image via Wikimedia.

 

Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s acting administrator, said that the installation will “help us further explore the moon and its resources and translate that experience toward human missions to Mars,” in his State of NASA address earlier this month. It was one of several projects funded under the Trump administration’s $19.9 billion NASA budget proposal for the fiscal year 2019. The proposed budget places a heavy emphasis on human exploration, doling out an enviable $10.5 billion for the task. However, it also cuts a number of missions related to climate change, as well as the agency’s $99.3 million education office.

Moonesque

With great budgets come great price tags, it seems, as the moon station would cost an estimated $2.7 billion through to the fiscal year 2023. However, things are not yet set in stone as Congress is still to approve the budget. For context, the White House is considering cutting funding for the ISS as of 2024.

The moon station will be assembled over time, just like the ISS was in its time. Power and propulsion units are targeted for launch in 2022, and it will be keeping the station in a stable orbit through the use solar electric propulsion. This module will also handle communications to Earth, to the surface of the moon, other spaceships, and during spacewalks — NASA says large datasets will be transferred using lasers, to speed the process up. The habitation module is scheduled for launch in 2023 and should support crews for 30 and 60-day missions, according to NASA. Onboard personnel will conduct research and also explore the lunar surface and the immediate space around the moon.

Alternatively, the station could serve as temporary lodging for crews traveling to Mars or deeper space in the future.

A number of US companies (most notably Boeing) are already participating in studies on how to best develop the habitat, power, and propulsion elements. Back in 2016 six companies were already tasked with developing full-size ground prototypes for space habitats. The stated goal is “to have as much realism in the habitation module as possible, by integrating all the racks and human factors, from galleys to sleep stations, glove boxes and command and control systems and displays,” said Mark Ortiz, Boeing’s NextSTEP (Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships) program manager. These prototypes will be handed over to NASA for evaluation by 2019.

Likely because of advances in rocket technology seen by private contractors, such as Musk’s SpaceX, NASA plans to have resupply missions to the moon platform conducted by commercial entities. These commercial crews will also participate in “a variety of deep space exploration and commercial activities in the vicinity of the moon.” However, given President Trump’s more… real-estate-oriented take on space exploration, there are concerns regarding the exact role non-governmental entities will play in the moon station’s activity.

Time will tell. For now, one thing is certain: the station “will drive our activity with commercial and international partners and help us explore the Moon and its resources,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington in a NASA webpost.

“We will ultimately translate that experience toward human missions to Mars.”