May 6, 2009

NASA Prepared To Test Bacteria In Space

NASA is set to launch a tiny 10-pound satellite containing yeast and anti-fungal drugs into space in an effort to gain better understanding of how bacteria reacts in orbit.

The small satellite, called PharmaSat, will launch alongside a military reconnaissance satellite aboard an Air Force Minotaur 1 rocket from Wallops Island, Virginia on Thursday. Initial plans had the launch for Tuesday, but weather conditions forced project managers to reschedule.

PharmaSat will orbit the Earth at 17,000 miles per hour. Meanwhile, the satellite will continuously track how the yeast responds to anti-fungal treatment in space.

"There's data that's coming back from shuttle and space station missions that indicates something is changing microorganisms in a microgravity environment making them more varied," said Bruce Yost, PharmaSat mission manager at NASA's Ames Research Center.

An anti-fungal drug will be injected into some of the yeast compartments, while the satellite monitors the treatment's efficacy.

"We suspect it will take more drug to cause the same amount of death to the yeast than what we'll see on the ground," said Yost. "By using the three different concentrations, we're going to find out where that threshold is."

Previous missions on the space shuttle and the International Space Station have shown that some organisms become more virulent and resistant to drugs in space, scientists told the New York Times.

"We're seeing if we can quantify the effect," Elwood Agasid, project manager at NASA's Ames Research Center, told the Times.

The way yeast reacts in space will become important to future missions where astronauts must stay in space for longer periods of time, such as a mission to Mars.

The PharmaSat treatment experiment will begin after four days, and the yeast cells are expected to die within a week.

"We have some instances where we can upload some very simple commands to raise temperature, start the experiment early, and things like that," said Agasid. "But for the most part, once the spacecraft is deployed and in space it's pretty much autonomous."

PharmaSat is a follow-up to NASA's GeneSat 1 mission in 2006, which saw the launch of E. coli bacteria into space for genetic testing.

"Our dream is that almost any U.S. launcher going up will have the ability to carry one or two or more of these nanosatellites," Yost said.


Image Caption: The satellite payload sits fully assembled, covered in shiny solar panels. Image Credit: NASA/ARC/Christopher Beasley.


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