NASA plans to launch an unexpected organism to space to study cosmic radiation

Humans have used brewer’s yeast for millennia to make good beer. And despite the fact that we are microorganisms, we have more in common with yeast than you might think. In fact, scientists are sending the creature into space to study how it responds to radiation – and they think the results could hint at how humans will navigate during space travel. longer time.

One significant danger of space travel is cosmic radiation. This invisible bombardment of heavy and high-energy subatomic particles, released by the universe’s most dynamic displays such as solar flares and supernovas, can cause bodily harm. People. If humans are going to make longer trips in space, tell Mars, we’ll need to figure out how to get there without harming our bodies.

Unfortunately, cosmic radiation is difficult to reproduce in the laboratory. This makes studying its harmful effects a challenge. In an effort to better understand how this radiation would impact humans traveling far beyond the cocoon-like magnetic field that surrounds the Earth, scientists placed two strains of brewer’s yeast – also called Saccharomyces cerevisiae – into the cartridge to fly on NASA’s upcoming BioSentinel mission, scheduled for later this year.

How can brewer’s yeast help us understand the health of astronauts?

For thousands of years, we’ve played wine alchemy with yeast. In fact, S. cerevisiae can be traced back to 3,150 BC to an ancient Egyptian pitcher, and today it is used commercially to make beer.

In addition to its vibrant benefits, this single-celled organism is also an excellent analogue for the human body. NASA review S. cerevisiae a great foothold for our cells. In particular, this enzyme repairs DNA damage – a major consequence of radiation – in a similar way to how human cells do.

The BioSentinel is housed in a CubeSat, a cereal box-sized satellite that will detach from Artemis’ rocket when it reaches the Moon. Once separated, it will fly over the Moon to orbit the Sun. Space Frontiers / Archive Photos / Getty Images

How it works – BioSentinel will carry out NASA’s Artemis 1 mission, the first major leg of the space agency’s much-anticipated return to the Moon, which kicks off later this year.

Artemis will last about three weeks, but BioSentinel will stay in space much longer. NASA hopes high-flying brewer’s yeast will reveal new information about how cosmic radiation might affect its astronauts, such as those traveling on the Artemis 2 mission; they will be the first to reach the Moon since the Apollo era.

S. cerevisiae It is also convenient to use during a space mission as it can stay alive while dry and inactive. The BioSentinel is housed in a CubeSat, a cereal box-sized satellite that will detach from Artemis’ rocket when it reaches the Moon. Once separated, it will fly over the Moon to orbit the Sun.

Scientists can remotely control the yeast activity and accompanying experiments in the CubeSat. Specifically, they would rehydrate the yeast and nourish it as it got out of there, helping the team get accurate results on exposures in deep space.

A microfluidics tag will fly during NASA’s BioSentinel mission. The pink areas contain actively growing yeast cells that change the color of the dye that was formerly blue. NASA / Dominic Hart

In total, the BioSentinel will have a 6-month trip outside the protection of the Earth’s magnetic field. Instruments aboard the spacecraft will pump liquids and sugars to activate two strains of yeast that are placed in cassette-like containers known as microfluidics tags. An important part of the research involves dyes that change color as yeast metabolizes.

Biosentinel is expanding its reach by sending two versions of S. cerevisiae, including a robust strain and a susceptible strain lacking a DNA repair gene.

Why is it important – Cosmic radiation is all around. “Just imagine you are sitting in an empty space and you are being impacted from all sides all the time,” says Sergio Santa Maria, lead scientist on the BioSentinel project. Inverse.

Santa Maria first saw how environment can influence genetics in his native Peru.

As an undergraduate, he met miners working in the Andean highlands just outside Lima. After performing an experiment analyzing their blood samples, he found traces of chromosomal changes. Occupational hazards – exposure to certain metals, exhaust from diesel machinery and UV rays from a high altitude location in these mountains – are likely culprits. Now, Santa Maria is dealing with another profession’s safety issue.

Astronauts in deep space face two main sources of radiation. One is the Sun. Our neighboring star releases a steady stream of photons, and this stream can sometimes become more dangerous when eruptions such as solar flares and solar mass ejections occur. spray higher doses of these energetic subatomic particles into the Solar System.

“The problem with solar protons is that there can be a lot of them, and they never stop,” said Santa Maria. “They’re always there.”

That’s the devil we know. But a more mysterious source of space radiation are galactic cosmic rays. These high-energy, heavy particles are exploding across the universe, born of explosive events like supernovas.

This environment is not renewable on Earth, he said. A laboratory setting cannot show what it is like to be a creature that lives in space for months, impacted by space radiation from all sides simultaneously.

An illustration depicting BioSentinel in space. NASA

“An important thing to note is that the amount of radiation, that is, the dose rate that you get in space, is not really much more than what you get in a magnetic field. It’s just the kind of grain you’re dealing with [in space] very different, more dynamic, heavier, and you can’t shield them right now,” he added. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, a person in the United States is exposed to about 5% of their annual radiation intake from cosmic radiation.

“We are in a really good place on Earth,” said Santa Maria, “because we are protected from many dangerous people. Some of it has entered our atmosphere. But in the empty space, you just don’t get that luxury.”

What’s next – The Artemis 1 mission will fly aboard NASA’s next-generation Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. The space agency hopes to put the rocket on the launch pad in early June to complete testing before SLS’s final big flight that month. Teams want to do at least two of these tests, known as wetsuit drills, before choosing a launch date. NASA plans to launch an unexpected organism to space to study cosmic radiation

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