NASA will soon send living organisms further into space than ever before

Its Biosentinel mission will launch aboard Artemis I.
Chris Young
NASA's BioSentinel
NASA's BioSentinel


NASA's sending living cells to deep space for the first time.

The BioSentinel mission will be the first long-duration biology experiment in deep space, a NASA post reveals. It will launch aboard NASA's Artemis I moon mission. Artemis I is set to launch NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) for the first time, with the launch date currently set for August 29.

BioSentinel will send living organisms further than ever before

Artemis I will see SLS launch NASA's Orion spacecraft around the Moon and back. It will also launch 10 small CubeSats into space, carrying a number of scientific experiments. One of these, the BioSentinel mission CubeSat, will carry live yeast cells into an orbit around the sun. Sensors inside the CubeSat will allow scientists to study how space radiation affects yeast cells over time.

It will be the first-ever deep space biology experiment. As a point of reference, most spacecraft NASA sends to space are typically built in clean rooms to avoid sending Earth contaminants into space.

"BioSentinel is the first of its kind," Matthew Napoli, BioSentinel project manager at NASA's Ames Research Center in California, said in NASA's statement. "It will carry living organisms farther into space than ever before. That's really cool!"

Why yeast?

BioSentinel — sadly for some perhaps — isn't a cosmic-scale baking experiment.

Yeast cells bear striking similarities to living human cells, and both have similar biological mechanisms, including DNA damage and repair. Both organisms also carry genetic information in double strands of DNA.

This means NASA's long-duration experiment will allow NASA's scientists to study some potential effects on humans of long-term space radiation exposure. Earth's magnetic field protects us from space radiation, but future missions to the Moon and Mars will expose humans to high-energy particles for long periods of time. As NASA explains, this type of radiation "can wreak havoc on electronics and living cells alike", and it may cause cancer and other diseases for future astronauts.

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So the yeast cells will serve as a stand-in for human cells, allowing NASA to start investigating ways to mitigate the effects of space radiation. The yeast cells will begin the experiment dry, encased in small cards aboard the BioSentinel CubeSat. As the Artemis I mission makes its way towards the Moon, it will eject BioSentinel towards its deep space orbit around the sun. When the CubeSat and its microorganism passengers (micronauts?) are out of range of the Earth's magnetic field, mission personnel will activate the yeast over the following 12 months while conducting periodic observations.

BioSentinel actually forms part of a trio of science experiments researching living organisms in space. One of these will take place aboard the International Space Station, while another will take place on Earth. Scientists will use the data to help pave the way for future crewed missions to Mars, which are slated to take place in the 2030s or 2040s.

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