BioSentinel spacecraft leaves Earth and enters a lunar fly-by trajectory into a heliocentric orbit.

Nasa plans to send yeast into space

Image credit: Nasa

Nasa's BioSentinel mission is expected to carry living microorganisms into deep space, allowing scientists to learn more about the effects of radiation on human health during lengthy missions.

Nasa's Artemis I mission will be uncrewed, but it will send living organisms into space.

In addition to sending the Orion capsule around the Moon, the mission will also involve a collection of secondary missions off into space. One of those is BioSentinel, which will carry yeast into deep space, performing the first long-duration biology experiment to be done beyond the location of the International Space Station. 

The goal of the Artemis missions is to "prepare humans to travel on increasingly farther and longer-duration missions to destinations like Mars", the organisation said. For this reason, Nasa has decided to focus on studying the effects of space radiation, which has been suspected to damage living cells. Enter BioSentinel.

The shoebox-sized CubeSat is expected to carry microorganisms, in the form of yeast, allowing scientists to observe its evolution and fill critical gaps in knowledge about the health risks in deep space. 

“BioSentinel is the first of its kind,” said Matthew Napoli, BioSentinel project manager at Nasa’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “It will carry living organisms farther into space than ever before. That’s really cool!”

Yeast cells have similar biological mechanisms to human cells, Nasa said. Therefore, studying how the Saccharomyces cerevisiae cells react to what the organisation calls "a demolition derby" (space radiation) is fundamental for the future of crewed space missions. Specifically, BioSentinel will study yeast cell growth and metabolic activity after exposure to a high-radiation environment beyond low-Earth orbit.

BioSentinel is one of 10 secondary payloads that will enter space on Artemis I. These satellites are mounted within the Orion stage adapter aboard the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. Among this group, BioSentinel is the only CubeSat to carry a life science experiment.

Within hours of launch, SLS will deploy BioSentinel in space. The satellite will then perform a six- to nine-month mission orbiting around the Sun, all whilst a team on Earth periodically triggers week-long yeast studies to check on the microorganisms. To do so, they will use a novel biosensor, that Nasa describes as a “miniature biotechnology laboratory”,  designed to measure how living yeast cells respond to long-term exposure to space radiation. 

Currently, the Apollo 17 mission to the Moon holds the record for the longest duration human deep space flight; lasting 12.5 days. However, no space biology experiment – nor astronaut – has yet travelled beyond the Earth-Moon system, BioSentinel’s destination.

Nasa has named its new programme Artemis, after Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology, and promises the first moonwalking team will include a woman. However, although Nasa originally planned for this historic launch to take place in 2024, the SLS has been beset with delays that could see it miss this target.

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