Astronauts Swab the Deck

Feb 09, 2009
Astronaut Greg Chamitoff swabs for fungi on Aug. 20, 2008

If you saw a mushroom growing in your bathroom, you'd probably bring out the heavy artillery. - Mr. Clean, astride a Howitzer

Even in space, someone has to clean the bathroom. Good housekeeping is essential when you're living in the close quarters of a tightly-sealed spaceship for months at a time. To make this possible, NASA scientists have developed a tricorder-like device called "LOCAD-PTS" that can track down microscopic bacteria and fungi. It helps astronauts do their chores--no Howitzer required.

"The crew of the space station works hard to keep things clean," says Norm Wainwright, principal investigator for LOCAD-PTS (Lab-On-A-Chip Application Development Portable Test System) at the Marshall Space Flight Center. "Our instrument tells them where to focus their efforts."

Strange, but true: LOCAD works using enzymes from the immune system of a horseshoe crab. Astronauts swab a surface with a high-tech Q-tip, insert a sample into the LOCAD device, and crab-chemistry does the rest. In less than 15 minutes, the LOCAD test system tells the crew if they've got some cleaning to do.

During March to May 2007, astronaut Sunita "Suni" Williams proved LOCAD's adeptness at detecting gram negative bacteria in the space station's Node 1 and US Lab.

In June and September 2008, a station crew tested a second type of LOCAD cartridge, designed to detect fungi. First, they tested Node 1 and found it virtually fungi-free.

That sounds like great news, but it didn't help the LOCAD scientists prove the abilities of the new cartridge.

So just a couple of weeks ago, astronaut Sandy Magnus decided to play hard ball. She thought of a place that would surely be a fungi factory - the spot where crewmembers put their feet to brace themselves while working on their laptops.

Wrong. Clean.

A determined fungi-finder, Magnus tried another location. She went to the "gym," where station astronauts ride a modified exercise bike and a treadmill to combat the muscle weakening effects of microgravity. To keep themselves from floating up off the bicycle seat while pedaling, the sweaty space cyclers hold onto hand brackets.

You guessed it -- fungi are thoroughly enamored with an oft-sweaty surface. LOCAD ratted out some hand bracket fungi.

"The fungi posed no immediate health concern to the crew," says Maule, LOCAD-PTS project scientist. "But Magnus called to Houston to say, 'Tomorrow I'm going to give those brackets a good cleaning.' That's just what we want -- the intuitive reaction 'I need to clean that.'"

In years to come, spacecraft cleanliness will be a critical issue for another reason: "One of the key scientific goals for NASA's future Constellation missions beyond low Earth orbit will be to prepare to search for life on Mars," says Maule.

All humans carry stowaway microbes around with them on their skin, microbes that shouldn't be allowed to contaminate Mars samples. On the other hand, they don't want to bring unwanted alien life forms back into the spacecraft.

"The crew will need a way to monitor themselves before and after EVA [extra-vehicular activity]," says Maule. "LOCAD is ideal for that purpose. We've used it successfully during EVA tests on the ground."

The LOCAD team has also conducted several tests in the US Quest airlock, the conduit from the interior cabin to the outside of the space station where the crew "camps out" overnight and depressurizes before venturing outside. LOCAD proved the airlock to be pretty clean in general, but showed that the handle to the airlock entrance harbored gram negative bacteria. Bacteria on a surface like the airlock handle would be a concern if crew members were about to embark on a sample collecting excursion on Mars.

It would seem that finding fungi onboard the ISS is just the beginning for LOCAD. There are chores to be done ... and the whole solar system awaits.

Source: by Dauna Coulter, Science@NASA

Explore further: SpaceX launches supplies to space station (Update)

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

New uses for Space Station

Jul 28, 2011

For more than a decade, the International Space Station has been a busy orbiting research lab. But it could soon take on a new role as a testbed for ambitious missions deeper into space.

Migrating Microbes

Oct 15, 2009

With every spacecraft that leaves Earth, millions of microbes hitch a ride into space. As astrobiologists search for life in other worlds, preventing forward and back contamination remains a key priority.

Recommended for you

SpaceX launches supplies to space station (Update)

6 hours ago

The SpaceX company returned to orbit Friday, launching fresh supplies to the International Space Station after more than a month's delay and setting the stage for urgent spacewalking repairs.

Sun emits a mid-level solar flare

7 hours ago

The sun emitted a mid-level solar flare, peaking at 9:03 a.m. EDT on April 18, 2014, and NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured images of the event. Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation. Harmful ...

Impact glass stores biodata for millions of years

9 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Bits of plant life encapsulated in molten glass by asteroid and comet impacts millions of years ago give geologists information about climate and life forms on the ancient Earth. Scientists ...

The importance of plumes

10 hours ago

The Hubble Space Telescope is famous for finding black holes. It can pick out thousands of galaxies in a patch of sky the size of a thumbprint. The most powerful space telescope ever built, the Hubble provided ...

Ceres and Vesta Converge in Virgo

13 hours ago

Don't let them pass you by. Right now and continuing through July, the biggest and brightest asteroids will be running on nearly parallel tracks in the constellation Virgo and so close together they'll easily ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Impact glass stores biodata for millions of years

(Phys.org) —Bits of plant life encapsulated in molten glass by asteroid and comet impacts millions of years ago give geologists information about climate and life forms on the ancient Earth. Scientists ...

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

(Phys.org) —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...