NASA will send living organisms to deep space with Artemis I

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.

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.

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