At any one time, the International Space Station (ISS) is a packed with cutting-edge research projects, including efforts to understand vision change caused by microgravity, and work to see how stays on the station affect the human immune system. A new study, known as Microbial Tracking-1, is looking to study microbes.
The ISS provides a unique opportunity to study microbes in an all-new environment. A three-part project, the investigation is monitoring the air and the surfaces in the station over the period of a year, tracking the type of microbes present. It's part of an ongoing effort to assess how the single-cell organisms react to life in microgravity.
By taking multiple samples over an extended period of time, the effort will allow scientists to better understand the diversity of the microbe population, as well as how it changes over a period of months.
Samples are collected by the astronauts, and sent back to Earth for examination using a variety of molecular analysis techniques. The first two sets of samples have already made their way back home for analysis, while the final set is on board the Dragon capsule that recently departed the station.
So, what's actually the point of understanding how microbes deal with life on a space station? Well, on a basic level the effort will allow scientists to identify any microbial agents that could cause damage to equipment, or pose a threat to the astronauts living on the station.
Digging deeper, the effort will allow for the development of methods for minimizing any danger created by the microbes during lengthy missions, such as NASA's planned journey to Mars.
Furthermore, it's possible that knowledge gained from the endeavour will have an impact back on Earth, with the potential to use the same observation strategies to keep check on microbes in hospitals, labs, and even in people's homes.
"Results that derive from such studies will enable NASA to better understand the microbiome of the space station, how it evolves over time, and could provide solutions in mitigating future risks associated with crew health and mission integrity," said project scientist Fathi Karouia.
The information gathered during the study will be made available to the wider scientific community.