MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. (NASA PR) – Ready to launch the Artemis I from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, BioSentinel – a CubeSat the size of a shoebox – will perform the first long-duration biological experiment in deep space. Artemis missions to the Moon will prepare humans to travel on increasingly distant and longer duration missions to destinations like Mars, and BioSentinel will transport microorganisms, in the form of yeast, to fill critical knowledge gaps on the health risks in deep space posed by space radiation.
Space radiation is like a demolition derby – on the nanoscale. High energy galactic cosmic rays and bursts of solar particles permeate deep space. These types of radiation can wreak havoc on electronics and living cells.
BioSentinel’s main job is to monitor the vital signs of yeast to see how they behave when exposed to deep space radiation. Because yeast cells have biological mechanisms similar to human cells, including DNA damage and repair, examining yeast in space will help us better understand space radiation risks to humans. and other biological organisms and will help us plan crewed exploration missions to the Moon and beyond. Specifically, BioSentinel will study the growth and metabolic activity of yeast cells after exposure to a high radiation environment beyond low Earth orbit.
BioSentinel is one of 10 secondary payloads – all of which are six-unit CubeSats – that have the rare opportunity to hitchhike in deep space on Artemis I. These satellites are mounted in the Orion stage adapter aboard the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket ). Once ejected into space, they will carry out scientific and technological investigations. Among this select group, BioSentinel is the only CubeSat to perform a life science experiment.
“BioSentinel is the first of its kind,” said Matthew Napoli, BioSentinel project manager at NASA Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “It will transport living organisms further into space than ever before. It’s really cool!”
So far, the Apollo 17 mission to the Moon holds the record for the longest human spaceflight; the 1972 mission lasted 12.5 days, much shorter than future Mars missions that will take years. Apollo-17 also carried NASA’s newest experiments to study Earth life in space beyond low Earth orbit. No space biology experiment – or astronaut – has traveled beyond the Earth-Moon system, the destination of BioSentinel.
A few hours after launch, SLS will deploy BioSentinel in space. A few days later, the CubeSat will pass in front of the Moon and complete the remainder of its six- to nine-month mission in orbit around the Sun. Once there, the BioSentinel team will periodically initiate week-long yeast studies. BioSentinel will transmit the data to Earth via NASA Deep Space Network using a radio developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.
A new biosensor instrument is a key part of BioSentinel’s mission. The Biosensor is a miniature biotechnology lab designed to measure how living yeast cells respond to long-term exposure to space radiation. At its core is a set of microfluidic boards – custom hardware that enables the controlled flow of extremely small volumes of liquids. These maps provide a habitat for yeasts and a way for scientists to observe them in real time.
BioSentinel’s biosensor technology is based on microfluidic systems developed for previous CubeSat missions. The most recent precursor was that of NASA E. coli Antimicrobial Satelliteor EcAMSat, a mission that flew in 2017. The satellite was deployed into low Earth orbit from the international space station study the genetic basis of how effectively antibiotics can fight bacteria in spaceflight.
A physical radiation detection instrument developed at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston works alongside BioSentinel’s biosensor. It characterizes and measures the radiation, and its results will be compared to the biological response of the biosensor. Data from identical sets of BioSentinel instruments aboard the space station and in a laboratory at Ames will be used to verify and compare yeast responses to different gravity and radiation environments.
SmallSat subsystems are getting smaller
In 2013, Ames launched a small satellite mission to the Moon, the Explorer of the lunar atmosphere and the dusty environment. Although LADEE did not perform life science research, it helped pave the way for BioSentinel. Much of the BioSentinel team worked on LADEE. They benefited from the experience acquired in the development and operation of a space mission near the Moon.
“The team wanted to have as much room as possible for the science payloads on board BioSentinel and the engineers delivered,” Napoli said. “LADEE had more room for avionics. A big challenge was miniaturization.
LADEE was larger than a household refrigerator. BioSentinel engineers crammed many subsystems into a small volume. Its avionics are about the size and shape of a half-gallon milk carton.
“We now have a CubeSat bus – the subsystems that run the spacecraft – small enough to leave two-thirds of the volume inside the spacecraft for science payloads. It was definitely a big deal,” Napoli said.
BioSentinel builds on the history of Ames, combining the center’s strengths in space biology research and small satellite technology. Ames has decades of experience studying life in space, including research aboard the space shuttle, space station, and free-flying satellites. BioSentinel is funded by NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, and more than 100 engineers and scientists have worked on the project. Their contributions will help advance NASA’s goal of protecting the health and performance of astronauts on future deep space exploration missions.