NASA has a lot of information regarding their men and women who have ever been to space. But they aren’t the only living organisms who go to space from Earth. Even with the roughest estimates, each human could be accompanied by up to 100 trillion bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms. These organisms may be inconsequential or they could pose a serious threat to humans in space or their research and exploration. In order to know better, NASA is now planning to map every single living organism that is possibly on the International Space Station (ISS).Their function on Earth may be clear, but how they react to the microgravity of space is still not understood. Astronauts aboard the ISS collected exhaustive samples to help build a three-dimensional map of its microbiome. According to Scientific American, it is the first step towards “understanding, preventing and mitigating dangerous outbreaks.” For this project, astronaut Kate Rubins swabbed 1,000 different locations throughout the ISS. Each of these swabs captures trace molecules from food, oils, skin, and more.
Since most space agencies are planning long-term space flights with visions of Mars and Moon settlements, a study like this becomes especially important. While humans carry an ecosystem on their bodies (gut bacteria, skin mites, and so on), scientists were surprised in 1998 after discovering a microbiome proliferating behind the panels of the Russian space station, Mir. This breaks the traditional image of the spacecraft as something completely sterile and pure.
“Can you imagine you’re on a long flight and all of the sudden you start to get, let’s say, a flesh-eating bacterium, and you can’t get rid of it,” wonders Pieter Dorrestein, a chemical biologist at the University of California, San Diego.
The new mapping project is a joint venture of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and U.C. San Diego. With the data being collected, safe and unsafe microenvironments can be differentiated. The collected swabs are being sent back to Earth to be studied here.
Kasthuri Venkateswaran, the microbiologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and principal investigator of the project, wishes that this process can be changed in the future so that the study can be conducted on the space station itself as it would be most fruitful to study them in the microgravity.