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Spacewalkers Test Planetary Protection Concept

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March 20, 2009: On March 19th, astronauts onboard the International Space Station checked themselves for microbes before stepping outside on a space walk. It was a first-ever test of planetary protection technology that, one day, could keep humans from contaminating the sands of Mars.

see caption"We conducted the tests using LOCAD-PTS, a miniature biological lab for space travelers," explains Jake Maule, principal investigator for the experiment. LOCAD-PTS stands for Lab-On-A-Chip Application Development Portable Test System.

Right: An STS-119 spacewalker has his glove swabbed as he reenters the ISS airlock on March 19, 2009. Credit: NASA TV. [video]

"Before STS-119 crew members Steve Swanson and Richard Arnold exited the International Space Station airlock to install the station's new solar arrays, astronaut Sandy Magnus swabbed their gloves with LOCAD's high-tech 'Q-tip' and then tested that Q-tip for microbes. The procedure was repeated when the astronauts re-entered the space station more than six hours later."

They ran the test, called the LOCAD-PTS Exploration experiment, because humans will one day exit a different airlock: on a spaceship on Mars. And they'll need to be sure they're not about to taint the Red Planet and its potential life forms with human microorganisms. Explorers will be intent upon bringing back pristine geological samples from Mars for analysis.

"This experiment will show how to integrate quick bio-monitoring tests of spacesuits into the very busy periods before and after EVA, when procedures need to be streamlined and efficient," says Maule. "LOCAD is quick and easy, so it can be used during those times without too much interference. It takes only about 10 seconds to swab and 15 minutes to get the results."

To lay the groundwork (literally) for the experiment, Maule and Karissa West (from Charles River Laboratories, Inc) tested 15 sites all over the S6 truss (which bears the space station's final set of solar arrays) during October and December 2008, while it was in the Space Station Processing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. They found little or no bacteria, but they did find glucan, which is a marker for fungi, at some of the 15 sites, especially on the fabric gap spanners that span the distance between handrails on the truss.

see caption"Fabrics could be a significant source of biological contamination on the Moon and Mars and are trickier to clean than smooth metal surfaces," says Maule.

Because astronauts can't yet take a LOCAD Q-tip outside the airlock to sample individual sites on the truss as Maule and West did on the ground, they tested the spacesuit gloves instead. Members of the LOCAD team tracked the space walk, noting which handrails and gap spanners the astronauts touched. "If the crew comes into contact with a few of those gap spanners, we expect to see higher LOCAD readings (for glucan) after EVA," explains Maule.

Right: Target swab sites on the astronauts' gloves. [Larger image]

Eventually, the LOCAD team plans to develop a special Q-tip to take outside. For now, "our goal is to see if we can monitor the gloves effectively without interfering with EVA preparation and cleanup. Those very busy times on the ISS will be even busier before a walk on the Moon or Mars."

Future Mars explorers will need to monitor and restrict biological contamination before, during, and after their outings. A spacecraft containing humans always contains plenty of biological material, and it can't all be eliminated. "Our experiment will help define acceptable levels of biological material on the surface of anything (including spacesuits) that might be taken outside of the cabin and into 'the wild.'"

That way if astronauts on Mars bring back anything from their outings that looks lively under a microscope, they'll have some idea whether it's (a) a native Martian life form or (b) a speck of weird fungi from someone's navel.

Stay tuned for results.

Author: Dauna Coulter | Editor: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA

end notes

1. LOCAD Personnel:

  • Jake Maule is the principal investigator for LOCAD-PTS Exploration and LOCAD-PTS project scientist. He is based at BAE Systems.
  • Mike Effinger of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center (Huntsville, Alabama) is the LOCAD project manager.
  • Norm Wainwright, principal investigator for LOCAD-PTS and co-investigator for LOCAD Exploration, is also director of research and development at Charles River Laboratories in Charleston, SC.
  • Suni Williams and Dan Burbank, NASA astronauts based at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas are both co-investigators for LOCAD-PTS Exploration.
  • Collaborators for this investigation include Karissa West (Charles River Laboratories in Charleston, SC), Amy Ross (EVA and Crew Survival Systems Branch, NASA Johnson Space Center), Barbara Romig (Crew and Thermal Systems Division, NASA Johnson Space Center) and Joseph Kosmo (Crew and Thermal Systems Division, NASA Johnson Space Center), and Scott Higginbotham (NASA Kennedy Space Center).

LOCAD-PTS Exploration is funded by NASA Science Mission Directorate’s Moon and Mars Analog Mission Activities (MMAMA) Program (POC: Jennifer Heldmann, NASA Headquarters).

2. For the STS-119 mission, the space shuttle Discovery is carrying the final set of solar array wings and truss element that are needed to complete the station’s electricity generating system.

3. LOCAD can play a vital role in supporting both NASA's goals to search for life and safeguard planetary protection. Instruments such as Surface Analysis at Mars (SAM) -- an instrument on Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) -- which detect trace amounts of organic molecules may be better suited than LOCAD to search for life directly. Future human expeditions to Mars may carry versions of these instruments to the surface to search for life. LOCAD could play an important role in monitoring the spread of spacecraft-associated and Earth-derived biological material (for example microbes in the cabin or on human skin derived from the spacecraft, spacesuits, tools, outflow from an airlock, spacecraft vents, etc.) that could affect the results obtained by other instruments on expeditions to Mars.

4. See these websites for more information about LOCAD:

LOCAD Home Page

LOCAD-PTS Exploration Space Station page

LOCAD-PTS Space Station Page

Space Station Tricorder (Science@NASA)

Preventing Sick Spaceships (Science@NASA)

Crabs Give Blood for Space Travel (Science@NASA)

Astronauts Swab the Deck (Science@NASA)

NASA's Future:US Space Exploration Policy

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