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NASA is getting ready to launch living creatures to deep space for the first time in nearly five decades.
Agency engineers are putting together a briefcase-size spacecraft called BioSentinel, which will carry yeast cells into orbit around the sun to help scientists better understand the radiation environment beyond our planet's protective magnetic bubble.
Apollo - Weeks - BioSentinel - Data - Months
But Apollo 17 lasted less than two weeks. BioSentinel will gather data for nine to 12 months, opening a window on the long-term effects of deep-space radiation on DNA and DNA repair.
"This is new territory," Kimberly Ennico Smith, an astrophysicist at NASA's Ames Research Center, said during a tour of the Silicon Valley facility this past March.
BioSentinel - Cubesat - NASA - Ames - Research
The BioSentinel cubesat being assembled at NASA's Ames Research Center in March 2019.
Ames is the home base for BioSentinel. Indeed, the tour included several short talks by mission personnel and provided a glimpse of the partly assembled cubesat (behind glass, of course — no touching the space hardware).
Kilograms - Satellite - Varieties - Yeast - Saccharomyces
The 30-lb. (14 kilograms) satellite will carry two different varieties of the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae: the normal "wild type," which is quite radiation-resistant, and a mutant type, which is much more sensitive because it can't repair its DNA nearly as well.
BioSentinel team members will monitor the growth and activity of both varieties during the cubesat's time in deep space. They'll do the same with identical yeast payloads transported to the International Space Station, a microgravity environment with much lower radiation levels.
Scientists - S - Growth - Places - Earth
Scientists will also track S. cerevisiae growth in two places here on Earth, Ennico Smith said: Ames and Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York state. At Brookhaven, scientists will expose the yeast to a high-radiation environment. Taken together, the data haul should help the team tease out which effects are due to radiation and which result from microgravity or other factors.
S. cerevisiae is...
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