Kelly McSweeney

Dec 13th 2019

What Occurs When Living Organisms Encounter Deep Space Radiation?


As NASA celebrates the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing, the space agency is also busy preparing for the next epic mission.

NASA is planning to send living organisms beyond low Earth orbit to learn about deep-space radiation. In the experiment, yeast cells will travel as part of Artemis 1, a long-term deep space mission targeted for mid-2020.

The data collected on the mission will help scientists understand how radiation affects living organisms. The last time NASA studied living organisms in space was half a century ago, during Apollo 17. This mission will be longer and farther from Earth, which could help prepare humans for deep space travel.

What We Know About Deep Space Radiation

On Earth, NASA team members study space radiation at the Brookhaven Laboratory. The facility is equipped with an ion accelerator that blasts charged particles at test subjects to mimic space radiation. Brookhaven reports that the sun and other galactic sources emit ions that can cause changes in a cell’s ability to repair and reproduce. In other words, space radiation can mutate cells. For humans, this could lead to health problems such as “cataracts, cancer, and damage to the central nervous system.”

Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere shield most of us from most of the radiation, but astronauts aren’t so lucky. Even at the International Space Station, which is still protected by the Earth’s magnetic field, six months in space is equal to around 30 times the radiation a human is exposed to in a year on Earth, notes Science Alert. Astronauts have already demonstrated the effects of space travel on the human body, but deep space will expose them to much more radiation than previous missions.

Future Deep Space Discoveries

To prepare for deep-space radiation, the ISS crew recently conducted an experiment where they edited a yeast genome in space, according to Science Alert.

The yeast will be stored onboard a 30-pound spacecraft called BioSentinel, according to BioSentinel is the only biological experiment that will fly on Artemis 1, says NASA. This is the first mission that will utilize NASA’s space launch system (SLS). Northrop Grumman built the solid rocket boosters for SLS, which is designed to carry humans to the moon, and eventually Mars and deep space.

The goal is to study how radiation impacts yeast, which is a hearty organism that should be able to withstand the long journey. NASA’s scientists selected yeast for this experiment because its DNA damage-repair process is similar to how human DNA behaves. The results of the experiment will help us understand the effects of space radiation on living organisms, which will help NASA prepare for future long-term manned missions to deep space.

The microorganism’s growth and metabolic activity will be measured using a three-color LED detection system and a metabolic indicator dye, according to NASA. The data will be stored onboard the spacecraft and transmitted down to Earth for analysis.

The last time NASA studied living organisms in space it was with Apollo 17, which lasted less than two weeks. This time we’ll have a chance to learn about the long-term effects of radiation because the plan is to gather data for 9-12 months. Much still remains unknown about deep-space radiation, but the biological experiment will give us a glimpse into what people can expect on the way to future deep-space discoveries.