National Geographic
Menu

NASA’s O/OREOS Dunking Bacteria in Space Rays

Today NASA officials announced that a tiny satellite launched last week has started conducting astrobiology experiments in low-Earth orbit.

molecules-in-space.jpg

—Image courtesy NASA

No bigger than a bread box, the Organism/Organic Exposure to Orbital Stresses, or O/OREOS, satellite lifted off from the Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska on November 19 aboard a U.S. Air Force rocket.

Inside the nanosatellite’s [not-so-creamy] center are two types of microbes commonly found in salt ponds and soil—Halorubrum chaoviatoris and Bacillus subtilis—as well as samples of organic molecules.

About three hours after launch, an amateur radio operator in Torino, Italy, received the first signals from the spacecraft, confirming the satellite had reached orbit.

Shortly after, the O/OREOS mission control team, based at Santa Clara University in California, began system checks to make sure the craft was in good health and flying right.

When the checkup was complete, O/OREOS autonomously started one of its two experiments. The second should kick into gear this Friday.

o-oreos-lab.jpg

The O/OREOS spacecraft in the lab with one solar panel removed, showing SESLO in the middle and SEVO on the right.

—Image courtesy Dominic Hart, NASA

The Space Environment Survivability of Live Organisms (SESLO) experiment is the one carrying the astrobugs, which started their trip in a dried and dormant state.

The idea is to rehydrate the microbes by feeding them dyed liquid nutrients and then to watch how they grow in three sets of colonies.

If the bugs have healthy appetites, they should change color, helping scientists back on Earth understand how microbes react to weightlessness and cosmic radiation.

(Related: “Alien Life Can Survive Trip to Earth, Space Test Shows.”)

The Space Environment Viability of Organics (SEVO) experiment, meanwhile, houses four types of organic molecules that exist throughout our galaxy, including some that are the building blocks of life.

(Related: “Saturn’s Largest Moon Has Ingredients for Life?”)

The samples are contained in microenvironments that mimic space and planetary conditions. The experiment will expose the organic compounds to solar ultraviolet (UV) light, visible light, and cosmic particles to see if all that radiation changes their molecular stability.

The two experiments will run for about six months and should send back data for up to a year.

Aside from furthering our knowledge of astrobiology and the origins of life, O/OREOS is a proof-of-concept mission.

If successful, the O/OREOS nanosatellite will show that NASA can use similar low-cost self-starters to conduct all kinds of space-based research.

The craft was also designed to be the first scientific satellite to de-orbit and burn up less than 25 years after completing its mission without the use of propellant-based thrusters.

“Secondary payload nanosatellites, like O/OREOS, are an innovative way to extend and enhance scientists’ opportunities to conduct research in low-Earth orbit by providing an alternative to the International Space Station or space shuttle investigations,” Pascale Ehrenfreund, an O/OREOS project scientist at the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said in a statement.