Feasting on O/OREOS

NASA satellite reaches orbit, begins astrobiology experiments

A computer drawing of the planned O/OREOS nano-satellite. The O/OREOS project is similar in concept and design to NASA’s PharmaSat and GeneSat nano-satellites. Credit: NASA Ames

NASA’s Organism/Organic Exposure to Orbital Stresses (O/OREOS) nano-satellite is now orbiting Earth and starting its astrobiology experiments.

O/OREOS launched on Friday, Nov. 19, 2010, from Alaska Aerospace Corporation’s Kodiak Launch Complex on Kodiak Island, Alaska. Communications between the satellite and the ground have been established, and downloading of data packages will now begin.

The small satellite will monitor samples of organic compounds and living organisms as they orbit the Earth. This help scientists determine just how long it takes for life and life-related compounds to be negatively affected.

Scientists will apply the knowledge they gain from the O/OREOS autonomous nano-satellite to plan similar low-cost astrobiology space experiments in the future. In 2008, NASA’s Astrobiology Science and Technology Instrument Development (ASTID) program established a small payloads initiative, which seeks quick-turnaround science experiments that can fit on nano-satellites or as external attachments to larger space vehicles. The program selected O/OREOS as the first demonstration flight.

By studying how exposure to space changes organic molecules and biology, such experiments will help answer astrobiology’s fundamental questions about the origin, evolution and distribution of life in the universe.

The insides of a standard nanosatellite. Credit: NASA Ames

“We’re off to a great start, having made contact with O/OREOS with our ground station at Santa Clara University, received confirmation that the spacecraft successfully deployed and initiated the first experiment,” said Bruce Yost, O/OREOS mission manager at Ames. “The amateur radio community also has been listening to O/OREOS and giving the operations team important information about the health and status of the spacecraft,” Yost added.

Low-cost nano-satellites are an ideal platform for astrobiology research, because the experiments can be miniaturized. This is due to advances in microfluidics technologies and the miniaturization of optical detection instruments. For instance, the spectrometer on O/OREOS is the size of a candy bar.

“Astrobiology is ripe for the use of small satellites,” said Jason Crusan, chief technologist for space operations at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. Performing a large number of experiments is best for studying biological processes. “If you can increase your flight frequency then you increase the number of experiments you need to do, but you need a lower-cost solution like nano-satellites to do this.”

O/OREOS Taste Tests

One of the BIOPAN experiment carriers is removed from a descent capsule that shows charring from re-entry. Credit: ESA

Above the protection of our planet’s atmosphere and magnetic field, a myriad of particles and high-energy rays await the intrepid space traveler. This onslaught includes heavy ions, protons, electrons, gamma rays, X-rays and UV light. Life in this region of space also must cope with the effects of a lower-gravity environment.

"In the lab, researchers can duplicate certain aspects of this, but the combined radiation environment in space is very complex," said Tony Ricco from NASA’s Ames Research Center.

Space-based biology experiments similar to O/OREOS have been performed before. Samples either have been flown in a return capsule, such as the BIOPAN experiments, or placed outside the International Space Station on platforms, such as with the EXPOSE facility. In these experiments, the samples are brought back to Earth to be analyzed after their exposure in space. In contrast, O/OREOS samples will be monitored in real time.

"The only thing that comes down in our case is data," said David Squires, the mission’s project manager.

In the lab, Ed Luzzi (left), a fabrication and integration specialist, and Michael Henschke (right), configuration manager, inspect the O/OREOS spacecraft’s interface with the Poly-Picosatellite Orbital Deployer (P-POD) satellite deployment system. Photo credit: NASA / Dominic Hart

Over the course of the 6-month mission, onboard instruments will check whether chemical changes are uniform in time or perhaps correlated with other phenomena such as solar activity.

“The O/OREOS science team is excited to receive the first real-time measurements from samples onboard two science experiments,” said Pascale Ehrenfreund, O/OREOS project scientist at the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

O/OREOS is similar in design to other nano-satellites that have flown, including GeneSat, which tracked the reaction of bacteria to microgravity, and PharmaSat, which will track how yeast behaves in space. The cargo on those experiments weren’t exposed to the full array of space conditions, however, like in the O/OREOS experiment.

The 5-kilogram O/OREOS has a modular design made up of three 10-centimeter cubes. One of these cubes acts as the "brains" (radio and telemetry), while two other cubes carry the scientific payload.

The first cube carries experiments to study how two types of microbes cope with the space environment. One microbe is a common, fast-growing bacteria, Bacillus subtilis, which holds the record for surviving in space for the longest duration (6 years on a NASA satellite). The other is a slow-growing microbe, Halorubrum chaoviatoris, which thrives in briny water. The bacteria start out the mission as dried spores and will be revived at different times with a nutrient-filled fluid. This experiment will begin on Friday, November 26.

O/OREOS was successfully launched from Kodiac Island in Alaska. Image Credit NASA

The second cube carries an experiment designed to measure space effects on four biologically important compounds, including an amino acid (a building block of proteins) and a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon(the most abundant organic species in space). The compounds will be placed in four different micro-environments that will simulate conditions in interplanetary space, on the Moon, on Mars and in the outer solar system. Each sub-sample will be monitored through measurements of the UV and visible light that they absorb.

The survival rate of these molecules will help determine whether some of Earth’s biochemistry might have been performed in space and later delivered by meteorites. Another science team member from NASA Ames, Andy Mattioda, said the data may also help in deciding which molecules are good biomarkers that can signal the existence of past or present life on another world.