Getting a Taste of Space

Categories: Extreme Life

UK samples set for a taste of space

Samples of micro organisms, antibodies, fluorescent dyes and rock from Devon are amongst a European payload which will be sent into near-Earth orbit this week onboard an unmanned Russian spacecraft — exposing them to the extreme conditions found in space.

A previous experiment exposed microorganisms to the harsh conditions of space, and then the fiery conditions of atmospheric reentry. The picture shows the spacecraft after atmospheric entry (vehicle is 2.22 m in diameter). The white circle marks the location of the sample.
Image credit: ESA

The Foton-M3 capsule will be launched by a Soyuz rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Friday 14th September at 12 noon BST (1700 local time). After 9 minutes of propelled flight the Foton will reach a low-Earth orbit where it will remain for 11.8 days before the re-entry capsule will return to Earth.

The Foton-M3 will be carrying a European payload of 400 kg, covering experiments in a wide range of disciplines including fluid physics, biology, crystal growth, meteoritics, radiation dosimetry and exobiology.

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Biopan facility, which is attached to the outside of the Foton, will be used to expose experiment samples directly to the space environment in order to study the impact of space’s extreme temperatures, ultraviolet, cosmic and other solar radiation, and near-perfect vacuum.

Amongst the samples that make up the Biopan payload are the following which are in part funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC):

— Antibodies and fluorescent dyes to be used in the Life Marker Chip (LMC) instrument that is being developed under UK lead for ESA’s ExoMars mission

— Micro organisms for ESA’s STONE artificial meteorite experiment

— Rock samples containing micro organisms from cliffs at Beer, East Devon

The LMC will look for specific molecules associated with life by detecting biomarkers. Such techniques have been developed in the medical and biotechnology sectors but have not been used in space before.

Sample of rock from Beer, with coin for scale.
Image credit: Charles Cockell, Open University

LMC lead scientist Mark Sims from University of Leicester, comments, "Space is inherently a risky business but there are only so many tests that you can do on the ground. Biopan provides us with a platform to expose biological samples to a space environment and gives us the opportunity to expose our biosensor components to a space radiation environment in order to confirm their survivability."

David Cullen, LMC scientist and lead scientist on the LMC on Biopan experiment, from Cranfield University adds, "We will be testing the effect of various extreme environments encountered during space flight of antibodies and fluorescent dyes such as the effects of launch and re-entry, ground handling and the space radiation environment — all critical issues for a future Mars mission."

Also onboard Biopan, but on the outside of the capsule, are samples of micro organisms that make up the ESA STONE artificial meteorite experiment. The organisms are dried onto the underside of several artificial meteorites made from sedimentary and igneous rocks which are attached to the outside of the heat shield — exposing them fully to the space environment.

This follows up an experiment flown on the previous Foton flight which demonstrated how the atmospheric transit of organisms acts as a strong biogeographical dispersal filter to the interplanetary transfer of photosynthesis. This time, the experiment will focus on whether being on the underside of different materials effects the survival of organisms during atmospheric entry.

Professor of Microbiology and STONE scientist Charles Cockell from The Open University explains further, "This work advances our knowledge of how island biogeography might work on an interplanetary scale. We know that life can make it from continent to continent, but what about from planet to planet? Of course, at the moment we don’t know of life on another planet, but this experiment is an intriguing test of an interplanetary version of an old ecological question and can at least tell us whether the Earth has always remained a biological island in space."

Opening a previous Biopan experiment, with its small cargo, after landing. Click image for larger view.
Image credit: ESA

Professor Cockell adds, "We will also be sending up samples of rock from Beer in Devon as part of experiment called LITHOPANSPERMIA. The samples contain diverse photosynthetic organisms. This is to test the ability of organisms to survive in interplanetary conditions. Photosynthesis is the basis of a productive biosphere, so understanding its ability to be transferred between planets is of great interest."

The re-entry capsule is scheduled to land in a remote area on the Russian/Kazahkstan border on 26th September where it will be recovered by a specialist team. The samples from the ESA experiments will first be transported to its ESTEC facility in the Netherlands and then to various other institutions for further analysis.

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