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When Space Mildew Attacks

Being an astronaut is probably not the best choice of occupation if you’re a germophobe:

Imagine their surprise when they opened a rarely-accessed service panel in Mir’s Kvant-2 Module and discovered a large free-floating mass of water. “According to the astronauts’ eyewitness reports, the globule was nearly the size of a basketball,” Ott said.

Moreover, the mass of water was only one of several hiding behind different panels. Scientists later concluded that the water had condensed from humidity that accumulated over time as water droplets coalesced in microgravity. The pattern of air currents in Mir carried air moisture preferentially behind the panel, where it could not readily escape or evaporate.

Nor was the water clean: two samples were brownish and a third was cloudy white. Behind the panels the temperature was toasty warm-82?F (28?C)-just right for growing all kinds of microbeasties. Indeed, samples extracted from the globules by syringes and returned to Earth for analysis contained several dozen species of bacteria and fungi, plus some protozoa, dust mites, and possibly spirochetes.

But wait, there’s more. Aboard Mir, colonies of organisms were also found growing on “the rubber gaskets around windows, on the components of space suits, cable insulations and tubing, on the insulation of copper wires, and on communications devices,” said Andrew Steele, senior staff scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington working with other investigators at Marshall Space Flight Center.

Setting aside the juvenile “ick” factor, what’s interesting about this is that NASA is working on a handheld device to locate and identify the bacteria and fungi that attack spacecraft surfaces (which Star Trek fans will surely gush over as a proto-tricorder).

While I’m not a big fan of the “spinoff” justification for NASA’s existence (it’s a cliche, and the claims that a given technology is a “NASA spinoff” are often inaccurate), this is certainly an example of innovation being driven by new needs encountered in space exploration.

As one of the interviewees suggests, a descendent of the LOCAD-PTS device being tested today might prove useful in the detection of life on Mars…even if it’s not sophisticated enough to recognize nonterrestrial life as such, locating and identifying common terrestrial microorganisms will at least whittle down the number of false positives.

But the true “spinoffs” (groan) will be in terrestrial medicine. One example is the spread of “nosocomial” infections in hospitals — if it becomes easier to locate pathogens, and to identify which pathogen it is, it may be possible to further reduce the rates of secondary infection, while also reducing the development of resistance by tailoring sanitation procedures and verifying their effectiveness. Simply being able to “see” where pathogens are will make a huge difference in dealing with them.

4 comments to When Space Mildew Attacks

  • Aaron_J

    The article you reference gives examples of how these microorganisms can adversely impact various spacecraft components, but I wonder if it is possible or even desirable to completely sanitize spacecraft. To some extent, don’t we need the little buggers around? I’m not just referring to those with which we enjoy a symbiotic relationship — do we really understand the long-term impact of not having our immune systems occasionally challenged?

  • I don’t think anyone’s goal is to completely sanitize a spacecraft. But cleanliness is a good thing – all that mold would have my nose kicking up a fuss.

    Hmm – an aquarium is a closed system (more or less) like Mir or ISS. If one has algae growing in a tank you can buy a fish that eats the stuff, yes?

    I wonder if the future won’t see wee little beasties that love to eat mold and other crud aboard stations and ships. Of course you’ll need to have predators around to eat the crud eaters so their numbers don’t get out of control …

  • Hey, now that is a brilliant idea — schools of air-breathing goldfish flitting about inside space stations, stopping here and there to feed off patches of microorganisms growing on the walls, darting in and out of recesses and enclosures to get at the bubbles of goop hiding there, scurrying away like a drawn curtain when an astronaut floats by.

    That’d make a great visual for a science fiction film.

  • Aaron_J

    As long as the space station is manned, won’t you have predators on board to keep the crud-eater population under control? And since most everything is tastless in zero-gee, with a little hot sauce they’ll taste as good as anything else NASA can cook up.