By Lauren Brown
Illustration by Steffanie Espat
Astronauts on a manned mission to Mars can’t exactly make a U-turn if a nasty disease strikes 10 million miles out. A bacterial infection, which could be anything from strep to anthrax, can pose serious and unique threats to their health, particularly since NASA has found evidence that bacterial motility—or ability to move—increases during weightlessness.
Three University of Maryland pre-med students and self-described “space geeks” aim to expand our understanding of how bacteria behave in microgravity—and ultimately how to safeguard space travelers—when their biology experiment is launched in March onto the International Space Station (ISS).
The research project by seniors Yaniv Kazansky, Aaron Solomon and Garshasb Soroosh was selected for the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program, run by the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education. It’s the first UMD student experiment to catch a ride 249 miles into space, through a partnership between NASA and the low-orbit payload company NanoRacks.
Solomon, an Honors College student recently named the fifth Marshall Scholar in UMD history, says their research has significance beyond the ISS, as SpaceX aims to send a human voyage to Mars as soon as 2024 and NASA in the 2030s.
“Space medicine is an emerging field, and how these pathogens act in space is still poorly understood,” he says.
Their experiment calls for sending dormant spores of a common bacterium to the ISS, where astronauts will activate them and allow them to grow and divide. Those samples will be compared with identical control samples on Earth to determine whether and how microgravity causes their genes to behave differently.
“If there are differences, then those are potential targets for drugs,” says Kenneth Frauwirth, a faculty mentor and lecturer in the Department of Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics. “We might either develop or select drugs that affect or compensate for those kinds of things.”
The program award covers the cost of launching the experiment into space and the astronauts’ time conducting it. The students raised $4,137 through a LaunchUMD crowdfunding campaign in the fall to help pay for materials and data analysis procedures once it returns, and for travel expenses to watch the SpaceX rocket launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla.
“There’s nothing like fulfilling a childhood dream of flying to space—even if it’s by proxy of an experiment,” Solomon says.
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