Freshly landed from the ISS: how a group of high school students is…
(MENAFN – The Conversation)
It’s probably no surprise that staying healthy in space is hugely important. And without the typical resources found on Earth, creative solutions must be explored.
At present, enthusiastic Year 10 and 11 pupils around Victoria are eagerly waiting for their space-made yoghurt – fresh off the International Space Station (ISS) – to return to Australia from NASA facilities. in the USA.
The students worked with researchers from Swinburne University of Technology to design an experiment that looked at the nutritional values of yoghurt made in space. The results could provide insight into how best to help astronauts with vital nutrition during long-haul spaceflight.
The human intestine
A critical factor for human health is the overall health of our gut microbiome, which is believed to host over 100 trillion bacteria.
Maintaining the health and diversity of these bacteria may be even more important in space than on Earth. In 2019, NASA released groundbreaking results from a year-long study of astronaut twins Mark and Scott Kelly.
In 2016, Scott spent 365 days on the ISS, experiencing reduced gravity, while Mark remained on Earth. A fascinating finding from the study was that Scott experienced significant changes to his gastrointestinal microbiome while in space – which didn’t persist after he returned to Earth.
In 2016, Mark and Scott Kelly participated in a study on how life in space can affect the human body. NASA/Robert Markowitz
It is theorized that the changes in the microbiome experienced by astronauts are due to the lack of exposure to “everyday” microbes encountered on Earth. Additionally, astronauts in space are exposed to less gravity and high levels of radiation, which increase as they move further away.
Understanding how to supplement astronauts’ gut bacteria and maintain their health is one of NASA’s current research goals. NASA is exploring this both using capsule probiotics and simulated gravity experiments.
Yogurt is made by the bacterial fermentation of milk. The lactic acid produced during this process acts on milk proteins to create the tangy taste and thick texture of yogurt. We wanted to see how this process is affected in the space environment.
Our student-led experiment investigates whether different probiotic strains of bacteria can be used to make yogurt directly in space. The ideal outcome would be to show that healthy, living bacterial cultures can be generated from frozen bacteria and dairy products sent to space. This has yet to be realized, although yogurt has been made using bacteria returned from space before.
This would be extremely beneficial during long spaceflights, where fresh food is limited and typical probiotic capsules would lose potency. Yogurt also offers the nutritional benefits of milk on which the bacteria feed.
Read more: What a simulated mission to Mars taught me about food waste
The road to space
Our brilliant students began this journey in two ways. As part of the ongoing SHINE program, six outstanding STEM students from Haileybury School in Victoria worked with Swinburne staff and student mentors to develop, prototype and produce an experiment for the ISS.
In the past, this program has sent human teeth, chia seeds and magnetorheological fluid to the ISS. For the 2021-22 experiment, the students had 24 five-milliliter flasks (things have to be tiny in space) in which to build their detailed experiment.
The second path was the first Swinburne Youth Space Innovation Challenge (SYSIC), which offers the possibility of sending an experiment into space as part of the Swinburne/Rhodium Scientific payload.
Teams from four Victorian schools took an 11-week crash course in space applications before launching their dream experiment. The winning team from Viewbank College was awarded six dedicated experimental flasks, and all other teams also received a flask – all working to study probiotics, bacteria and yogurt in space.
The SYSIC 2021 winning team from Viewbank College blew the judges away with their insightful idea to investigate magnetic fields on plant growth in space. Pictured (LR): Tarnie Jones, Belle Shi, Madeline Luvaul and Paisley Noble. On board the ISS
Once ready for flight, the final bacteria samples were prepared and frozen by our partners at Rhodium Scientific at the Kennedy Space Center in the United States.
Samples for the experiment were prepared at Kennedy Space Center (left), which involved subjecting them to a fast-spinning vortex procedure (right). Scientific Rhodium
All 33 flasks boarded their carpool to the ISS via SpaceX Crew Dragon 24 and launched on December 24. Once on board, the samples were removed from the freezer by astronaut Mark Vande Hei and set aside in a room-temperature experiment chamber in the Japanese Experiment Module, named Kibo.
After the allotted timestamps of 48 and 72 hours (the time it typically takes to make yogurt on Earth), the samples were placed back in a freezer to preserve progress. It is expected that they have become yogurts during this time.
The samples returned to Earth at the end of January and will be studied by staff and students in the coming months once they return to Australia.
The Rhodium Probiotic Challenge samples were flown on the SpaceX Crew Dragon 24 spacecraft. what we might find
The students chose to explore six different bacterial strains mixed in various combinations, as well as some isolated strains. Thanks to the space experiment and the control experiments carried out on Earth, we will be able to determine whether the bacteria sent to the ISS have been significantly affected by the reduced gravity.
Working from Swinburne’s lab, we will use methods such as DNA sequencing to isolate any variation in the genetic makeup of bacteria and study the number of generations (or cell divisions) that have occurred in the samples.
The students also deliberately designed the experiment to test dairy and non-dairy milk options, to see potential differences in nutritional yield. But perhaps the most exciting part for everyone involved will be the final taste test – and finding out if the space yogurt is truly out of this world.
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