NASA’s bread-loaf-sized nanosatellite to study life in space

Friday, November 19, 2010

WASHINGTON - In an attempt to answer astrobiology’s fundamental questions about the origin, evolution, and distribution of life in the universe, NASA is getting ready to fly a small satellite about the size of a loaf of bread.

The nanosatellite, known as Organism/Organic Exposure to Orbital Stresses, or O/OREOS, is a secondary payload aboard a U.S. Air Force four-stage Minotaur IV rocket planned for launch on Nov. 19, 2010.

O/OREOS weighs approximately 12 pounds and is NASA’s first CubeSat to demonstrate the capability to have two distinct, completely independent science experiments on a single autonomous satellite.

O/OREOS also will use NASA’s first propellant-less mechanism on a scientific satellite to ensure it de-orbits and burns up as it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere less than 25 years after completing itsission.

“Secondary payload nanosatellites, like O/OREOS are an innovative way to extend and enhance scientists’ opportunities to conduct research in low Earth orbit by providing an alternative to the International Space Station or space shuttle investigations,” said Pascale Ehrenfreund, O/OREOS project scientist at the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

“With O/OREOS we can analyze the stability of organics in the local space environment in real-time and test flight hardware that can be used for future payloads to address fundamental astrobiology objectives.”

The Minotaur IV rocket is on the launch pad at the Alaska Aerospace Corporation’s Kodiak Launch Complex on Kodiak Island, Alaska, and the range is conducting final launch preparations.

After O/OREOS separates from the Minotaur IV rocket and successfully enters low Earth orbit at approximately 400 miles above Earth, it will activate and begin transmitting radio signals to ground control stations and spacecraft operators in the mission control center at Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, Calif.

O/OREOS, the first technology demonstration mission of NASA’s Astrobiology Small Payloads Program, contains two experiment payloads, including the Space Environment Survivability of Live Organisms (SESLO), which will characterize the growth, activity, health and ability of microorganisms to adapt to the stresses of the space environment, and the Space Environment Viability of Organics (SEVO), which will monitor the stability and changes in four classes of organic molecules as they are exposed to space conditions.

The SESLO payload will monitor biological organisms’ responses as they are exposed to radiation and weightless conditions in space. The experiment is sealed and contains two types of microbes commonly found in salt ponds and soil in a dried and dormant state: Halorubrum chaoviatoris and Bacillus subtilis. After O/OREOS reaches orbit, the experiment will rehydrate, or “feed,” and grow three sets of microbes.

The SESLO experiment measures the microbes’ population density and change in color while they consume the dyed liquid nutrients.

For the SEVO experiment, scientists selected molecules distributed throughout our galaxy, as well as building blocks of life. O/OREOS houses the organic samples in “micro environments” to mimic space and planetary conditions. The experiment will expose the organic compounds to radiation in the form of solar ultraviolet (UV) light, visible light, trapped-particle and cosmic radiation. Scientists will determine the stability of the molecules by studying the changes in UV, visible and near-infrared light absorption. (ANI)

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