Why NASA is launching yeast into space

Uhen NASA’s massive Space Launch System (SLS) rocket blasts off on its first unmanned trip around the moon, currently scheduled for August 29, most people will be paying attention to the 32-story machine itself—the largest rocket ever launched. Far less will give much thought to the yeast that goes along with it. But a little yeast is a very big deal.

Radiation in deep space poses a potentially lethal risk to humans. Future lunar bases and missions to Mars will expose astronauts to cosmic radiation for months and even years. To test how living things cope with such danger, SLS will carry a shoebox-sized CubeSat known as BioSentinel, which will be released from the rocket, fly past the moon and enter orbit around the sun for six to nine months. On board will be microscopic samples of yeast that will be constantly exposed to the sizzling onslaught of high-energy cosmic rays and solar particles.

Some of the instruments aboard BioSentinel will measure radiation intensity, while far smaller, finer ones — known as microfluidic maps, designed to probe extremely small amounts of liquid — will monitor the yeast’s well-being, sending the data they collect back to Earth. . Yeast are hardly human, but when it comes to measuring such biological processes as growth, death, and DNA damage, they are a pretty good proxy. The samples aboard BioSentinel, which will have the distinction of flying farther into space than any organism from Earth, will tell us a lot about the prospects of the astronauts who will one day follow them.

But yeast won’t be the only passengers aboard the SLS when it takes off. The Orion crew capsule that will orbit the moon during the mission will be pretty crammed with cargo — some of it practical, much of it sentimental. Like CNN reports, the spacecraft’s center seat—the commander’s seat—will be occupied by a spacesuit-clad mannequin that will rely on sensors in the seat to measure the acceleration and vibrations that a real astronaut will experience during the SLS’s second crewed flight . The mannequin is fondly called Moonikin Campos. The first name was chosen through a public competition; the latter name is a nod to Arturo Campos, a NASA electrical engineer who was instrumental in the safe return of the near-disastrous Apollo 13 mission in 1970.

Flanking Moonikin in two other crew seats will be artificial human torsos made of a soft, flesh-like material that will include more than 5,600 sensors and 34 detectors to test the radiation levels real crew members will be exposed to during flight.

Also on board: Snoopy plush toy – a nod to the Apollo 10 lunar orbiter mission, which named its lunar module Snoopy; pen used by Snoopy cartoonist Charles Schultz; moon rock collected by the Apollo 11 crew; Girl Scouts of America Space Science Badge; a medal in honor of the Apollo 8 mission – the first manned lunar orbital mission; and a small handful of tree seeds that will be planted after the Orion spacecraft returns to Earth. It will continue a tradition started by the Apollo 14 moon landing mission, which also carried seeds that were later planted in various places around the country, sprouting into many famous moon trees.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger c jeffrey.kluger@time.com.

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