Sharks in Space

Posted: December 17, 2014

The 2014-15 International Space Station experiment will explore the effects of artificial shark skin on bacteria growth in microgravity, hoping to improve astronauts’ health conditions.

The frigid and dry weather during the winter months takes a toll on the immune system, and anything from the common cold to the stomach flu starts to crop up around school.

Usually a day spent at home, getting plenty of sleep, water and vitamin C supply up is all it takes to get the body up and running again quickly.

On earth that is. In space, the task of recovery isn’t so easy.

“Right now, [astronauts] have a huge problem with health care and bacteria growth because it multiplies so fast up there,” said senior Miriam Scheel, one of the 11 students on Minnehaha’s International Space Station (ISS) team. “There’s already a lot of pressure on [the astronauts’] bodies by being in microgravity. Weeks before they go into space, they have to be in a contained environment so they don’t get sick because it can be pretty much deadly if they got sick [in space.]”

This problem drives the ISS team’s experiment for it’s third year in Minnehaha’s curriculum and it remains the first and only school in the Midwest to have this program.

The 11 students involved in the program are split into four groups specialized in four different areas: the biological team with seniors Hazen Mayo, Sarah Pope and Alex Ramos; the electrical team with seniors Gunnar Nelson and Scheel; the mechanical team junior Colby Boehm and seniors Anders Chelgren and Ramos; and the software team with seniors Zach Newton and Scott Stewart.

Each team is responsible for one part of the experiment. There are also two project managers, seniors Andrew Johnson and Erik Dahlman, who make sure everyone is meeting deadlines and the process is moving along smoothly. The experiment for 2014-2015 is biological.

“We are conducting an experiment on mechanotransduction, a natural process where a mechanical stressor is put on an organism,” said Mayo. The organism on which the ISS team will be placing a stressor on is bacteria and the stressor itself will be artificial shark skin, called Sharklet.

“The way that [original shark skin] is formed with its grooves and ridges puts a stressor on bacteria’s cell membranes and inhibits their ability to accumulate,” Mayo continues. “That’s why [it’s] fairly resilient against bacteria.”

If Sharklet proves to be resilient against bacteria in microgravity, it could be used to coat the commonly touched areas, such as handrails and handles of the space station, to prohibit the rapid growth of bacteria and reducing the chances of astronauts getting sick.

At the start of school, the ISS team were working hard to come up with plausible ideas for the year’s project. It came down to three biological experiments, one of them being the Sharklet model.

“We decided that the Sharklet would be the coolest one,” said Johnson. “[Out of the three] it was  the most plausible, challenging, but not impossible.”

After this determination, they brainstormed on what this experiment would consist of and drew up a general plan on what needed to be used.

The biology team will choose either  E. coli or b. subtilis to use and whichever they pick  will fluoresce in the growth chamber. A camera will be attached to one side of the container to take a picture that will show how much the bacteria has grown.

“We need [bacteria] that was anaerobic, meaning it respirates without oxygen,” said Pope. “And we needed something that could survive in the temperature of the ISS which is around 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and both of these species fit these requirements.”

Biologists have classified both of these bacteria as biofilm bacteria, meaning it will stick together forming a thin layer.

The experiment itself, though it has a long way to go, will be housed in a very tiny container, about the size of a eyeglasses case. Inside this container is where the working components of the experiment are kept.

“There are three parts that the mechanical team [of the ISS class] is working on,” said Ramos. “The first part is the bacterial growth environment, or growth chamber. The second is our broth and nutrient introduction and overflow system, so that’s going to be putting nutrients in and taking waste out of the growth chamber.”

“And then the third one, is what you would call an oscillation board,” Ramos continued. “The growth chamber is going to be on the board, or at least we hope we can get it on there. The board itself though is a system suspended by rubber bands.”

“So essentially we’re going to try to find a resonance between the board and the growth chamber system as a whole through the rubber bands,” he said, “in order to optimize how strong that vibration will translate through the system.”

A valve that connects the broth and nutrient introduction and overflow system with the growth chamber. Research on this process has begun with the software team.

“We’ve been coding for what needs to be turned on and off [inside the experiment],” said Newton. “[We’ve] been working on how to open the valve.”

After Stewart and Newton figure the coding of opening the valve and taking the picture, it will go to the electrical team. Once the valve is opened, the container will have to shake and create the resonance, as Ramos said, in order to mix up the nutrients and water in the container to awaken the bacteria from its dormant state.

This will be done by a tiny phone vibrator connected to a circuit board affixed to one of the four sides of the container. This circuit board also houses an LED light system.

“The vibration motor will be used to shake the container which we have the bacteria in so that the bacteria doesn’t stagnate and that it keeps moving around,” said Nelson. “The light is first of all there so the [software] team can just figure everything out and see how it works and second, for a light source.”

The three components that Johnson stated were the reasons for this experiment being chosen were that it was plausible, challenging but not impossible.

They had to think hard about how they were going to make everything work, thus it was a challenge. But now they are full steam ahead, moving right along in designing and wiring and researching, so it has proven to be plausible and not impossible.

However, the most important thing to remember is that this experiment is impactful.

If the experiment succeeds and results come back to earth in summer of 2015, it could do a world of good for the astronauts of the ISS.

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