CU Boulder Lands A Slot On First Orion Flight Around The Moon

Image Credit: University of Colorado Boulder

March 4, 2019 – A little piece of Colorado is going to the moon.

When NASA launches Orion EM-1 in 2020, its first mission to orbit the moon since 1972, experiments from the University of Colorado Boulder will be aboard.

The space agency has announced a CU Boulder BioServe Space Technologies project led by Smead Aerospace Assistant Research Professor Luis Zea has earned one of four slots for Space Biology Program research aboard Orion. Zea’s team’s work will help researchers better understand how living organisms are affected by deep space in preparation for human missions to the moon and eventually Mars.

Radiation In Space

The goal is to study DNA damage and protection from dangerous, space-based radiation that comes from the sun and galactic cosmic rays and is a major concern for long-duration missions.

Humans on Earth and in low orbit, such as those aboard the International Space Station, are protected from destructive radiation due to the Van Allen belts, an area of magnetic charged particles that encircle our planet. However, travel past them and you can be hit with alarming amounts of radiation.

“When radiation hits DNA, it can cause damage. Our bodies have repair mechanisms, but they sometimes fail. If the damage occurs on an important area of the genome, it can have harmful consequences – this is one of the bases of cancer,” Zea said.

Brewing Science

For the study, Orion will carry a series of cell cultures containing an unusual substance — Brewer’s yeast. It may sound like a strange choice, but yeast genes are more similar to human DNA than you might expect.

“About 70 percent of the essential genes in yeast have counterparts in the human genome,” Corey Nislow at the University of British Columbia, the other principal investigator, said. “We’ll measure their ability to survive under radiation conditions and quantify which cultures do better than others.”

Millions Of Cells

NASA has past experience with higher space radiation levels through the Apollo astronauts, but their time in space was brief compared to lengthy missions proposed for the future. The longest moon mission, Apollo 17, spent 12 days in space. A manned flight to Mars is estimated to take four to six months just to get to the red planet; it does not include any time spent on the surface or coming back to Earth.

“It would also be hard to do statistics with data from just a couple of astronauts, but we can fly millions and millions of yeast cells in a volume similar to that of a writing pen,” Zea said.

Orion is currently slated for a June 2020 launch from Cape Canaveral.

Zea is one of two principal investigators on the project, along with Corey Nislow at the University of British Columbia. Additional collaboration has come from Zea’s colleagues at CU Boulder’s BioServe Space Technologies, Christopher Carr from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Ralf Moeller of the German Aerospace Center.