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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) – When the Artemis rocket launches for the first time ever, there will be 10 small satellites on board called CubeSats. News 19 sat down with a member of each CubeSat team to find out more about these tiny spacecraft being launched into history.

For over a decade NASA has been developing a rocket to take humans back to the moon with the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Artemis program. A launch date has been set for the uncrewed Artemis I mission which will leave Cape Canaveral to spend six weeks in space. The Orion spacecraft will orbit the moon for several days before returning to Earth.

These tiny 6U CubeSats are about the size of a boot box (1U is 10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm), weighing about 30 pounds and each has a different scientific mission.

BioSentinel’s mission is to study space radiation over a six-month period and the impact it has on “model organisms” in this case, yeast. The same yeast that we use to bake bread or brew beer. 

Sergio Santa Maria is the principal investigator for BioSentinel. From Lima, Peru, Santa Maria studied in both Texas and New York before finding his home at the Ames Research Center in California. He explained to News 19 that this mission will be the first to test what space radiation can do to cells outside of the protection of the Earth’s magnetic field in almost 50 years.

“We want to know what happens to astronauts in space. So we hope that some of that information from the biology that we’re using help countermeasures potentially for future missions… Especially going to the moon and towards Mars,” Santa Maria said.

That is why BioSentinel was chosen by NASA to fly on the first launch of the SLS. It was chosen in 2013 as part of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate to help understand the risks of radiation on humans in long-duration deep space missions.

“I believe the sexiness of our type of experiment is that it includes biology,” Santa Maria said. “None of the others do.”

Once in orbit, the growth and metabolic activity of the yeast will be measured using a 3-color LED detection system and a metabolic indicator dye. Here, pink wells contain actively growing yeast cells that have reduced the metabolic dye from blue to pink in color. Credits: NASA/Dominic Hart

Yeast has been used in other space missions before BioSentinel, it has a long spaceflight heritage. Yeast DNA cells are ideal because they are so similar to human DNA cells in the ways they are damaged and repaired.

Also, dry yeast is ideal because it can survive for long periods of time before being rehydrated and grown.

After being deployed from the Orion stage adapter the experiment will use yeast as a “living radiation detector” inside a device called a microfluidics card. Each card has 16 wells to see how two different strains of yeast, one of which is radiation sensitized, grow in deep space.

The card injects a small amount of liquid that will sustain the yeast throughout the mission.

Recently, Santa Maria and his team have had samples aboard the International Space Station to see how microgravity and the radiation in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) affect the DNA. 

“The uniqueness of this one, of course, is the deep space. That’s what attracted me to this project,” Santa Maria explained, “The whole idea of this comparison is the radiation variable. You don’t have cosmic radiation inside the International Space Station that you do in a heliocentric orbit. We can compare the behavior of the common denominator, which of course, is microgravity. “

When asked how it feels to finally have a launch date in sight, Santa Maria said there was this huge feeling of satisfaction to have an actual date.

“It’s an amazing feeling…We’re finally launching this guy but I would say nervous, at least in my case, flying this biology mission to its own orbit for the first time,” Santa Maria said with a chuckle.

He added that the team still has a lot of work to do to get everything ready to receive data and perform mission operations that will start soon after launch. BioSentinel is scheduled to be one of the first CubeSats to be deployed about 3 hours and 40 minutes into launch.

“I’m from Peru, there are guinea pigs all over the place,” Santa Maria said. “We’re a guinea pig. This is the first of its kind of experiment that will open doors for new missions…We hope that this opens doors not just for NASA teams but teams around the country and around the globe.”

The Jacobs team at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida as they install the last of 10 CubeSats in the SLS rocket’s Orion stage adapter. Biosentinel, the final CubeSat to be loaded, will study how radiation affects living organisms in deep space. Credits: NASA

After BioSentinel, Santa Maria said he is in the works to lead a similar mission on the surface of the moon.

“This is the beginning for biological exploration in space. For sure this is my future,” Santa Maria told News 19. 

You can keep up with BioSentinel and all the other CubeSats launching with the Artemis I mission on our News 19 Artemis page.