Humans are gross. As hard as NASA engineers and scientists might try to sanitize and sterilize every surface of space stations, the realities of our disgusting physical bodies mean that germs, dead cells, and other various bodily effluvia naturally start floating around and clinging to the walls and floors (are they the same in zero gravity?) as soon as astronauts show up.
The human body is covered inside and out with an entire mini-ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, mites, and other creepy crawlies (don’t worry, they’re good for you), so bringing these critters to space with us is naturally unavoidable. However, these microscopic passengers sometimes leave astronauts’ bodies and start new colonies of their own aboard space stations and shuttles, occasionally growing into colonies of unknown biomaterial.
NASA microbiologist Sarah Wallace says that contaminations of such biomaterial is pretty common aboard the ISS, but the exact nature of the contaminants isn’t always known. As NASA eyes deep-space missions which could send astronauts out for years at a time, identifying what exactly that thing is growing on the space toilets becomes a priority for astronauts’ long-term health:
We have had contamination in parts of the station where fungi was seen growing or biomaterial has been pulled out of a clogged waterline, but we have no idea what it is until the sample gets back down to the lab. On the ISS, we can regularly resupply disinfectants, but as we move beyond low-Earth orbit where the ability for resupply is less frequent, knowing what to disinfect or not becomes very important.
In the past, astronauts had to carefully collect samples of any biological contaminants and bring them down to Earth. Were any of these microbes harmful, that time frame could mean infections in space. To enable astronauts to quickly identify what any microbial colonies might be, NASA is launching a study which will allow ISS astronauts to sequence the genes of any stowaways while still aboard the space station.
This latest project will send NASA’s new Biomolecular Sequencer gizmo up to space where it can help astronauts quickly ascertain the identities of their icky, microscopic cohabitants before they are bombarded with cosmic radiation and mutate into face-eating behemoths. That’s a thing that happens, right? It should be.