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NASA Space Science

Preventing Sick Spaceships 91

Posted by Zonk
from the that-is-not-a-pleasant-mental-image dept.
An anonymous reader writes "The official NASA home page has a writeup on one of the lesser-known dangers of living on a Space Station: space germs. 'Picture this: You're one of several astronauts homeward bound after a three-year mission to Mars. Halfway back from the Red Planet, your spacecraft starts suffering intermittent electrical outages. So you remove a little-used service panel to check some wiring. To your unbelieving eyes, floating in midair in the microgravity near the wiring is a shivering, shimmering globule of dirty water larger than a grapefruit. And on the wiring connectors are unmistakable flecks of mold.' The article goes on to describe the unlikely circumstances that form these micro-ecologies, and what astronauts do to deal with the situation."
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Preventing Sick Spaceships

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  • Just open the hatch and blow it all out.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Davak (526912) *
      In college I worked on developing a space-station waste-water treatment plan for NASA. The human wastes were converted through microbacterial and plant systems into crystal clear drinking water and very healthy crops.

      One of the problems, however, was how to handle evaporation. Water in the air of a space craft equals mold, fungi, microbes, etc.

      One of the potential solutions was to vent the humidity to space.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Locklin (1074657)
        Seems odd that with all that recycling, simple dehumidification would be such a problem. All you need is a cold surface and ventilation across it. Standard dehumidifyers use closed system evaporation to produce this effect, but I bet the hull of the ship on the dark side gets pretty cold. I'm sure it would be easier to take advantage of the existing heat loss, rather than using energy for a compressor.
        • Re:Deep space Homer (Score:5, Informative)

          by arivanov (12034) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @04:34PM (#19098497) Homepage
          The greatest problem in dealing with air recirculation on a space ship or a space station is the weightlessness. No gravity - no convection. From there on hot and cold pockets are free to form around the place and there is no means to deal with them. Same for local humid pockets, same for condensation. The last is the worst. In the presense of gravity the chilled air will flow away from the cold object and be replaced by new air. Same for water. It will drip somewhere. In weightless conditions it will just sit there and provide nice environment for rust and rot. And evolve. In an accelerated manner under the influence of cosmic radiation. The rumour goes that some of the moulds on Mir around the end of its lifetime could eat plastic (or at least the plastifier out of it).

          IMO from one point onwards this problem alone can justify any of the classic "spinning wheel" designs. It may end up cheaper building something big enough to spin it compared to dealing with the environmentals in a medium size station (or ship).
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by iminplaya (723125)
            Us airplane drivers are very familiar with the phenomena of carburetor ice. Simply running the air through a venturi (or maybe a vortex tube [sas.org]?) will reduce the pressure and temperature sufficiently to dehumidify it. Then you can redirect the fast moving air to "sling" the water out, which carries much more mass, thus momentum, to where ever you wish. I don't know if this has been tried and dismissed as impractical.
          • Are you serious about that accelerated evolution? Why aren't we taking advantage of this? We should be breeding mold and bacteria up there to... do stuff. Down here. You know, like... eat stuff.

            We'd have to be sure they never got out into the wild. Which they almost certainly would.

            Actually, five seconds of thought tells me this is a terrible idea. In fact, don't ever do this or tell anyone about this.
          • Which may be why we need at least some level of gravity on space ships. Just a slow roll should solve this. Of course, the real problem is going to be what happens to human over a long haul. That was suppose to be solved by the CAM (centrifuge access module). Sadly, W's team canceled it. Hopefully the next admin will add it back in (it is actually all built and ready to be launched).
      • by iminplaya (723125)
        One of the potential solutions was to vent the humidity to space.

        ? [72.14.253.104] :-)
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by cbacba (944071)
      In general, there's nothing like shortwave uV to dispose of unwanted fungii and bacteria. Unless maybe, it's the andromeda strain.

    • Seems like the problems mentioned wouldn't be problems if there were some artificial gravity. Perhaps adding spin to part or all of the air craft?

      I keep wondering when they are going to build the Space Station -- the one shaped like a bicycle wheel. I keep expecting they'll make progress "someday", but they continue to hang out in the "temporary quarters".

      Certainly, the space station should move toward being a more livable "habitat", which, it seems, should include gravity? Would .1G or so be difficult?
  • Slime... (Score:2, Funny)

    by kksm19820117 (1100955)
    As long as I don't see any of that 'Alien' slime, I won't be worrying too much. :)
  • Imagine their surprise when they opened a rarely-accessed service panel in Mir's Kvant-2 Module and discovered a large free-floating mass of water. "According to the astronauts' eyewitness reports, the globule was nearly the size of a basketball," Ott said./quote
    A real nasty one too!
  • Oh Boy... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Jarjarthejedi (996957) <christianpinch@g ... com minus author> on Saturday May 12, 2007 @02:48PM (#19097651) Journal
    Does this summary remind anyone else of a certain Voyager episode?

    In all seriousness this is an interesting issue I've never heard about before. You'd think the media would be all over this as an actual new space story, it's been so long since anything new was really done (new in the sense of something you'd never think about). This begs the question of whether astronauts and their equipment should be decontaminated before going into space, sure there are microorganisms in their bodies but it would still probably be beneficial.

    This also makes me wonder if NASA plans it's airflow so as to avoid situations where air is being blown into an area that the astronauts rarely visit and that is beneficial to bacteria, perhaps air flow could become a big part of space vessel designs so that situations like this are avoided?

    All in all an interesting story.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by DerekLyons (302214)

      In all seriousness this is an interesting issue I've never heard about before. You'd think the media would be all over this as an actual new space story,

      It's not a 'new' space story - not if you are actually familiar with the state-of-the-art, as opposed to feeding at the teat of the mass media. It's a well known issue - NASA was studying it as far back as Skylab. Heck, Michael Collins (yes that [wikipedia.org] Michael Collins) used it as a plot point in his book Mission to Mars [amazon.com] back in 1990!

  • Moya and friends (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Fox_1 (128616) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @02:53PM (#19097697)
    Well not really, but we seem to live best in a natural habitat - city dwellers have higher rates of asthma, there are always cases of sick buildings on the news(bad vents, mold, chemicals), and now fungus eating away at the structure of our space craft. We are really good at building big shiny metal boxes that look like they will stand up to anything, but a little bacteria and the whole thing crumbles. This is a pretty decent justification for 'Leviathan' type spacecraft - partially organic - capable of adapting to organic issues in a way that a metal box just fails.
    • A cyberbetic spacecraft you refer to. Imagine the billions of dollars in research that will consume. How about a strong antibiotic spray instead?
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by zappepcs (820751)
        Because antibiotics used willy nilly will eventually harm the humans the portend to protect. We humans need other symbiotic organisms to survive. Killing off the 'environment' to a sterile state will lead to dead humans eventually.
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward
        Or something even simpler learned from the Navy: if you keep the bilges dry and don't allow standing water to form anywhere then you don't get crazy growth--except the slime molds that grow on the inside of the hull due to condensation on the cold steel. For spacecraft this translates into designing your atmospheric systems so that you don't get water droplets anywhere and having your astronauts be able to inspect and clean all enclosed areas completely and regularly. For those who are familiar with Navy
    • by rizole (666389)
      You'd think someone would buy NASA the DVD set, they obviously haven't thought it through properly.
    • I bet the future technology will look more "biological" anyway -in saying that i do not mean that it will directly be based or even look like on organisms we know. I kind of dislike the idea of basing it directly on existing organisms, since we wouldnt really know how it works. Also the idea is that: To fix something complicated makes it more complicated, to fix something simple makes it simpler. (not for all cases of course) Also, i wonder if future technology will also feature cancers and virus-like probl
  • Bottom Line (Score:5, Insightful)

    Eight year round trips to Mars are never going to work. Name me one voyage that lasted longer than even one year without having to dock in some fashion.

    We will never be able to fully explore, experiment and gather resources in out solar system if trips between planets take 5+ years. We need to look into saner proplusion systems that seperate the ground to orbit engine from the interplanetary engine. Even sci-fi shows seem to have grasped that fact.
    • by Timesprout (579035) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @03:01PM (#19097739)

      Name me one voyage that lasted longer than even one year without having to dock in some fashion
      Pigs in Space. I dont recall the USS Swinetrek ever docking.
    • How will separating the two help? Unless, of course, you mean that the interplanetary engine be based on a sci-fi idea like a hyperspace-drive or an anti-matter engine.
      • How will separating the two help? Unless, of course, you mean that the interplanetary engine be based on a sci-fi idea like a hyperspace-drive or an anti-matter engine.

        I'd guess he means 'send up the fuel on a space elevator', but I'm not really sure.

        Really, we'd be best off sending the ISS or something similar to Mars, but that's going to take a *long* time to build with the status-quo. But if we could use our heavy lift rockets (ICBM or Saturn V), and drop off all the parts, then use the ISS as an assemb
        • by rbanffy (584143)
          IIRC no ICBM thing would qualify as heavy lift. And they are not even designed for orbital flight.

          We don't know how to build a Saturn V. We have the plans, but we have neither the expertise to build one nor the factories needed to build its parts.

          NASA thought about resurrecting the SV, but found it would be better and cheaper to do something with current expertises (the Ares series) than to re-learn 50-yo tech.
          • by man_ls (248470)
            Glancing at this chart http://www.averillpark.net/space/booster.html [averillpark.net] the SV is almost double the next-biggest current, historical or future launch platform.

            How do we not have the expertise to build one? I can see not having a factory big enough, but engineers are smart, the plans already exist.
            • by sconeu (64226)
              Ares V is in the same class as the Saturn V.
              • Reviewing the relevant wikipedia articles, it seems that the Ares V is superior to the Saturn 5 design, at least in terms of payload capacity.
                • Digging a little further, it seems that this series [wikipedia.org] of super rocket was at one point explored by NASA. The larger versions of this would have had substantially better payload capabilities than either the Ares or Saturn 5s.
            • How do we not have the expertise to build one? I can see not having a factory big enough, but engineers are smart, the plans already exist.

              Just because you have the plans doesn't mean you know how to build something. Any good machinist can tell you this.

              There's a lot of 'tribal knowledge' that goes into the construction of something as big as a spacecraft, or for that matter anything really big and complicated. (You could say the same thing about a nuclear submarine or a microprocessor.) Fire all the people
          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by bill_mcgonigle (4333) *
            IIRC no ICBM thing would qualify as heavy lift. And they are not even designed for orbital flight.

            Russia is doing it [wikipedia.org], at least. Also, we launched Cassini, with a modified ICBM [wikipedia.org]. But you're right, even that can only do half of what a Saturn V can do.

            Just to be clear, I was talking about dumping the cargo in LEO and burning up in the atmosphere, not having the rockets actually stay in orbit
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by dattaway (3088)
      Eight year round trips to Mars are never going to work.

      Sure it can! We'll do it just like we did when we went to the moon. No one will give away the secret.
    • by asninn (1071320)
      Sci-fi shows have also "grasped" the fact that it would be nice if we had FTL travel, beaming, phasers and so on. However, it takes more than an idea to actually make things work - real science is more complicated than "hey, it would be cool if we had X". You can't just will things into existence; you need to design and build them, and in order to do that, you need to both create the theoretical foundations *and* overcome a lot of practical obstacles.

      In sci-fi shows, none of that is necessary, so of course
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Philotic (957984)
      >>Eight year round trips to Mars are never going to work.

      Certainly not with that attitude. :P
    • Name me one voyage that lasted longer than even one year without having to dock in some fashion.

      I dunno... do you count "running aground on the shore of an uncharted desert isle" as docking?

    • by radish (98371)
      Well it's not a space voyage for sure, but these guys [1000days.net] are planning on being at sea on a small yacht for three years, with no resupplying or docking. They can catch fish, but apart from that they're on their own.
    • by GWBasic (900357)

      Eight year round trips to Mars are never going to work. Name me one voyage that lasted longer than even one year without having to dock in some fashion. We will never be able to fully explore, experiment and gather resources in out solar system if trips between planets take 5+ years. We need to look into saner proplusion systems that seperate the ground to orbit engine from the interplanetary engine. Even sci-fi shows seem to have grasped that fact.

      I think we can figure out how to spend 8 years in space!

  • And this is why (Score:3, Informative)

    by zappepcs (820751) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @03:19PM (#19097831) Journal
    I voted for Moya in the poll. Moya took care of such things quite well where as other shows/ships never addressed this problem, or others regarding biological problems. In quite simple terms, the dust of dead skin cells and the mites that go everywhere with us would eventually cause problems. Moisture from the air (our breath for example) can be collected and used by micro organisms and would eventually cause problems somewhere on a long space voyage. A toilet is not sufficient to handle human waste as we drop dead cells and living organisms everywhere we go.
    • by haxot (1099335)
      Moya would be the ideal; but before we'd have Moya-style ships, we'd have http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lexx [wikipedia.org] Lexx style spaceships. Unfun, messy, smelly, very "alive" spaceships, before we got to the highly refined, people-friendly Moya style Ah, for organic spaceships. The mechanics would be marvelously interesting.. would they be grown ala matrix-style, thousands of embryos attached in a massive stack being watched for defects as they mature? Or more personal, molly-coddled pampering?
  • by AlphaLop (930759)
    I think I would rather of Tribbles.... They wouldn't set off my OCD as much ;)
  • by Viol8 (599362) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @03:25PM (#19097877)
    Before anyone mods me down for trolling consider this: do you really think it would be a good idea for astronauts to exist in a completely sterile enviroment for years on end? What do you think this would do for their immune systems? At the very least they'd be seriously impaired by the time they came back to earth and possibly they could even die of some common microbe that is of no concern to people with healthy immune systems. At the worst their immune system could go into auto immune disease mode and then you could well end up with your spacecraft arriving at mars with just corpses strapped in the seats.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      do you really think it would be a good idea for astronauts to exist in a completely sterile enviroment for years on end?
      Where do you think the microbes come from in the first place? Even if you floated the spaceship through a big bubble of bleach before bringing the astronauts on board, you'd end up with microbes all over the ship in next to no time.
  • by ushering05401 (1086795) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @03:28PM (#19097895) Journal
    While the article raises some interesting concerns it seems more likely to me that living in a completely anti-microbal environment would be more dangerous. You would have to spike the astronauts immune systems and slowly reintegrate them into the world when they returned.

    Anyhow, my suggestion would be including an extremely small temporary habitat that the astronauts occupy every so often while the main quarters are made inhospitable to living organisms. Maybe some combinations of prevasive UV, dehumidification, and extreme heat? It wouldn't matter that the microbes will reenter the main hab with the astronauts if you did this often enough... they would not have enough time to multiply.

    Then again, I know nothing about this branch of science.

    Regards.
  • That's all I got...yucky.
  • From their description of the LOCAD-PTS unit, I'm reminded of the psi-scan in Red Dwarf...

    "Here are the results [of the scan] and we're going to.... live"
  • It just so happened I have been watching the DVDs of an apparently little-known sci-fi series, the new Outer Limits from showtime, and saw an episode almost indistinguishable from the hypothetical in the description. The episode was called "The Voyage Home" featuring Michael Dorn (a.k.a. Warf). Him and two others were traveling back to Earth from Mars when they discover a strange substance on their ship. Here's more info (with spoilers) -
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Voyage_Home_(The_ Outer_Limits) [wikipedia.org]

    I real
  • by Z00L00K (682162) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @03:56PM (#19098123) Homepage
    The problem of moisture accumulating in all the wrong places is a common problem, not only for space stations, but on terra firma as well.

    The way to be sure that you don't get wet is to have the correct ventilation. This is easy to say but complicated to implement. One way is to configure ventilation to pass dehumidifiers and let the dry air be released in the electric compartments and allow it to leak out into the occupants space from where it is collected, cleaned and dehumidified again. On long-term space missions it will be a critical issue to re-circulate all water and not vent it into space.

    Another more complex way is to seal off all electronics and use an inert gas in all electronics compartments. However, this is a very complex solution and it will certainly be hard to keep it safe and sound for a mission that will last for years.

  • My understanding is that MIR got a bad smell over time, undoubtedly due to the microbial & fungal contamination, and that one
    module got so bad that the crews didn't like to go in it.

    Also, contaminated water "balls" could undoubedtly create the conditions for Legionnaires disease, which is pretty fatal.
    • Depends on who its infecting. Legionnaires is better at taking down immunocompromised people such as the old scientists at the Philadelphia convention for which the disease in named.
  • That's why it is bad to accidentally leave a Ganymede rock lobster in fridge for a Year.
  • Another example of technology developed for the space program that could assist us earthbound folks as well.

    The LOCAD-PTS described in the article seems superior to any other method of portable biological detector present in the market (That I know of), could this be an effective device for the detection of biological weapons?

    Or even, in a more mundane manner, for companies that specialize in flood recovery?
  • "I'm sorry Dave, but I'm afraid I can't do that."
  • How about just donning spacesuits every few weeks/months and then cycle the air in the ship with some form of gas that'll kill the bacteria?

    A vacuum should deal with the moisture accumulating behind panels wouldn't it? So you pump the air out, pump some gas that's harmless for the ship's equipment but will kill germs, pump it out, and then replace the air.

    If the ship is compartmentalized then you can do this in sections, but a spacesuit might be useful just in case.
  • The risk to all life of these space mutated creations is too great. We must just detonate a small nuke to eradicate the whole vessel and eliminate the problem completely.

    Or shunt them into a space graveyard come bio-warfare storage zone to be used against alien invaders.

  • by master_p (608214) on Sunday May 13, 2007 @05:16AM (#19102447)
    Without gravity, lots of things become very difficult to do. A lot more money should be thrown into researching physics and finding out how to control/simulate gravity.
  • Design the intrament manals in a manner wher there is a breez moving through them. Make the metal casing out of mesh.

    Also make them easy to come apart and make it a daily regement to clean them.
    You will have lots of free time on the way to Mars.
  • Use a portable vaccum with a hepafilter and a canister of Lysol wet wipes.

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