Saturday, May 14, 2011

Squids And Bricks In Space

This Monday, the space shuttle Endeavor will fly for the last time, carrying six crew members on a 16-day trip to the International Space Station.  This will be the second-to-last flight of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program.  After this, Atlantis will fly later this year, and then the Program will be done for good.  But scientists are putting this penultimate voyage to good use – not only will the shuttle be delivering the much-celebrated Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, designed to detect dark matter and other cool outer space-y stuff, but Endeavor will be home to a couple of rather unique and exciting experiments.

Space is a weird place.  It’s cold, it’s dark, it’s silent, and importantly, there’s no gravity, and that’s kind of a big deal.  Building machines to operate in space is a bit of a challenge, especially if you don’t know how your contraptions will act in little or no gravity.  Well, to get at solving this problem, the crew members of the Endeavor flight will help in conducting a special experiment.  Their mission, if they choose to accept it, will be to play with LEGOs in space.

Man, remember when you were little and being an astronaut seemed like the coolest job?  These guys get to go into space, and build stuff with LEGOs … in space!  I think I made the wrong career choice.

Yes, LEGO Education, together with NASA, has created the LEGOspace program, where astronauts on this Monday’s flight will be challenged to build LEGO models to see how they function in a microgravity environment.  This unique experiment isn’t just for the sake of scientific curiosity, but also for education.  The results of the astronauts’ playtime scientific studies will be available for teachers to use in the classroom.  Students will be able to replicate the astronauts’ work and compare how the contraptions function on Earth as compared to the microgravity environment in orbit.  Not only will this experiment shed light on the mechanics of microgravity, but it will also be a great opportunity for students to learn about space, engineering, and the scientific method, in a hands-on, and - let’s face it – flippin’ awesome classroom activity. 

Right on, LEGO.  Right on.

But mechanical troubles aren’t the only danger in space.  Dozens upon dozens of studies have been aimed at determining how space travel affects the human body.  The same microgravity environment that makes your LEGO Space Port act funky is sure to have some effects on the inner workings of your body.  But exactly what these effects are isn’t fully understood.  So, in the name of figuring it out, Jamie Foster of the University of Florida has teamed up with NASA and a group of students from Milton Academy in Massachusetts to create a project which I can’t help but call:

This shuttle mission gets better and better.

So the story goes like this: bacteria do weird things in space.  For example, a study back in 2009 showed that Salmonella, famous for food poisoning and typhoid fever, actually becomes three times more dangerous in space.  Now, Salmonella is typically picked up from rotten food or dirty environments, but the human body is loaded with thousands and thousands of other microbes, and many of them are good for us, helping out in our immune and digestive systems.  But we have no idea how these microbes react to microgravity; in space, do these helpful bacteria stop helping us, or worse, turn nasty?

Isn't he cute?
This is where the squids come in.  The Hawaiian Bobtail Squid (Euprymna scolopes) is well known for its symbiotic relationship with the glowing bacterium Vibrio fischeri.  Shortly after the squid is born, it gathers up these bacteria from the water and stores them in a special light organ.  There, the squid provides food for the bacteria, and the bacteria produce light so the squid can glow when it wants to.  Isn’t symbiosis incredible?

The first time a newborn squid is infected by these bacteria, some very important changes occur in the squid’s body to allow the bacteria to live there.  The purpose of the Squids in Space experiment is to determine how this process is altered in microgravity.  Baby squids will be launched into space on the Endeavor mission, infected for the first time with the bioluminescent bacteria, and studied when they get back home.  If it turns out that the squids’ bacteria are acting differently in space, it might be time to take a look at the bacteria in the human body, and figure out exactly what’s going on in an astronaut’s intestines.

The Endeavor mission launches Monday, and I'm pumped.  By September, students in their classrooms should be watching astronauts building LEGO models in space, and scientifically replicating their results.  And not long after that, I suspect, we'll hear the final report on how the baby squids fared on their voyage to the final frontier.  Both are sure to make headlines.  Keep your eyes open for them!

This is the best picture I could find of a Space Squid.  I'm sure there are others
If you know of a good one, let me see it!  Let's have some sci-fi fun!


  1. Testing the effects of bacteria within the human body in space sounds pretty important! Too bad the government doesn't want to go into space anymore. Maybe we'd be better served trying to figure out if bacteria behave differently in the human body when exposed for extended periods of time to the Middle East? OH NO HE DIDN'T!!

  2. Hi,

    I'm the 3D designer who made the 3D render of the robot squid.. Thank for compliment, you are right it's the best picture of a space quid you could find ;)

    Ps you could have a bigger one picture on DeviantArt ... Member 3DSUD

    1. Hello Anonymous!

      Thanks for the info! And thanks for creating the image in the first place. I could think of no other picture that would fit so well with the topic of this post. It's a great image!