Columbia University: Columbia Undergrads Launch Microbes into Space

T-minus seven days and counting: In just under a week, Columbia Space Initiative (CSI) will board the International Space Station (ISS). Sort of.

A CSI team of 20 Columbia undergraduates will fly an experiment they designed on SpaceX’s resupply mission to the ISS. Lift off will take place before dawn on Dec. 21 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida and be livestreamed on its website.

Dubbed SPOCS, which stands for Student Payload Opportunity with Citizen Science, the experiment is led by Kalpana (Kal) Ganeshan ’22SEAS and Swati Ravi ’22CC, seniors studying operations research and astrophysics, respectively. CSI was invited to participate as part of a NASA competition honoring twenty years of the ISS. Five student teams, including Columbia’s, received funding to build experiments, fly it up to ISS, and share their project with local K-12 schools.

Each of the experiments will focus on bacteria resistance or sustainability research. The Columbia team is working with two of five NASA-designated “medically important microorganisms”: Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus, bugs commonly found together that are a common cause of chronic wound infections and that are themselves resistant to certain drugs. The team hopes to record how biofilm forms on the bacteria in a low gravity experiment. After thirty days in orbit, the bacteria will return to Columbia to have their DNA analyzed and see whether they respond to antibiotics and antibiotic testing.

ISS Liftoff: How Bacteria Impacts Space Travel

Currently, most ISS experiments require an astronaut’s time, which is a very limited resource. Our project is a great opportunity to explore autonomous experimentation.

The students hope that studying how different microorganisms interact in space and become antibiotic resistant will help improve antibiotic treatments for astronauts of NASA’s Artemis program, to land the first woman on the moon by 2024.

“We hope to contribute significantly to the impact of microgravity environments on bacterial genomes, given that there are fewer than five comparable pre-existing datasets for any and all bacteria,” said Theo Nelson ’24CC, a team member who serves as both outreach lead and protocol biologist. “We will be able to hypothesize the new rules of the road for these bacteria in space.”

Their payload operates and conducts the experiment autonomously. The experiment is able to run without human intervention via a microcontroller connected to custom printed circuit boards. “Currently, most ISS experiments require an astronaut’s time, which is a very limited resource,” says Ganeshan. “Our project is a great opportunity to explore autonomous experimentation.”

Another challenge involved designing a device to inject a preservative into petri dishes to protect samples from contamination. The team created a system optimized for low gravity while remaining fully sterile and sealed against any contamination, according to Alfonso Ussia ’22SEAS, who serves as the team’s mechanical co-lead.

“It’s been especially exciting to put our classroom skills to practice in a project that’s allowed us to work with NASA to answer pressing questions in space exploration that will help astronauts on future long-term spaceflight,” says Ravi.

The group is advised by Michael Massimino, a former NASA astronaut and current professor of practice in mechanical engineering, as well as Lars Dietrich, an associate professor of biological sciences. Founded in 2015, CSI is a student space technology and outreach club housed within Columbia Engineering’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. It serves as an umbrella organization for mission teams involved in everything from nanosatellite mechanical design to hosting space policy forums.

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