Friday, April 06, 2007

Saving Tokyo From Space Fungi!!

Advances in technology just keep making things smaller and smaller, don't they? We've all witnessed the "Tinier Is Better" revolution that has been sweeping the globe for decades now. Computers that could perform such impressive feats as calculating Pi to the 50th decimal place, storing and spewing pertinent facts about the solar system, or listing all the American presidents in order of birth used to take up entire rooms. Now your laptop can practically run the world. Video cameras used to require weight lifters with big suitcases to carry them around, and scaffolding to support them when in use. Now Tinkerbell can fit one in her pocket. Cellphones? Not only have they shrunk dramatically in size, now they will do everything from snapping photographs, to holding your date book, to doing your taxes. (Okay, the taxes part is a stretch, but not by much.) The further technology advances, the less space it takes. It's simply the way things work. This applies to everything but TV screen size, SUVs and jumbo jets. For some reason these three items are the exception to the smallification rule. (That is, unless you count iPods with video functions, but why get bogged down in exceptions to the exceptions?)

This Lilliputian trend is quite beneficial, actually. I love being able to take my entire music collection on the hiking trail with me, and I could never have blogged all those Disney World photos that kept you so enthralled in January if it weren't so easy to bring along a digital camera and computer on vacation. Little stuff is just easier to haul around, and that's especially useful when space is extremely limited, like on long journeys in cramped spaces. Where else could the journey be so long, or the spaces so cramped as in a ship flying off to distant planets? Don't think other galaxies distant. Think the Moon or Mars distant. Those are plenty far away at our current level of technology. Maybe one day our advancing tech will "shrink" the distances of space, but for now the other planets right here at Sol central are still a loooong way off, and we'll have to pack loads of stuff into little spaceships, so little stuff is good.

Little still has to be functional, though. There's a lot of important science to be done in space. For example, it'll be important during those long flights to have compact ways to accurately monitor the too-tiny-to-see stuff that will inevitably be hitching rides on our space vehicles, like what kinds of microorganisms are growing--in the astronauts as well as the ships. We've all seen those sci fi movies where some miniscule piece of space dust gets sucked through the ventilation system and later grows into something that lands the ship and eats Tokyo. As NASA plans for future journeys to the Moon and Mars, it's important that they have things covered on the detecting microorganisms front. Okay, really it's more about making sure their spacecrafts' electronic components and structural elements don't get corroded by little growing things, and the astronauts stay healthy, but space bacteria eating Tokyo is a time-honored tradition that is worthy of at least a friendly nod from the Meow.

Detecting fungi and bacteria is, of course, something that can already be done, even in space. Taking cultures and growing them in petri dishes has served humanity well over the years, but the process requires both space and time. So, naturally, in this age of shrink-to-fit technology, NASA has come up with a better way to do it. Trudy Bell, at NASA's science website, writes that a miniature biological laboratory went up to the International Space Station last December aboard the space shuttle Discovery, and Astronaut Sunita "Suni" Williams took the mini lab for a test drive on April 1st. The lab is called LOCAD-PTS, short for Lab-On-a-Chip Application Development–Portable Test System, which makes the lab itself much smaller than its name. This thing is dinky, but as we have seen with the iPod, good things come in small packages. The standard methods of growing cultures can take days, but the mini-lab gives accurate microorganism-detection readings in a matter of minutes, and the whole lab fits into the palm of your hand!! Nifty, huh? NASA is developing all sorts of different "cartridges" for the hand-held lab, which will be made to detect specific kinds of potential hazards, and the readings will be compared to the tried and true method of grow-it-in-a-dish:

Over the next few months, LOCAD-PTS and standard culture methods will be used to investigate different parts of ISS. "A second-generation of LOCAD-PTS cartridges for the specific detection of fungi are scheduled to launch to ISS on Space Shuttle STS-123," says Anthony T. Lyons, LOCAD-PTS project manager at Marshall, the NASA center that has overseen the project since its inception and supervised getting the equipment spaceflight-ready. "With each generation of cartridges, we are getting more and more specific in what we detect. Our ultimate aim is to provide the crew with a selection of cartridges for the detection of a wide variety of target compounds, biological and chemical both inside and outside the spacecraft—something that would be especially important for long-duration missions to the Moon or to Mars."

My only question here is, if they have all these cartridges designed to check for specific things, how will they test for the things they don't know about, like (drawing on my vast knowledge gleaned from old Star Trek episodes) silicone-based lifeforms, or crystalline structures that will grow to eat Tokyo when brought back into our oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere? Or tribbles. Will they have a tribble-detection cartridge? Ahh, you're right. They won't need a tribble-detection cartridge, since the astronauts could actually see said tribbles eating their quadrotriticale. What NASA's worried about is fungi or chemicals that will eat their wires, or their astronauts. Sounds like they're on the right path with this little pocket-lab. I would still feel more comfortable, though, if I knew they had a plan for saving Tokyo, and I'd really like it if their Tokyo-saving device could fit easily into my purse. The small one.