From Rheinbach into space: fascination and responsibility of spaceflight microbiology
Within the last 60 years, space technology has provided diverse tools and vehicles for transporting humans (and many other terrestrial forms life) beyond the protective shield of Earth to study their responses to space conditions. From a biological perspective, the two most influential physical modifications experienced onboard an orbiting space station or spacecraft are the (near) weightlessness and the increased radiation exposure.
Our neighbor planet Mars and Jupiter’s moon Europa are considered as the key targets for the search for life beyond Earth. The search for signatures of life forms on another planet or moon in our solar system is one of the most prominent goals of these enterprises. To prevent the undesirable introduction and possible proliferation of terrestrial microorganisms on the target body, the concept of specific measures, i.e., planetary protection requirement, have been introduced. Spacecraft, whether robotic orbiters, entry probes, or landers, can unintentionally introduce terrestrial microorganisms to the planet or moon of concern. This may destroy the opportunity to examine these bodies in their pristine condition. The development of novel guidelines for bioload measurements (microbial monitoring), sterilization procedures, and planetary protection control represent additional upcoming paramount tasks for microbiologists.
The presence of humans on the surface of the Moon or Mars will substantially increase the capabilities of space research and exploration; however, prior to any human exploratory mission, the critical microbial issues concerning human health and wellbeing need to be addressed. The closed cabin or habitat conditions also present added long-term challenges to their design with regard to crew health, due to the potential build-up of contaminants in the atmosphere and water systems and of biofilms on the surfaces of internal structures. With international plans being formulated for solar system exploration, either using robotic probes or with human crews, microbiologists are confronted with exciting new opportunities and challenging demands.
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