Astronaut Gloves Tested for Biological Contamination
The LOCAD-PTS Reader, cartridge (below Reader) and swabbing unit (to the right). These three components are all that is required to collect a surface sample, dissolve and analyze it to obtain quantitative levels of endotoxin, glucan and lipoteichoic acid.
Credit: NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center

Astronauts recently had their gloves swabbed in an early effort to develop planetary protection measures that prevent humans from accidentally contaminating the moon or Mars on future missions.

The crew of space shuttle Discovery and the International Space Station used a new laboratory device to examine biological material on the gloves of astronauts servicing the space station. Such tests could help NASA understand and plan around how to prevent the spread of Earth life to other planets.

"This simple approach, designed to monitor the spread of biological material in space, takes very little crew time to perform and could prove to be a useful step in planning future human missions to the moon and Mars," said Jake Maule, a geophysicist with BAE Systems.

The space station's Lab-on-a-Chip Portable Test System, or LOCAD-PTS, can rapidly detect and identify a variety of biological materials relating to bacteria and fungi, and has been on the space station since March 2007.

A recent spacewalk on March 19 provided the opportunity for astronaut Sandy Magnus to swab the spacesuit gloves of STS-119 mission specialists Steve Swanson and Richard Arnold, both before they exited the space station airlock and after they returned.

The spacewalkers installed a solar array truss segment (S6), which had been sampled and analyzed with LOCAD-PTS prior to launch with Discovery on March 15. NASA clean room procedures ensured that most surfaces of the hardware remained clean, but the lab device did detect small levels of fungi — especially in the fabric gap spanners, or safety elements that connect handrails and allow astronauts to move safely around the outside of the space station as they work.

Dead or live bacteria or fungi that remained on the S6 segment would have likely ended up on the spacewalker gloves. An analysis by LOCARD-PTS will likely turn up results after the space shuttle undocks for the journey home.

"These guys were the first guys to put their hands on it since it?s been in space, so we were swabbing their gloves and so we?ll know what?s just out there in space versus when we go looking for life on other places," said Tony Antonelli, shuttle pilot for Discovery.

Any life that survives in space may also evolve in unexpected ways. Studies from two recent space shuttle missions showed that Salmonella bacteria, which cause food poisoning on Earth, became more virulent in the space station's microgravity environment. Tiny creatures called water bears have also demonstrated the ability to survive exposure in the harsh vacuum of space.

LOCAD-PTS should help develop procedures and tools to keep an eye on biological contaminants that might creep aboard expeditions to the moon or Mars, said Mike Effinger, a LOCAD project manager at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

"Because spaceflight currently is limited to low Earth orbit, requirements don't exist yet in regard to biological contamination of other planetary surfaces by human missions," Effinger said. "This study seeks to begin development of test procedures that can be further developed on the moon in preparation for the human exploration of Mars."