Wherever humans go, our microbes go too. Astronauts on board Mir experienced this first hand. Even thought the spaceship was cleaned as thoroughly as possible before launch, years of human habitation made it a breeding ground for molds and microbes. Over time, these wee beasties can build up, and cause a genuine health concern for spacefaring humans.
A recent article on NASA’s Science website traces the history of microscopic astronauts. In one encounter, visiting US astronauts on board Mir removed an instrument panel and discovered a grapefruit-sized ball of cloudy water, which had condensed from humidity. The water couldn’t escape, so it just built up over time. Samples brought back to Earth showed it contained several dozen species of bacteria and fungi.
On board Mir, organisms were found growing on rubber gaskets around windows, on spacesuit components, copper wire insulation. Pretty much everywhere. And the International Space Station has the problem too. Astronauts have discovered patches of mold growing on a panel where they hang their exercise clothes.
NASA is working on new tools that will help astronauts be able to detect different kinds of microbes and fungi, and then choose the right cleaning compound for the job.
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