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Space science gets microscopic

Phytoplankton are microscopic organisms that live in watery environments. When conditions are right, phytoplankton undergo explosive population growth, creating blooms visible from space. Such a bloom occurred in the North Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Newfoundland in early August 2010. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this natural-color image on August 9, 2010. The paisley pattern of peacock blue owes its color to phytoplankton.
Jeff Schmaltz/MODIS Land Rapid Response Team
/
NASA/GSFC
Phytoplankton are microscopic organisms that live in watery environments. When conditions are right, phytoplankton undergo explosive population growth, creating blooms visible from space. Such a bloom occurred in the North Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Newfoundland in early August 2010. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this natural-color image on August 9, 2010. The paisley pattern of peacock blue owes its color to phytoplankton.

Tiny creatures in our oceans are causing big problems

A new NASA mission launching from Kennedy Space Center will soon study some of Earth’s tiniest creatures from space.

At the base of the oceanic food chain are plankton, and plankton are crucial for marine life to survive and thrive. However, plankton can also be a danger to the environment and to humans.

Plankton cause toxic algae blooms that harm the water and the animals near it. And with more blooms appearing in the ocean, NASA built the PACE satellite to study these blooms, faster and more efficiently in space.

The satellite is launching this week from the Kennedy Space Center. NASA’s Andrew Sayer, a senior scientist on the PACE mission, said this technology will provide daily updates on damage that plankton cause.

“Right now, we've got a pretty good handle on how much plankton there is how much aerosol there is in the atmosphere, we don't have such a good handle on exactly what species of plankton, and exactly what types of aerosol. So, pace is going to give us this extra level of detail, this extra level of specificity, which will make all of our downstream applications and all of our understanding that much finer.”

Dangerous bacteria in space

Staph is a bacterium that can lead to a variety of infections in the human body, the most common staph infection is with the skin. Around 30% of people carry staph just in their noses.

Because the bacteria is so common and has the potential to be deadly if an infection moves deeper into the body, scientists are testing how the bacteria reacts in space to keep astronauts safe and to help fight infections here on Earth.

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket launching to the International Space Station with Kelly Rice's experiment on board.
Brandon Moser
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket launching to the International Space Station with Kelly Rice's experiment on board.

Kelly Rice, an associate professor at the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, sent her experiment to see what dangers might show up in staph in the space environment.

“Under certain conditions, if your immune system is out of whack, or if you experienced physical trauma; so, a cut on your skin, things like that, staph can go from being harmless to harmful if it gains access to your body in those ways,” Rice said. “That’s why during enclosed systems like the International Space Station because some of us are colonized with staph that can become predominant in those environments. And so, we're very interested in studying the potential for it to be dangerous in those environments.”

Brendan Byrne is WMFE's Assistant News Director, managing the day-to-day operations of the WMFE newsroom, editing daily news stories, and managing WMFE's internship program.<br/><br/>Byrne also hosts WMFE's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration.
Marian is a multimedia journalist at WMFE 90.7 working as a reporter and producer for the 'Are We There Yet?' space podcast.
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