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ASU astronomer on the challenges to be solved before humans live in deep space

July 28, 2017

As NASA takes steps toward moon-orbiting outpost, Jim Bell talks about how it's different from living on International Space Station

One of the billions of small steps man needs to take to reach Mars was taken last week.

Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin announced it is building a prototype of a robotic deep-space outpost for NASA.

The company is transforming a 15-year-old shuttle-era container used to haul cargo to the International Space Station into a prototype of a habitat where astronauts would live during long missions.

It’s a step toward what NASA calls the Deep Space Gateway, an outpost orbiting the moon. NASA wants to have it up and running by the mid-2020s. The goal is to provide a stepping-stone for a push into the solar system and, eventually, Mars.

The Deep Space Gateway will be uninhabited for months at a time, so it will have to have robotic capabilities to operate autonomously.

The interior of the massive aluminum cylinder will be turned into living quarters with work stations, exercise and storage spaces for food, water, and supplies — “all the things you need to live and be happy in space,” Lockheed Martin program manager Bill Pratt said in a press release.

“It is easy to take things for granted when you are living at home,” Pratt said. “Something as simple as calling your family is completely different when you are outside of low Earth orbit. While building this habitat, we have to operate in a different mind-set that’s more akin to long trips to Mars to ensure we keep them safe, healthy and productive.”

We talked to Jim Bell, an astronomer, planetary scientist, professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, and veteran of nine NASA missions, about some of the problems that have to be cracked before humans live in deep space.

Bell cautioned that the space agency is blue-skying the concept.

“It’s an idea being pitched by NASA,” Bell said. “We don’t know if it’s really going to happen or not.”

He pointed out it’s an extension of the space station.

“The space station is an outpost in low Earth orbit where we do some research,” Bell said. “The next step — an outpost at the moon — is not a crazy idea. It’s a stepping-stone. If the ultimate goal is to get to Mars, we have to learn how to work in deep space again. We haven’t done it in 40 years.”

Question: Artificial gravity is a problem that has to be cracked. What are some of the other obstacles in living in deep space?

Answer: “Radio waves travel at the speed of light. People on Mars are at least around four minutes away by the speed of light when Mars is closest to Earth, and as long as around 20 minutes when it’s farthest from Earth.”

Take a phone call, for example. You say “Hello,” then it takes twice that delay, anywhere from about eight to 40 minutes later to hear “Hello” back. That gap is called latency. Latency applies to voice calls, email, any kind of communication that travels at the speed of light.

“It’s because of this huge distance involved,” Bell said. “You can’t have real-time communications. There’s always that gap. At the moon, it’s around three seconds delay for round-trip communications. ... It’s impossible to have a real-time conversation like we’re having. Going to the moon will be practice in some way for that long latency gap.”

Q: What are other obstacles in living in deep space?

A: “Exposure to radiation is different at the moon than it is in low Earth orbit. You have to deal with that radiation, so shielding is needed.”

In low Earth orbit, where the International Space Station resides, it’s protected from the worst radiation by the Earth’s magnetic field. The station’s hull blocks most of the radiation impinging on it.

Obviously supplies will be an issue.

“Especially for long trips, how many supplies do you bring from Earth? How much do you need to live off the land? Do you get your water from ice on the moon?”

LunaH-Map, ASU’s first exclusive NASA deep-space mission, will investigate precisely that. When it launches in 2019, the tiny spacecraft will fly to the moon and hunt for ice. Bell is mission deputy principal investigator.

Bell pointed out that people have to reinvent how to go to deep space. It has been 40 years since the Apollo missions. If the Earth was a basketball and you laid a dime on top of it, that dime is as far into space as we go right now.

“Everything we’ve done in human space exploration since Apollo has been only at the distance of that dime,” Bell said. “People haven’t been beyond the dime since Apollo. Many of the people who knew how to do that are retired or gone. It has to be reinvented. NASA’s big new SLS rocket that LunaH-map is going to launch on in 2019 is part of that.”

Top image: Lockheed Martin artist rendering of the NextSTEP habitat docked with Orion in cislunar orbit as part of a concept for the Deep Space Gateway.

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


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Rapid test would help clinics detect Ebola early, prevent epidemics.
August 1, 2017

Tony Hu aims to make new test as simple and accessible as possible, using equipment already found in most hospitals and labs

To catch a serial killer, homicide detectives must quickly and accurately find clues. Trace evidence left at a crime scene may eventually reveal the killer’s presence and identity, but the detectives first have to know what to look for.

Like a criminal hiding in plain sight, contagious pathogens spread by capitalizing on the delay between initial infection and telltale symptoms in their hosts. That reality was painfully clear during the 2014 Ebola outbreak when clinics struggled to prevent transmission from patients to caregivers overwhelmed by the disease. The deadly virus traveled across continents before its symptoms were detected and the infected patients were quarantined.

The 2014 epidemic subsided, but recent cases in the Congo indicate the virus is still an active threat. In preparation for future outbreaks, researchers are racing to equip field clinicians with diagnostic tools that will detect virus-infected individuals early to prevent new epidemics.

One of those tools is a nanotechnology platform developed by Arizona State University engineer Tony Hu  that detects disease molecules in blood samples. In this assay, diluted patient blood samples are mixed with porous silicon nanodisks (pSiNDs). A machine called a mass spectrometer (MS) measures the mass of all the molecules bound by these pSiNDs. The method, known as pSiND-MS, is very sensitive and can identify specific amino acid sequences of peptides belonging to viruses like Ebola.

“Ebola is a disease, but it is also a family. For each strain, the treatment can be different. We want to develop a method that only uses one step, one method [to identify these strains],” said Hu (pictured above).

Hu, a researcher at the Virginia Piper Center for Personal Diagnostics at ASU’s Biodesign Institute and associate professor at the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, previously applied the pSiND-MS method to Tuberculosis testing and succeeded in reducing the diagnosis time from days to mere hours. He plans to apply a similar approach to Ebola by using the pSiND-MS method to improve detection of three telltale biomarkers in Ebola patient blood samples.

These three biomarkers are peptide sequences. The virus produces one of these peptides, Ebola antigen VP40, soon after infection. The other two peptides, Serum Amyloid A and alpha-1-antichymotrypsin, are produced by the patient’s immune system in response to the infection.

“Once you enrich the antigen directly from the blood, then we have some special way to digest this antigen and profile their fragment picture landscape on the mass spec,” Hu said.

All three peptides are detectable in blood samples even before viral particles themselves are detectable. They are a trio of clues that reveal in just two hours whether a person has contracted Ebola.

Thanks to a new grant from the National Institutes of Health, Hu’s lab will partner with the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) to improve and expand the rapid Ebola test even further. Hu’s lab is located at ASU’s Biodesign Institute, but USAMRIID’s Biosafety Level-4 facility in Fort Detrick, Maryland, will conduct all the Ebola experiments.

The two primary goals of partnering with USAMRIID are to refine the pSiND-MS method for detecting and counting the three Ebola biomarkers. The researchers also want to determine how different patterns of these biomarkers correlate with different strains of Ebola.

Hu aims to make the new test as simple and accessible as possible, which is why it relies on mass spectrometers commonly found in most hospitals and laboratories.

Sharing diagnostic data quickly between rural clinics, hospitals and laboratories significantly improves management of contagious epidemics. Equipping caregivers with simple, sensitive and rapid tools is a pivotal weapon in the struggle to detect and contain viral outbreaks before they claim more victims.


Top photo: ASU bioengineer Tony Hu discusses his partnership with the U.S. Army to develop faster diagnostic tests for Ebola. Photo by Jason Drees/Biodesign Institute

Grace Clark

Student Assistant Science Writer , Biodesign Institute