PharmaSat Nanosatellite
What’s smaller than a breadbox, weighs about 10 pounds and contains a micro-laboratory? NASA’s PharmaSat nanosatellite will use a controlled environment lab, equipped with sensors and optical systems, to detect changing characteristics of yeast cells. It will then send the data to scientists on Earth for analysis, enabling NASA to perform research in microgravity without using the International Space Station’s resources or space shuttle flights. This technology will cut costs and crew flight time.

The Small Spacecraft Division at NASA’s Ames Research Center led the development of this miniature triple-cube satellite (“cubesat”) spaceflight system. PharmaSat builds on the successful 2006 GeneSat-1 mission, which used innovative strategies to miniaturize hardware and integrate it to a self-powered, free-flying satellite. GeneSat-1 has the ability to provide life-support, which monitors and analyzes capabilities of E. coli in space. It continues to transmit a beacon to Earth today after years in orbit.

PharmaSat will utilize three main technology subsystems in its research:
  • A system of 48 small fluidics microwells to house four separate sample groups of yeast, along with a network of small tubes to feed simple sugars and an antifungal agent to the yeast samples
  • An optical sensor system to detect the health and size of the yeast in each microwell
  • A miniature environmental control and power control system
Using these technologies, PharmaSat will accomplish five scientific objectives:
  • Provide life support and environmental control for growth of the yeast strain in 48 microwells
  • Dose the growing yeast with an antifungal agent at various times
  • Track the population of the yeast before, during and after antifungal administration
  • Determine varied yeast viability at designated times
  • Transmit the resulting data to Earth without returning the specimens
NASA is very interested in the safety of its crew during missions and in long-term effects of human exposure to microgravity, especially effects on bone density, muscle atrophy and immunity. Because such medical knowledge is well understood at the molecular level on Earth, PharmaSat will provide the means to study biological changes in the space environment. This study will be beneficial in developing potential corrective measures to the harmful effects of long-term space travel on humans.
Rachel Prucey
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.