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Small Wonder
The atomic force microscope fits in the palm of a hand. As scientists' understanding of the universe rapidly grows, the tools of their trade are shrinking ever smaller. Take for example Florida Space Research Institute's powerful atomic force microscope located in the Space Life Sciences Lab at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Image to right: The atomic force microscope is so small that it fits into the palm of a hand. The compact microscope uses little electricity and can be easily connected to an external camera or laptop computer. Credit: NASA

Despite its modest size, the miniature microscope rivals the power of the largest electron microscopes. "An electron microscope weighs as much as an elephant and this one weighs only a pound -- and the resolution is just as good, if not better," exclaimed Dr. Shaohua Xu, a biochemical research scientist and chief operator of the microscope.

Electron and atomic force microscopes are incredibly strong and can see tiny objects such as atoms. Xu is using the Florida lab's microscope to investigate a significant medical condition that affects astronauts.

"One of our research projects is studying bone loss associated with space travel," said Xu.

Astronauts who spend weeks and months in the weightlessness of space often develop weakened bones. Xu is taking a close look at bone samples to figure out what causes chemicals like calcium carbonate to leach out of their bones and leave them brittle. The answer to this question also has implications on Earth as doctors try to combat severe -- and all too common -- bone disorders like osteoporosis.

Drs. Xu and Durrance look at images from the atomic force microscope. Xu's boss, astronaut Dr. Sam Durrance, believes a key to extended missions in space -- an important step in the nation's Vision for Space Exploration -- is understanding why bones deteriorate. "We're talking about long-term space exploration and in order to do that…you have to address bone loss," said Durrance.

Image to left: Drs. Xu and Durrance examine images produced by the atomic force microscope. The duo believe the device is a valuable tool for medical research and space exploration. Credit: NASA

Amazingly, this extraordinarily powerful microscope fits in the palm of Xu's hand. "You can put it in your pocket" quipped Xu. "It's so small that you could take it to the Moon or Mars."

That's exactly what Durrance is thinking.

"I'm excited about our new vision, which is to pursue human space exploration," said Durrance. "We're doing this to pursue profound questions about the origins of our Solar System; about whether life exists on other worlds; about whether we can live on other worlds."

Durrance thinks placing the atomic force microscope aboard the International Space Station or NASA's proposed Crew Exploration Vehicle presents a great opportunity to answer such enormous questions.

"One of the beauties of this is it's small, lightweight, and uses low power," offered Durrance. In the astronaut's eyes, the atomic force microscope could be standard equipment on the first manned spacecraft to touchdown on the red sands of Mars. There the microscope could be used to closely analyze samples of virtually anything that piques an astronaut's interests.

From the medical research of today to the historic space missions of tomorrow, NASA is harnessing the best technology to turn a bold vision into a thrilling reality. A prime case is the atomic force microscope: it's a pocket-sized tool with worlds of potential.

Charlie Plain
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center