– Well before last year’s E. coli outbreak sickened hundreds and prompted
consumers to steer clear of spinach, NASA had made the decision to include a vial of the bacteria in a shoebox-sized satellite that lifted off from
Eastern Shore
Dec. 16.


But farmers and other residents in the area had no reason to fear the launch of GeneSat-1, even if the germ-laden nanosatellite happened to crash in their fields. John Hines, the GeneSat-1 project manager and deputy chief of
‘s Small Spacecraft Office in
Mountain View
, said the flying biology lab was carrying a benign strain of E. coli commonly studied by school children. Even if the Ames-built GeneSat-1 had been carrying a deadly strain, the quantity it was carrying – about a milliliter – would have been insufficient to pose an environmental hazard, he said.


Hines said NASA received a few concerned inquiries about the payload prior to launch, “but nothing significant.” Information about the payload published on the project’s Web site and included in the press packet, he said, seemed to inoculate an E. coli-wary public against an unwarranted outbreak of hysteria.


“The strain we use is a very benign strain. It doesn’t grow in humans,” Hines said. “In fact it’s been used by high school and elementary school teachers to teach basic biology.”


Hines said E. coli’s role as a “model organism” made it a good fit for GeneSat-1, a fully automated, miniaturized biology lab that provides life support, nutrient delivery and tiny sensors capable of detecting genetic changes that may occur in the space environment.


Another reason scientists are interested in studying E. coli in space is because it spends so much time there, stowed away in the guts of every space traveler.


“It is present in all of our stomachs. It helps to regulate our digestion and body metabolism,” Hines said. “If E. coli is happy, we are happy. One way to study how the space environment might affect humans is to study these organisms.”


GeneSat-1 consists of three tiny cubesats linked together into a single 10-kilogram spacecraft. It was launched as a secondary payload on the Orbital Sciences Corp. Minotaur rocket that carried the Pentagon’s TacSat-2 into orbit Dec. 16. The first 96 hours of its flight was devoted to observing the behavior of its biological specimen.


Hines said that with the biological part of the mission now complete, project officials will now turn their attention to evaluating the experimental spacecraft’s on-orbit performance for the next 60 to 90 days. After that, NASA plans to turn the satellite over to students at
Santa Clara
who have been involved with the project from the beginning.


The Genesat design is being reused on a new satellite
is working on called PharmSat, which it hopes to launch as soon as October either on a Space Exploration Technologies’ Falcon 1 or another Minotaur, Hines said.


NASA spent about $8 million on the three-year GeneSat project, but subsequent missions are expected to cost much less now that the satellite has been designed, built and flown. Hines said PharmSat, which will carry yeast spores, will cost $2 million and will be completed with about a year’s effort.