Talking One-on-One with NASA

Dr. Antonio "Tony" Ricco, Chief Technologist at The NASA Ames Research Center, and Matthew Chin, NASA Flight Systems Engineer, sit down with the Controlled Fluidics team to discuss their BioSentinel project. To summarize, their BioSentinel project looks to discover potential life on Enceladus and Europa (the icy moons of Saturn and Jupiter, respectively) and elsewhere in our solar system. 

*Updated for clarity on November 14, 2023

Dr. Ricco and Mr. Chin join us at Controlled Fluidics to tell us more about the latest mission in which they use our manifolds: BioSentinel. We also discussed the use of our manifolds in instruments in development that will search for life in our solar system.

Q: What are your roles with The NASA Ames Research Center?

Chin: I’m a systems engineer. I’ve worked with Tony for about seven years and have been with NASA Ames for about ten years. My roles include systems engineer and technical lead on several projects building systems to search for indications of life. I deal mainly in small payloads (about the size of shoeboxes) that travel on satellites. I’ve used about a dozen machined plastic manifolds for these projects.

Antonio "Tony" Ricco: I’ve been with NASA for about 20 years, focusing on small satellites used for microbiology experiments, like BioSentinel, with science payloads the size of one or two 2-liter soda bottles. About 7 or 8 years ago, I also got involved with the development of new instruments to look for life in our solar system. This hasn’t been done much since the Viking missions in the mid-1970s. We’re building new tools and methods, including machined plastic manifolds.

Q: Would you mind telling us more about this mission you’re conducting?

Chin: BioSentinel will fly on a small satellite that will be carried as a secondary payload – a sort of spaceflight hitchhiker – on the rocket for the much larger mission called Artemis 1.

We started BioSentinel in 2013 and started working with you all at Controlled Fluidics to design machined plastic manifolds in 2014. BioSentinel will ride along with a dozen other small satellites, all of them Artemis 1 secondaries.

Dr. Ricco: Each one has its own separate objectives. One of the satellites will fly around our moon and check out some craters. Another will fly to rendezvous with an asteroid.

What BioSentinel will do is look for radiation damage in the DNA of yeast as it travels millions of miles into interplanetary space. The reason we’re doing this is that space radiation is different from that on Earth or in Earth’s orbit. There’s more of it, and it can do more damage to living organisms. We want to understand radiation’s impact on biology in preparation for future human missions to the moon and beyond.

Q: According to NASA, “In the BioSentinel payload that will fly on the Artemis 1 mission, dry yeast cells are stored in microfluidic cards.” Would you elaborate on how the microfluidic cards contain yeast and how important that is?

Dr. Ricco: The central bodies of the microfluidic cards containing the yeast are made of machined plastic. These have holes drilled through them, and on either side of those holes are various stacked layers of plastic.

Chin: And Controlled Fluidics produces the fluid-supply manifolds that attach to the cards. Their [manifolds'] function is to mount the microfluidic cards, to contain desiccant that helps the yeast stay dehydrated until it’s time to grow; to hold the valves that control fluid access to each of the cards; and eventually to channel liquid to hydrate the yeast when it’s time to grow, trapping bubbles that could interfere with the measurements or growth.

Q: Can you tell us more on why the team chose yeast for the BioSentinel project?

Dr. Ricco: Radiation is harmful to life forms, period. It damages cells and DNA by breaking it up, which can lead to conditions like cancer. We chose yeast because it is a eukaryotic cell like our own, with DNA repair mechanisms in common with humans and other eukaryotes.

In this experiment, the yeast functions like a canary in a coal mine, letting us track radiation damage even as it just starts to occur. The yeast cells will give us valuable insight into how DNA and nature’s own built-in DNA-repair systems respond when subjected to space radiation.

Q: Let's go further with that. How do the machined plastic manifolds need to function to serve this purpose?

Chin: Our purpose for using these components is to make sure that the cards containing the yeast and the supply manifolds remain stable when subjected to space radiation. This is why we use machined polycarbonate, which is robust and handles radiation well.

We don’t expect the radiation to damage the plastic, and it does not serve as a shield for the yeast. Rather, the radiation will pass through the plastic to act on the yeast cells. BioSentinel will be our first space mission to use these machined polycarbonate manifolds.

Q: What’s your vision for using microfluidics to reach your goals?

Dr. Ricco: In the future, we hope to participate in a mission to search for life or its signs far from Earth. The destinations for our search are two moons: Europa, of Jupiter, and Enceladus, of Saturn. We chose these because they have enormous salty oceans under thick crusts of ice.

We believe that these moons’ oceans are some of the best candidates for non-terrestrial life, existing or extinct, in our solar system. So we are developing technology that can fly to these icy moons, gather information, and send that information back without returning to earth. The fluidics for these experiments will be even more complicated and challenging than those of BioSentinel, involving exceedingly complex flow paths and tiny inner channel diameters. And, like BioSentinel, they will have to travel into deep space and survive the radiation there.

Chin: The craft is sent off, and years later, when the destination is reached, the science instruments are switched on and begin to look for indications of life. We don’t anticipate meeting any little green men [laughs], but we might find signs of simple life -- like microbes -- or indications that life is present, like pieces of cells, viruses, or biochemical markers indicating past or present life.

To learn more about the machined plastic components we make for aerospace projects, contact us on our website or call us at (603) 673-4323. And check out our other guest interviews!

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