Blobs in space

Fake muscles, the Blob, and a 3D printing project that aims to turn Moon dust into human habitats are about to head to the International Space Station (ISS). 

The uncrewed Cygnus spacecraft, carrying the latest series of space science experiments, is due to launch in a fortnight. 

On board is a slime mould, Physarum polycephalum – otherwise known as the Blob. United States biologists recently showed the brainless Blob could make long-range decisions. 

On the ISS, European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet will observe the Blob, which can “move, feed, organise itself and even transmit knowledge to other slime moulds”. He will observe how it explores its environment and its eating patterns in microgravity. School students will replicate the experiments on the ground and compare the results. 

The Blob is a single-cell creature, and scientists are unsure how it remembers things. One recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA found that when parts of the organism come into contact with a food source, it releases a substance that softens its internal tubes, effectively imprinting on itself where the food is. 

The ISS experiment will use Blob food (oats) to test what it can do. 

Travelling with the Blob is hardware to see if regolith – dust from the surface of the Moon, or Mars – can be used in the ISS’s 3D printer to make housing on demand. 

The Redwire Regolith Print (RRP) project will see if planned crewed missions in the future will be able to use that dust, instead of carrying habitat material. The printed samples will be taken back to Earth and compared with samples made here. A range of strength tests will demonstrate the technology’s capabilities. 

Redwire president Andrew Rush said it would show “a key manufacturing capability for building critical infrastructure on the Moon”. 

“Technology that enables us to use local, available resources to produce what we need off-Earth is critical for NASA’s Artemis missions and sustainable exploration of the Moon, Mars and beyond,” he said 

The RRP hardware and the Blob will be also be accompanied by engineered human muscle cells, which will be introduced onto a collagen scaffold on the ISS, and encouraged to grow. 

Scientists hope that studying the way the muscles waste will help both astronauts and the aging.

Human lose 30% of their muscle mass by the time they are 80, a process known as sarcopenia. Astronauts experience a similar loss in spaceflight.

The process is hard to study on Earth because it happens so slowly, but in the microgravity of the ISS the process will be sped up. The fake muscles will also be used to test potential therapeutic drugs to halt the loss. 

Other experiments headed into orbit include a CO2 scrubber, and a new heat transfer system that will more efficiently cool spacecraft. 

The Cygnus cargo ship delivering the scientific experiments will be the 16th launched by Northrop Grumman. Its predecessor, the 15th, has undocked from the ISS. The 15th took up its own array of scientific projects, and was filled with rubbish before being disconnected. Its final job will be to put five CubeSats into orbit before de-orbiting itself and burning up in Earth’s atmosphere. 

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