BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) – University of Vermont researchers have been working with NASA to develop new technology that could help pave the way for future long-haul space flights and exploration. And this past week, they saw their hard-earned work blast off.
Last Thursday’s blast off of a Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center was a moment that University of Vermont genomics researcher Scott Tighe had been counting down to for years.
“After three years of working on this and thinking about it 24 hours a day, when you finally see that payload go up, the relief is unbelievable,” Tighe said. “It’s like, wow, it’s there. But more importantly, was when it docked, and it’s like okay, it made it there safely. And you feel like the project’s done, but it’s only just begun.”
That project is called µTitan, or micro-Titan, and Tighe says it could help pave the way for future space travel. “If we’re going to go to Mars, we’re going to have to analyze many things –human health, food, the microbiome of space capsules,” he said.
NASA realized that it needed a way for astronauts on the International Space Station — and beyond — to extract DNA — in an automated way. The UVM Larner College of Medicine genomics lab team worked with NASA to design a robot to do that. Magnets and hermetically-sealed cartridges make sure samples and astronauts don’t get contaminated. “The crew never gets exposed to any of the chemistry or the elements that are in it,” Tighe said. Out the other end comes DNA ready for sequencing. Right now, most samples are frozen and sent back to Earth for that. It can take weeks. The goal is to be able to do that efficiently in space in a matter of hours. “They can do their own science on the space station.”
UVM’s micro-Titan project on board the ISS.(WCAX)
It took 54 tries to get the cartridge design right. In part because micro-Titan had to hold up in zero gravity. “It’s easy to do DNA work when you have gravity,…