Frontiers for Young Minds

Frontiers for Young Minds
Core Concept Astronomy and Physics Collection Article Published: March 6, 2024

Meet BioSentinel: The First Biological Experiment In Deep Space


Recently, NASA launched a rocket called Artemis-I toward the Moon! The mission objective was to test the safety of the Space Launch System for future human travel into deep space. But vehicle safety is not the only concern for space travelers. Space radiation is an invisible danger to astronauts because it can damage the body’s cells and potentially lead to serious health problems. How do we study the effects of space radiation on cells? Meet BioSentinel! BioSentinel is a small satellite deployed from Artemis-I that carries yeast cells and a sensor to measure space radiation. The job of BioSentinel is to transmit data from the cells in deep space back to Earth. In this article, we will explore the BioSentinel mission, discuss how the data are obtained and transmitted, and give examples of how the data from BioSentinel will help scientists better understand the effects of space radiation on living things.

Did you know that scientists are sending living organisms into space, to study how space radiation affects life forms [1]? It is true! Recently, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) deployed a small satellite, called BioSentinel, from the Artemis-I rocket. BioSentinel carried yeast cells into space, to help scientists learn more about the effects of space radiation. This article will explore the BioSentinel mission and why it is important for space travel.

What is the BioSentinel Mission?

The Artemis-I rocket (Figure 1A) started its journey to the Moon on November 16, 2022. The aim of the mission was to test the safety of the Space Launch System for future human journeys into deep space. Vehicle safety, however, is not the only risk for space travelers. Astronauts are exposed to radiation while they are in space, which can lead to serious health effects. Therefore, alongside the primary launch objectives of Artemis-I, small satellites were also deployed to test other risks of space travel, with BioSentinel being one of them. The BioSentinel satellite consists of a shoe box-sized unit (Figures 1B, C) that holds yeast cells and the necessary electronics and solar panels to power the satellite in space.

Figure 1 - (A) The Artemis-I rocket was sent to space with the main mission of testing the safety of the Space Launch System.
  • Figure 1 - (A) The Artemis-I rocket was sent to space with the main mission of testing the safety of the Space Launch System.
  • (B) Artemis-I also deployed BioSentinel, a shoe box-sized satellite. (C) BioSentinel was loaded with yeast cells, to study the effects of space radiation on living things in deep space. BioSentinel also has solar panels for power and contains the electronics necessary to send information back to Earth (Image Credit: adapted from

Why Study Space Radiation?

Space radiation consists of solar particles originating from the Sun and galactic cosmic rays originating outside our solar system. (For more information on space radiation, see this Frontiers for Young Minds article.) Space radiation includes high-energy particles that travel through space at very high speeds and can pass through things like spacecrafts and the spacesuits of astronauts [2]. Space radiation can harm humans and other living things if they are exposed to it for too long, because it can damage DNA and other important cell parts. (To learn more about space flight health risks see this Frontiers for Young Minds article.) DNA damage can lead to serious health problems like cancer. Most of the time, cells fix damage correctly; but in some cases, damage is too complex for the cell to repair. In these cases, the cell might die or repair itself incorrectly, leading to mutations in its DNA. Cells with mutations can start multiplying uncontrollably, and that is how cancer forms over time. Many of the health problems caused by space radiation, like cancer, are delayed effects—so astronauts would not get sick until later in their lifetimes, after they have returned to Earth. By studying space radiation, scientists hope to learn more about how it affects living things and how to protect astronauts.

How Does BioSentinel Study Space Radiation?

BioSentinel uses yeast cells (Figure 2D) to study how living things respond to space radiation [3]. Yeast cells are single-celled organisms commonly used to help bread dough rise or in the fermentation process used to make beer. The type of yeast used in BioSentinel is frequently used in research in many types of labs around the world. It was the first organism to have its DNA fully sequenced, for example. Yeast cells are important in scientific experiments because they share many similarities with human cells, and therefore the results obtained from yeast cells can give us clues about human health. Yeast cells can withstand the rigors of space travel, especially since they can be dried out and only activated by liquid when they are needed. Yeast cells can also be modified to make them either more sensitive or more resistant to space radiation, to better understand how human cells might respond to space missions.

Figure 2 - (A) BioSentinel contains a radiation sensor, to measure space radiation, and microfluidic cards containing yeast cells, to monitor the effects of space radiation on living cells.
  • Figure 2 - (A) BioSentinel contains a radiation sensor, to measure space radiation, and microfluidic cards containing yeast cells, to monitor the effects of space radiation on living cells.
  • (B, C) The microfluidic system is made up of multiple smaller card units, and it can deliver nutrient-containing fluids to the yeast cells to help them survive. The microfluidic system also delivers the dye used for measuring DNA damage in response to space radiation. (D) Yeast cells (Image Credit: Adapted from

In BioSentinel, the yeast cells are placed in special containers called microfluidic cards, where the cells receive the nutrients needed to stay alive (Figures 2B, C). As discussed earlier, space radiation can damage DNA. Damage to yeast DNA can change their metabolic activity, meaning how they change nutrients into energy. A special dye is delivered to the microfluidic cards, which changes color based on the metabolic activity of the yeast cells [1, 3]. Monitoring the change in metabolic activity allows scientists to see how space radiation affects the yeast cells (Figure 3). Additionally, there is a radiation sensor inside BioSentinel that measures the space radiation (Figure 2A). Data from the microfluidic cards and the radiation sensor are sent back to Earth, where scientists can analyze those data to see how radiation causes DNA damage and how the yeast cells respond.

Figure 3 - (A) To monitor the response of yeast cells to radiation during the BioSentinel mission, a special blue dye is added to the microfluidic cards.
  • Figure 3 - (A) To monitor the response of yeast cells to radiation during the BioSentinel mission, a special blue dye is added to the microfluidic cards.
  • (B) When yeast cells are healthy and metabolically active (using nutrients to survive and grow), the dye changes from blue to pink. (B) However, if radiation damages yeast DNA, the rate of metabolic activity can change. The cells with damage remain blue longer, while the cells not affected by radiation turn pink faster.

What Happens After the BioSentinel Mission?

The Artemis-I spacecraft has safely returned to Earth, but BioSentinel will remain in space collecting data. The mission is set for 6 months, during which data from the radiation sensor and microfluidic cards are periodically transmitted to Earth. After the mission is complete, scientists will analyze all the data to learn more about how space radiation affects living things. Furthermore, the data will be compared to experiments on Earth and on the International Space Station, and also compared with computer simulations of the radiation-containing space environment. These data, together with information from other space studies, could be used to develop new ways to protect astronauts from radiation during long space missions—to the Moon, Mars, and beyond! Data could also have important implications for cancer research and other areas of human health related to space travel.


The BioSentinel mission is an exciting project that aims to study the effects of space radiation on living organisms. By sending yeast cells into deep space, scientists hope to learn more about how radiation affects cells and how to protect astronauts on long-duration space missions, as NASA prepares astronauts to return to the Moon and eventually travel to Mars and beyond. The results of the BioSentinel mission could have important implications for human health, and we cannot wait to see what scientists learn from this groundbreaking mission.


Radiation: Transmission of energy through waves or traveling fast particles.

Satellite: An object that goes around (orbits) a planet.

Solar Particles: Energetic particles released from the Sun into space.

Galactic Cosmic Rays: High energy particles of different types originating from outside of our solar system that travel through space at very fast speeds.

DNA: A molecule found in the nucleus of living organisms that contains genetic information (genes) telling living organisms how to look and function.

Mutation: Changes in the DNA of organisms that can make the cells function differently.

Microfluidic Card: Container in the BioSentinel that provides fluid and nutrients to keep the yeast cells alive.

Metabolic Activity: The chemical reactions in cells that help to convert nutrients into energy for survival.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.


This work was supported by the NASA Langley Research Center Cooperative Agreement 80LARC17C0004 and by the Human Research Program under the Space Operations Mission Directorate (SOMP) at NASA. The BioSentinel program at the NASA Ames Research Center (ARC) was supported in part by the NASA Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) Division/Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate (ESDMD). The authors would like to acknowledge Dr. Kathleen Miller for her help with creating the figures and general guidance.


[1] Ricco, A. J., Santa Maria, S. R., Hanel, R. P. and Bhattacharya, S. 2020. BioSentinel: a 6U Nanosatellite for Deep-Space Biological Science. IEEE Aerosp. Electron. Syst. Mag. 35:6–18. doi: 10.1109/MAES.2019.2953760

[2] Simonsen, L. C., Slaba, T. C., Guida P., Rusek A. 2020. NASA’s first ground-based Galactic Cosmic Ray Simulator: Enabling a new era in space radiobiology research. PLoS Biol. 18:e3000669. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3000669

[3] Santa Maria, S. R., Marina, D. B., Massaro Tieze, S., Liddell, L. C., Bhattacharya, S. 2020. BioSentinel: long-term saccharomyces cerevisiae preservation for a deep space biosensor mission. Astrobiology 20:1–14. doi: 10.1089/ast.2019.2073