NASA plans to use satellites and edge computing capabilities to implement live DNA sequencing and data analysis directly on the International Space Station (ISS).
Doing so would cut the time it takes to process data by weeks as it would no longer have to be sent back and forth to Earth.
Sarah Wallace, microbiologist at the Johnson Space Centre, described this development as “a huge paradigm shift that’s absolutely critical for us to be able to expand our exploration” to the moon and Mars at IBM’s recent Think Gov 2021 event.
NASA scientists sequence DNA from microbes in space mainly to keep astronauts onboard the ISS safe, but it is also important to research any new or unidentified fungi or bacteria they find.
However, it typically takes weeks to analyse the masses of data involved, which is why Wallace and her team believed having a DNA sequencer on the space station, for real-time analysis, would be beneficial.
This became a reality in 2016, and the following year it was used for the first time to identify unknown microbes collected from space. By 2018 the need to first grow the organisms was also removed, being replaced by easy-to-use swabs.
Despite these developments, the amount of data generated by the DNA sequencer still had to be sent back to NASA facilities on Earth to be properly studied.
Now, using satellites and edge capabilities from IBM, the space agency is on track to implement live DNA sequencing and data analysis directly from the space station.
“By having that infrastructure with the edge computing onboard the station, we can do our DNA sequencing, and then have that data be analysed in almost near real-time, so the crew members will know right away what was in the water they just drank or on the surfaces that they were just exposed to,” Wallace explained at the event.
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