An ‘electronic nose’ on the hunt for bacteria and fungi

14 December 2012

  • Astrium instrument to ‘sniff out’ dangers to health of ISS crew
  • E-Nose will be launched to the International Space Station on 19 December

When the next crew of the International Space Station (ISS) set off into space aboard a Soyuz spacecraft on 19 December, their luggage will contain an electronic nose developed by Astrium, Europe’s leading space technology company. This ‘E-Nose’, as it is called, will measure the crew’s exposure to bacteria and fungi in the Russian segment of the space station from 2013. E-Nose is a German Aerospace Center (DLR) project, with Astrium as prime contractor.

E-Nose will detect microbiological hazards from bacterial and fungal cultures using qualitative and quantitative methods. Monitoring is essential as excessive exposure to fungi and bacteria poses a not inconsiderable risk to both the on-board technology and the health of the crew. This specially developed analytical instrument allows cosmonauts to carry out measurements in every location of the ISS Service Module. Also in the luggage will be a ‘target book’ containing various material samples (aluminium, PCB material, cable marking material, and Nomex, a special flame-resistant clothing material which is used to make the suits worn by fire fighters and racing drivers). Biological cultures can colonize these materials. Their presence will be measured by the cosmonauts at two-month intervals. On completion of a measurement cycle lasting about six months, the target book will be sent back to Earth, where the samples will be evaluated by the Moscow-based Institute for Biological and Medical Problems (IBMP) in cooperation with EADS Innovation Works, the corporate research organization of EADS.

The measurement system built by Astrium is called an electronic nose because it records specific odour patterns using ten different semiconductor sensors. The system takes advantage of the distinctive properties of the gas molecules emitted by the biological cultures. These molecules are produced by the metabolisms of the biological cultures, and are species-specific. Scientists in the laboratory down on Earth can create specific odour patterns based on the different ways in which individual sensors are stimulated. The data measured on the space station will then be compared against the data from the cultures ‘trained’ on Earth in order to find correlations.

The conventional sampling method (swipe sample) with subsequent ‘processing’ in an incubator would require expert knowledge and be very time-consuming in the ISS, whereas the new E-Nose enables a prompt analysis of the situation thanks to its data connection to the ground station.

“In the long run, the E-Nose will make an important contribution to ensuring the safety of the crew on board the ISS. This applies both to the entire space station and also to possible long-term missions (e.g. to Mars),” says Astrium project manager Thomas Hummel. There are also potential applications for the E-Nose down on Earth, e.g. on commercial passenger aircraft or submarines.

About Astrium

Astrium is the number one company in Europe for space technologies and the third in the world. In 2011, Astrium had a turnover close to €5 billion and 18,000 employees worldwide, mainly in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain and the Netherlands.

Astrium is the sole European company that covers the whole range of civil and defence space systems and services.

Its three business units are: Astrium Space Transportation for launchers and orbital infrastructure; Astrium Satellites for spacecraft and ground segment; Astrium Services for comprehensive fixed and mobile end-to-end solutions covering secure and commercial satcoms and networks, high security and broadcast satellite communications equipment and systems, and bespoke geo-information services, worldwide.

Astrium is a wholly owned subsidiary of EADS, a global leader in aerospace, defence and related services. In 2011, the Group – comprising Airbus, Astrium, Cassidian and Eurocopter – generated revenues of € 49.1 billion and employed a workforce of over 133,000.

Note to Editors

This undertaking is sponsored by the German Aerospace Centre (DLR). It is a joint project, managed by Astrium (Friedrichshafen) as the prime contractor. The scientific partner for the project is the Moscow-based IBMP (Institute for Biological and Medical Problems), whose responsibilities include looking after the health of the crew on the ISS. The biological research topics are handled by EADS Innovation Works (the corporate research organisation of EADS) and the Centre for Environmental Research and Sustainable Technology (UFT) in Bremen. The technology is based on a commercial measuring instrument from AirSense, a company located in the north German city of Schwerin.

Press contacts:

Jeremy Close
Media Relations UK
Astrium United Kingdom
Tel.: +44 1 438 77 3872
Gregory Gavroy
Astrium France
Media Relations France
Tel.: +33 (0) 1 77 75 80 32
Ralph Heinrich
Media Relations Germany
Airbus Defence and Space Germany
Tel.: +49 89 60 73 39 71
Fax: +49 89 60 78 53 39
Francisco Lechon
Media Relations Spain
Airbus Defence and Space Spain
Tel.: +34 91 5 86 37 41
Fax: +34 91 5 86 37 82


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