NASA is turning the attention of astronauts on the International Space Station inward - towards the interior walls and the microbes growing on the walls.
Microbial Tracking-1 (MT-1) is a three-part flight investigation that monitors the types of microbes present on the surfaces and in the air of the space station over a one-year period. Sampling microbes multiple times enables scientists to understand the diversity of microbes on the station and how the microbial population varies over time. After astronauts collect microbes, they send samples back to Earth for further study. The first two sets of samples have been returned to Earth and analyzed. The third flight launched on the eighth cargo resupply mission of a SpaceX Dragon capsule to the space station April 8, and will complete the series. The final samples are planned to return on Dragon as soon as May 11.
Findings from the MT-1 study will provide information to evaluate potential risks to astronaut health stemming from microbes on board. NASA is also interested in developing ways to minimize hazards from microbes during long-duration crewed missions, including on the journey to Mars. Genetic information collected from the MT-1 series will be made available to the scientific community and the public via an open-access, collaborative platform developed by NASA called GeneLab.
Fans of Michael Crichton may recall his wonderful 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain, which I enjoyed as a teenager. In the story, a special satellite is designed to go and catch microbes from just outside the atmosphere:
In theory, JPL was designing a satellite to enter the fringes of space and collect organisms and dust for study. This was considered a project of pure science...