The International Space Station is like no other place on Earth, and not just because it’s not actually on Earth at all. The orbiting laboratory is inhabited by crews of scientists that live there for months before being changed out for fresh faces, and this poses a huge challenge when it comes to cleanliness.
It’s not that astronauts are any messier than the rest of us, but they’re definitely still human, and being human means carrying a whole host of microorganisms with you on a daily basis. Recent research has revealed that the bacteria spread by humans to the ISS is actually mutating, posing a potential risk for future spacegoers, but researchers are now testing a new antimicrobial coating that could help clean things up a bit.
In a new paper published in Frontiers in Microbiology, researchers describe the testing of a new coating made of silver and ruthenium. Elements like silver have been shown to kill off microorganisms with great efficiency, and silver coils are used in a variety of applications, such as water cooling, to prevent the growth of bacteria.
The coating, which the researchers call AGXX, was tested on one of the more disgusting surfaces of the International Space Station: the bathroom door. Testing was then performed on the surfaces after the coating was applied for several months and the results seemed promising.
“After 6 months exposure on the ISS, no bacteria were recovered from AGXX-coated surfaces,” Professor Elisabeth Grohmann, senior author of the work, said in a statement.
Testing was performed once again between 12 and 19 months and while a few bacteria had managed to latch on during that extended period, there was still an overall reduction of 80% in terms of bacteria activity. The researchers attribute this to the build up of microscopic material on the surfaces that was preventing the bacteria from coming into direct contact with the surface.
“With prolonged exposure time a few bacteria escaped the antimicrobial action,” Grohmann says. “The antimicrobial test-materials are static surfaces, where dead cells, dust particles and cell debris can accumulate over time and interfere with the direct contact between the antimicrobial surface and the bacteria.”
This work is especially important because of the stress astronauts endure during their stay aboard the space station. Dramatic changes in daily life can reduce the effectiveness of human immune systems, and flying into space is one of the most stressful things a person can experience.