NASA is validating modern crew health technologies aboard the International Space Station before sending astronauts on a series of Artemis expeditions to orbit and land on the Moon, beginning in 2024. One of the most important conditions associated with crew health during spaceflight is air quality. Trace gas contaminants in the crew environment can have effects ranging from immediate discomfort to long-term health conditions.
Enter NASA’s Spacecraft Atmosphere Monitor (S.A.M.), which flew as payload aboard the SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft that launched on July 25 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Currently, atmosphere quality aboard the space station is assessed by periodic sampling and ground-based analysis using sophisticated instruments. Since samples cannot be returned to Earth during future exploration missions, a complement of smaller and more reliable instruments such as S.A.M. becomes essential to monitor the crew environment.
“Monitoring the spacecraft cabin atmosphere and maintaining safe air quality is important to protecting astronaut health,” said Jitendra Joshi, senior technical advisor at NASA Headquarters. “S.A.M has the ability to immediately detect trace contaminants that pose potential threats to crewmembers’ well-being, which is critical for future human spaceflight missions, especially missions to the Moon and Mars, when we won’t have the benefit of sending samples back to Earth.”
This type of analysis typically requires the use of a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer (GCMS) instrument which separates, identifies and quantifies complex mixtures of chemicals. S.A.M is one of the smallest autonomous GCMS instruments ever built. GCMS is considered the “gold standard” in substance identification because of its ability to detect and positively identify the presence of trace amounts of a particular substance and allows for a much finer degree of substance identification.
The current version of S.A.M. will continuously monitor the major components found in air — oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and methane, and humidity levels in real-time. The next version of S.A.M. is being developed to measure the full complement of atmospheric including trace gases.
S.A.M.’s compact design allows for it to perform instrument science operations inside the space station’s EXPRESS (EXpedite the PRocessing of Experiments to Space Stations) Racks. EXPRESS Racks are multipurpose payload rack systems that store and support research. S.A.M.’s size also allows it to be easily deployed throughout the various nodes of the space station to monitor different astronaut environments and activities, such as exercise and sleep.
While on station, information concerning S.A.M.’s technical performance as well as health and operational status, will constantly be routed through the Huntsville Operations Support Center (HOSC) at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. The HOSC will then route the data to the operation team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab’s (JPL) Earth Science Mission Operations Center.
While the S.A.M. is fully autonomous and does not require data processing for issuing reports concerning air quality elements, JPL scientists will have the ability to closely analyze the data for anomalies and other unexpected findings.
S.A.M. was developed by JPL with support from NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems (AES) division within the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate in Washington. S.A.M is a technology demonstration and is slated to begin work aboard the space station on July 30.
NASA’s human lunar exploration plans are based on a two-phase approach: the first is focused on speed – landing on the Moon within five years, while the second will establish a sustained human presence on and around the Moon by 2028. The agency will use what we learn on the Moon to prepare for the next giant leap – sending astronauts to Mars.