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  • NASA Tests New Microscope for ISS
Mar 2011
CLEVELAND, March 29, 2011 — NASA recently began tests of a new multicapability microscope that is expected to help scientists study the effects of the space environment on physics and biology aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

The microscope is isolated from vibrations on the station, allowing it to obtain high-resolution images. It will allow real-time study of the effects of the space environment without the need to return samples to Earth. Any living specimens returned to Earth must endure the effects of re-entry through the atmosphere. The ability to use the Light Microscopy Module (LMM) on the station will enable scientists to study data unaffected by re-entry.

The LMM is a microscopic fluids research instrument featuring an imaging light microscope with laser diagnostics. It provides high-resolution color video microscopy as well as bright-field, dark-field, phase-contrast, differential-interference-contrast, fluorescence and confocal microscopy in a single configuration with dynamic and static light-scattering techniques to allow characterization of a very broad selection of fluids, colloids and two-phase media.

“We really need to maximize life science investigations conducted on the International Space Station,” said Jacob Cohen, principal investigator of the technology demonstration and a researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. “It’s really amazing to be able to remotely manage, optimize and troubleshoot experiments observed with a microscope in space without the need to return the samples back to Earth. This microscope is helping fulfill the vision of a true laboratory in space.”

Butterfly wing slide. (Image: NASA)

The biological samples for the LMM launched on space shuttle Discovery’s STS-133 mission on Feb. 24 include eight fixed slides containing yeast, bacteria, a leaf, a fly, a butterfly wing, tissue sections and blood; six containers of live C. elegans worms; a typed letter “r”; and a piece of fluorescent plastic. The wing is from a previous study, “Butterflies in Space,” involving students from around the country, and flown on STS-129 in 2009. Some of the worms are descendants of those that survived the space shuttle Columbia (STS-107) accident, and others were modified to fluoresce.

Scientists and engineers at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland modified the commercial microscope in the LMM with 23 micromotors and cameras to permit remote control operations, said Ron Sicker, the LMM project manager.

Cohen and Sicker expect the module to perform the same as a microscope on Earth. In the future, it could be used to assist in maintenance of station crew health, advance our knowledge of the effects of space on biology and contribute to the development of applications for space exploration and on Earth.

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dark-field microscopy
A technique whereby the sample is illuminated by a hollow cone of light larger than the acceptance angle of the objective, so that only scattered light is seen, revealing any irregularities of the surface.
fluorescence microscopy
Observation of samples using excitation produced fluorescence. A sample is placed within the excitation laser and the plane of observation is scanned. Emitted photons from the sample are filtered by a long pass dichroic optic and are detected and recorded for digital image reproduction. 
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