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A nose for ‘olfactory fingerprints’

Airbus Defence and Space’s e-nose on the ISS

Giving zero-gravity a sense of smell

An ‘electronic nose’ has been measuring the crew’s exposure to bacteria and fungi in the Russian segment of the International Space Station (ISS) since the beginning of this year. It is Airbus Defence and Space’s e-nose.

This scientific experiment has been evolving since 2009 and is being funded by the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) with Airbus Defence and Space as the prime contractor. The project was carried out in the Life Science department at Airbus Defence and Space in Friedrichshafen, Germany.

Staff at Airbus Defence and Space Friedrichshafen testing the electronic nose

Staff at Airbus Defence and Space Friedrichshafen testing the electronic nose

The e-nose is an electronic gas sensing system for direct detection of microbiological contamination from bacterial and fungal cultures using qualitative and quantitative methods. This is important work, 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 analytical instrument allows the cosmonauts to carry out measurements in every last nook and cranny of the ISS Service Module. A ‘target book’ is also being kept, comprising 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 car drivers. Biological cultures are expected to colonise these materials, and these colonies are measured by the cosmonauts aboard the ISS at two-monthly intervals. On completion of a measurement cycle lasting about five months, the target book is sent back to Earth, where the samples are evaluated by the Moscow-based Institute for Biological and Medical Problems (IBMP) in cooperation with Innovation Works (the AIRBUS Group’s research centre).

e-nose is an electronic gas sensing system for direct detection of microbiological contamination from bacterial and fungal cultures

The ‘target book’ is shown here in the foreground (left). It comprises 12 round panels, onto which the samples are applied. The photo on the right shows the whole piece of equipment

Measurement system

The measurement system is called an electronic nose because it records specific odour patterns using 10 different semiconductor sensors. The system makes use of the reducing or oxidising properties of the gas molecules (MVOCs: Microbial Volatile Organic Compounds) emitted by the biological cultures. These MVOCs are produced by the metabolisms of the biological cultures, and are species-specific. Since different MVOCs stimulate the sensor array differently, depending on intensity and the type of sensor, ‘olfactory fingerprints’ can be determined in a process known as odour training.

This experiment is sponsored by the German Aerospace Centre (DL) and is a joint project managed by Airbus Defence and Space as prime contractor.

Design and development was conducted by Airbus Defence and Space Friedrichshafen.

The technology is based on a commercial measuring instrument produced by AirSense, a company located in the north German city of Schwerin.

ISSScienceHuman spaceflight