updated 12/6/2010 6:48:45 PM ET 2010-12-06T23:48:45

An experiment flying with a United Nations educational satellite is poised to break new ground in the final frontier: testing if human feces can be a fuel source in space.

The project, spearheaded by a group of Florida researchers, will focus on a bacteria, known as Shewanella, which can convert feces into hydrogen so it can be used in a fuel cell.

The first question is whether the microbes can survive the harsh environment of space.

"This is potentially something that could be used to take waste and generate electricity in some sort of deep space human mission," said Donald Platt, program director for space sciences at Florida Institute of Technology.

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The researchers plan to test the resiliency of Shewanella microbes, which will fly as one of two secondary experiments on the United Nations' UNESCOSat mission, scheduled for launch next year. The other secondary payload will test the space legs of another colony of microbes to see if they could have survived a migration between Earth and Mars -- or vice-versa.

Both experiments are contained in small, stand-alone satellites known as CubeSats, which weigh about two pounds and measure 4 inches on each side.

"It's always hard finding a launch for CubeSats," Platt told Discovery News. "We don't get many opportunities."

Russia proposed the United Nations' educational mission as a way to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the flight of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who on April 12, 1961, became the first human to fly in space. UNESCOSat is primarily a remote sensing camera that will be operated by students, particularly those from developing nations in Africa, small Caribbean Island states and other third-world countries.

"We want to go out to the rural places," said Laszlo Baksay, the U.S. project director for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which promotes science and technology in underdeveloped parts of the world.

Russia is providing the launcher and the UNESCOSat chassis. In addition to Florida Institute of Technology's CubeSats, Russia is expected to select one or more space science experiments to fly piggyback with the United Nations' satellite.

UNESCOSat is expected to remain in orbit for three to five years. The microbes aboard the CubeSats should have enough food to last a couple of weeks.

"If something is going to happen, it's going to happen pretty quickly," Platt said. "There are so many unique aspects of space ... we don't know if the microbes will be able to live and thrive. It's one thing to test it in the lab, but in space a lot of the biological systems change, either for better or for worse."

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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