Two people in space station (NASA via AP Images)
In this image, made from video provided by NASA, astronaut Kate Rubins, right, speaks during an interview aboard the International Space Station. (NASA via AP Images)

On Earth, American astronaut Kate Rubins researched deadly diseases like Ebola. Now, while orbiting the planet, she’ll help determine if humans can thrive in space… and maybe help them identify life on Mars.

Up until now, astronauts have had to freeze samples and transport them back to Earth for testing. That includes samples from their own bodies or things they might find on, say Mars. But aboard the International Space Station, Rubins will determine whether a new kind of DNA sequencing machine can analyze genetic material up in space.

If it does, future missions will benefit from better information about how space travel impacts astronauts’ health. U.S. space agency NASA says the device might potentially test materials retrieved from Mars for signs of DNA-based life.

DNA is short for deoxyribonucleic acid. It is made of chains of molecules that carry the instructions for the development and growth of living things. Genes are made of DNA.

Rubins is testing a MinION DNA sequencer. It’s small — about half the size of a smartphone — but able to sequence, or find the order of, the DNA molecules found in cells.

If astronauts can sequence DNA in space, scientists will be able to see what is happening to human beings and to cells in real time.

“Technology behaves differently up here,” Rubins said. “Fluids behave differently up here. Bubbles form in fluids. And so it’s going to be a really interesting piece of equipment just to check out and to understand.”

This article draws on a report from Voice of America.