Zero Hour, Nine A.M.

It’s lonely out in space
On such a timeless flight

Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids
In fact it’s cold as hell
And there’s no one there to raise them if you did ~Rocket Man Elton John

We are apparently on a Mars kick this week, dear galleons. But I’m sure you don’t mind (and, if you do, you can always stop reading- choice, she is yours).

It’s every science fiction fan’s dream that some day the human race will colonize space. From many of the stories in Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man to the video game series Red Faction to one of the final Doctor Who episodes to feature the 10th Doctor, if you are any kind of nerd, you’ve probably encountered a story of what life on Mars will be like for humanity in the future. However, as we discussed a few days ago, travel to the red planet is still in that nebulous area called the future.

At least, it is for humans.

Yesterday, 10 of the toughest organisms on the planet were loaded into a container no bigger than a hockey puck, tucked into Russia’s Fobos-Grunt spacecraft, and blasted toward the Martian moon, Phobos. The Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE… get it?) is a project organized by the Planetary Society of Pasadena, California. The goal of the project is to study the effect of interstellar radiation and temperatures on living organisms without Earth’s protective magnetosphere, as well as test transpermia (the idea that organisms could be ejected off planets through impact, travel through space inside rocks, and be deposited on another world).

Which, if the organisms survive, would lend a small amount of credence to the theory that life on Earth could have started when a chunk of rock from another planet smashed into our planet’s surface.

Anyway, the 10 littlest astronauts have a three-year trip ahead of them. This is no mean feat, so we had to select just the right organisms for the job. Who was the most likely to survive? We needed the extremophiles, the badasses of the natural world. And we needed some variety- a few bacteria, some eukaryotes, some archaea.

Here are the 10 lucky organisms to make the cut:

  • Bacillus safensis [bacteria]– this little guy was actually found in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab’s Spacecraft Assembly Facility… so, there’s a chance he’s on Mars already *le gasp*
  • Bacillus subtilis [bacteria]– two strains of this guy are going up, one of which is already a seasoned space traveler, having been to the moon and had multiyear exposure in a low Earth orbit
  • Deinococcus radiodurans [bacteria]– this sucker can basically survive everything (cold, dehydration, vacuum, acid, radiation) and is the Guinness World Record holder for toughest bacterium
  • Haloarcula marismortui [archaea]– a halophile
  • Methanothermobacter wolfeii [archaea]– a methane producer
  • Pyrococcus furiosus [archaea]– because this puppy thrives at temperatures of 100°C, it can be used as a maximum temperature indicator
  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae [fungi]– a yeast, this guy is not only super useful (used for baking and brewing since ancient times), it’s also already proven its resiliency in space- it survived 553 days on an exterior panel of the ISS
  • Arabidopsis thaliana [plantae]– this little guy is better known as the mouse-ear cress, a small flowering plant that is frequently used to understand the molecular biology of plant traits (he’s already been to the moon as well)
  • Tardigrades [animalia]– known as water bears, these teensy microscopic guys look like a creepy cross between a pig and a caterpillar… they’ve also survived the vacuum and radiation of low Earth orbit

But all is not bright and shiny for LIFE. It’s faced some harsh criticism because many believe the project violates the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. The Outer Space Treaty, for those of you who don’t know, is SPACE LAW. No joke. It is the entire framework for international space laws. And in Article IX, it is expressly stated that, “States Parties to the Treaty shall pursue studies of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter and, where necessary, shall adopt appropriate measures for this purpose.”

If LIFE were to malfunction and crash on either Phobos or Mars itself, these extremophiles have the possibility of surviving. And if the microbes escape, then you have potentially ruined any chance of studying the origin of organic matter found on Phobos (or Mars, depending on where the hypothetical crash occurred).

“It would be difficult to convince anyone that detected organics were not released from the spacecraft,” said Catharine Conley, NASA’s planetary protection officer1.

Controversy or no, the project is on its way to Phobos now. In three years, we’ll discover just what (if anything) survived the journey.

Here’s looking at you, little astronauts. Godspeed.

1 The planetary protection officer position with NASA ensures that agency projects do not contaminate other solar system bodies with terrestrial life. It’s also probably the single most badass title in the world… I have found my new career goal.

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