It has been said that "life will always find a way," and a recent discovery by Russian space officials appears to confirm that life can certainly exist in the most hostile of environments.
Traces of plankton and other microorganisms have been found living happily aboard the International Space Station (ISS), not safely within its cosy interior but clinging to its exterior surfaces assaulted by freezing temperatures and cosmic radiation. It seems that the tiny organisms are even able to survive in an atmosphere without oxygen, previously thought to be one of the factors necessary to support any form of life.
The minute hitch-hikers were discovered quite by accident during a routine space walk by Russian cosmonauts Olek Artemyev and Alexander Skvortsov, who were launching nanosatellites into space.
They had used wipes to clean the surface of the illuminators on the Russian section of the ISS, and when these were later analyzed using high-precision equipment, the microscopic life forms were found.
It is not yet clear how the plankton became attached to the ISS, however the scientists are certain that the plankton were not attached to the station when it was launched as they are not indigenous to Baikonur in Kazakhstan where the Russian modules take off. It is thought that they are terrestrial in origin and were carried to the station by air currents from Earth.
‘Plankton in these stages of development could be found on the surface of the oceans,’ said the head of the Russian ISS orbital mission Vladimir Solovyev. ‘This is not typical for Baikonur. It means that there are some uplifting air currents which reach the station and settle on its surface.’
The Russians believe that the fiindings are very significant and may be the first of their kind.
‘The results of the experiment are absolutely unique,’ commented Solovyev, though NASA has yet to confirm if similar life-forms are present on the American segment of the ISS, or if any others have been found previously.
It is not the first time that such organisms have been found living in very unlikely and inhospitable conditions; here on Earth, scientists recently discovered a new species of buried in sediment under the Mediterranean seafloor in totally anoxic conditions. Some viruses, bacteria and the species of single-celled organisms known as Archaea are also known to exist without oxygen, but this was the first time that multicellular organisms, or metazoans, had been found to spend their entire lifecycle under permanently anoxic conditions.
Creatures that exist in very hostile conditions are known as "extremophiles," and the undisputed champions of extreme living are Tardigrades, also known as water bears, which are tiny, eight legged animals known to survive in extremes of heat and cold, low pressure and even high levels of radiation. They too have also survived exposure to space and being cooled to just over absolute zero, less than -270C.
It is the existence of creatures like these, and now the new space-hopping planktons, that have forced scientists to broaden their outlook when assessing the potential of life-harboring environments on other planets in the search for extra-terrestrial life. These organisms prove that alien creatures may be able to exist without any of the conditions – such as water, oxygen and a temperate climate – that had previously been thought vital to support all life.
Astroecologist, Dr Michael Mautner, thinks that the cultivation of plants on planets with extreme environments, such as Mars, could be possible in the future, and may be vital if prospective off-earth civilisations on Mars are to flourish.
Dr Mautner, who is from Virginia Commonwealth University, is conducting experiements that involve growing plants in soil comprised of ground up meteorites.
‘A variety of soil bacteria, algae, and asparagus and potato tissue cultures grew well in these asteroid/meteorite soils and also in Martian meteorite soils,’ he said.
He believes that this is the first step to providing the tools needed for humans to better explore the solar system and beyond.
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