Going where no tardigrade has been before

Russia Will Send Life to Phobos

Article Updated: 26 Apr , 2016

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How ironic. Not content with searching for life on Mars, the Russian space agency and the US-based Planetary Society will soon be sending terrestrial life to the Martian moon Phobos. The mini-interplanetary travellers will consist of bacteria, spores, seeds, crustaceans, insects and fungi. Why? To see how biological life, in various forms, deals with space travel spanning three years.

So if you thought that a human (or monkey) would be the first of Earth’s ambassadors to land on Mars or one of its moons, you’d be very mistaken

The Phobos-Grunt mission profile

The Phobos-Grunt mission profile

Russia has been carrying out a variety of biological space tests to see how life deals with the hazards of spaceflight recently. In one experiment carried out in collaboration with Japanese scientists, a mosquito was attached to the hull of the International Space Station (ISS) to see… what would happen.

The mosquito was a part of the Biorisk project, and the scientists knew the insect had the ability to drop into a “suspended animation” during times of draught in Africa. The African mosquito can turn its bodily water into tricallosa sugar, slowing its functions nearly to a stop. When the rain returns, the crystallised creature is rehydrated and it can carry on its lifecycle. The Biorisk mosquito however survived 18 months with no sustenance, exposed to temperatures ranging from -150°C to +60°C. When returned to Earth, Russian scientists gave the hardy mozzie a health check, declaring:

We brought him back to Earth. He is alive, and his feet are moving.” — Anatoly Grigoryev, Vice President of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

©Gerald Yuvallos/Flickr

Quite happy with living in space, the mosquito ©Gerald Yuvallos/Flickr

Was this insect cruelty of the most extreme kind, or did it serve a purpose? Actually, the mosquito experiment provided an insight to a biological specimen after being exposed to cosmic rays for long periods, and it also showed us that the African mosquito’s natural ability to slip into a defensive coma, only to be revived and appear to be healthy (that is, if it was more than just its feet moving – there was no indication as to whether the little guy was successfully re-integrated into mosquito society). Perhaps the lessons learned from this small test may go to some way of helping us realise the potential for putting future interplanetary astronauts into some kind of biological stasis.

So that’s the idea behind sending creatures into space: we need to understand how animals and plants deal with space travel. This will aid the understanding of how humans will cope in space for long periods, plus we need to understand if there are any harmful effects from growing foodstuffs away from our planet. This is why the Russian space agency wants to go one step further when it launches its Phobos-Grunt mission next year, to send biological specimens on a voyage of a lifetime. A return trip to the Martian moon Phobos.

Say hello to our interplanetary ambassador, the tardigrade (FUNCRYPTA)

Say hello to our interplanetary ambassador, the tardigrade (FUNCRYPTA)

On board, it is hoped the US-based Planetary Society will be able to send a small package filled with 10 different species including tardigrades (“water bears”), seeds and bacteria. The main purpose of this experiment will be to test the panspermia hypothesis, where it is thought that life may travel from planet to planet, hitching a ride on fragments of planetary material. Most of the biological samples will be in a dormant state (i.e. the plant spores), and tests will be carried out when Phobos-Grunt returns to Earth to see if the bacteria survived, seeds germinate and spores… do what ever spores do.

Russia on the other hand has far loftier goals; the space agency will attach a small petting zoo. Inside the Russian experiment will include crustaceans, mosquito larvae (already proven to be enthusiastic space travellers), bacteria and fungi. The Russian experiment will specifically look at how cosmic radiation can effect these different types of life during an interplanetary trip (essential ahead of any manned attempt to the Red Planet).

Naturally, there are some concerns about contamination to the moon (if Phobos-Grunt doesn’t do the “return” part of the mission), but the chances of any extraterrestrial life being harboured on this tiny piece of airless rock are low. Having said that, we just don’t know, so the mission scientists will have to be very careful to ensure containment. Besides, there’s something unsettling about infecting an alien world with our bacteria before we’ve even had the chance to get there ourselves…

Source: Discovery


50 Responses

  1. Salacious B. Crumb says:

    Oh boy, this is akin to interplanetary biological terrorism.
    My only concern have we taken sufficient measures that do not risk exterminating any (highly unlikely) life-forms on Phobos. The problem is not technical it is ethical issue.
    We could probably say the same for the moon landing in 1969, but no one deliberately introduced a possible deliberate contagion.
    It reminds me of the discovery of Australia and the South Pacific Islands. When the population was exposed to smallpox, it decimated the local population which had no resistance. (I still recall the written story of Captain Arthur Phillip arrival in Sydney, with the spread of smallpox, and the dead bodies of the Aboriginal population scattered along the beaches.)
    Have we not learnt anything?
    Also could we also do the same in Earth orbit? We have released satellites from space and recovered them before, Could we not do this now?
    For once I would support any methods the U.S. adopts to change this Russian proposal for alternative proposal.

    Thanks Ian for bring this crazy proposal to our immediate attention.

  2. Tyler Durden says:

    Who cares if they contaminate Phobos?

    At * most * there are some microbes or bacteria there… and if there is, I don’t care.

    Our microbes and bacteria can go to war with theirs and wipe them out for all I care.

    It’s not like they are going to have enough time to evolve into sentient beings. Phobos will crash into the Martian surface in 11 million years anyway.

    And long before that, with any luck, we’ll have claimed Mars and it’s moons ourselves and the only life there will be the kind we brought ourselves.

  3. TD says:

    This is a huge mistake – it risks contaminating both Phobos and Mars, and the science appears lacking. If the creatures are put into a container, what will it prove about panspermia? We’ve already sent creatures to the moon and they survived – they were called “humans”. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a big proponent of the various panspermia theories (see link)

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn9601-electromagnetic-space-travel-for-bugs.html

    But scooping up regolith from Phobos will be a big deal. If there are any spores or virus samples there, that will really prove panspermia….but bringing life in containers? The only thing that this will accomplish is to potentially contaminate Mars and Phobos, or, if microbes are found in the regolith of phobos on the sample return, create a nightmare of claims of cross-contamination by this other “science” project. If you want to launch life to prove panspermia, just launch it in a slow orbit around the sun, out to the distance of Mars….but not to Mars. This really should be stopped – what are the Planetary Protection folks doing? We need an “Imminent Discovery” of life on Mars before we should allow things like this.

  4. Dominion says:

    exposing mosquitoes to large amounts of cosmic rays just doesn’t sound like a good idea to me. Maybe I’ve watched too much sci-fi. Didn’t Mothra almost beat Godzilla? What about an angry, space-faring, giant Mosquito-ra?!?

  5. Salacious B. Crumb says:

    Tyler Durden said;
    “Who cares if they contaminate Phobos?”
    What would you say if someone dropped some biological weapon on your hometown?
    So please explain.
    Ethically, what is the difference?

  6. Jorge says:

    I don’t think there’s any risk of contaminating anything, apart from catastrophic mission failure (in which case, they’d probably be blown to pieces). These fellas will be closed inside their cozy containers, like our friend the mosquito was, so, unless the container breaches, they’ll have no direct contact with the circum-phobosian (is this a word I just made up?) quasi-vacuum. The test is just to assess the effects of hard interplanetary radiation and exposure to temperature changes and lack of a breathable atmosphere, apparently.

  7. Max says:

    I don’t like this.
    There doesn’t seem to be much scientific gain from this experiment and the prospect of accidentally wiping out martian life is unthinkable.

    I’m not one of those that believes we should keep mars off limits to exploration… but if somethings growing there, we should at least make an attempt to document and preserve some of it for future study.

  8. Salacious B. Crumb says:

    Of course, the other issue is that if any life does exist on Mars (or Phobos), then future study might be contaminated with Earth-based organisms. Would it not be a pity for some brave US astronaut landing on Mars, finding evidence of life, then to suffer a soul-destroying realisation that it had its origin from our good ol’ Earth.
    ( it would certainly cheese off those who think life originated on Mars and then spread to Earth on some meteorite inter-planetary mission?)
    What protections are there if he Russian mission goes awry and crashes into the Martian soil.

    Note: Although there was a children’s show when I was a kid, named the “Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons”? revambed only a few years ago. Here the original mission landed on Mars and confronted an advanced culture. The humans inadvertently attacked what they didn’t understand, and as a consequence the Martian ‘Mysterions avenged the aggression through unrelenting fear and terror on the Earth’s inhabitance. It had a very powerful effect on me as a young kid, because it made me quickly realise that their we serious consequences in contaminating what is pristine and unexplored environment. Must we do the same as we have already done to some of the Earth’s own habitats. Surely Mankind has grown slightly more wiser?
    [Sorry. Just a probably irrelevant thought!]

  9. Matthias says:

    Woohoo, lo and behold the first act of human (or rather earthly) space colonization! Life put on hold on Phobos, Phobos dropping onto Mars, and if whe are not their by then ourselves (which would probably mean we didn’t make it), at least something will survive…

  10. Sci-Fi Si says:

    But maybe the bugs could start to adapt to their environment…. and one day Man returns…. Only to have his brains sucked out by a giant monster skill crushing mutant slime bug!

    The giant monster desperately seeking revenge for being abandoned for thousands of years on a rock in space…

    Eeek!

  11. Sci-Fi Si says:

    Here’s another good idea, why don’t we just seed the reat of the galaxy with all the hardy bacteria, diseases and deadly germs that are not only hardy enough to survive constant attacks from man, but could possibly survive in space.

    We could spread disease throught the Universe – What a sensible idea that is – NOT!

  12. Salacious B. Crumb says:

    Sci-fi said
    “The giant monster desperately seeking revenge for being abandoned for thousands of years on a rock in space.”

    Better still. how about the giant monster beat us all at some kind of sport, chess or ping-pong.
    We might hate those bug-eyed monsters, but as humans, one thing we all do share. We all really hate losing!
    Good point!!

  13. Feenixx says:

    Tyler Durden says:
    “Who cares if they contaminate Phobos?”

    people who become a little disturbed by statements like the one Tyler Durden makes a couple of lines later DO care:
    “Our microbes and bacteria can go to war with theirs and wipe them out for all I care.”

    Some stories on UT (and I didn’t expect this to be one of them) seem to prompt what I perceive as warmongering jingo statements. Thanks be to Goodness, such statements remain a minority…

    I DO care, and I if such an experiment helps, then I’d prefer a container floating somewhere out there in a zone with similar “space weather”, carrying the plants and creatures for the experiment.

  14. John M. says:

    Doesn’t this like violate the Prime Directive or something?

  15. Feenixx says:

    Sci-Fi Si says:
    “Here’s another good idea, why don’t we just seed the reat of the galaxy with all the hardy bacteria, diseases and deadly germs that are not only hardy enough to survive constant attacks from man, but could possibly survive in space”

    I LOVE the idea… and also, send some humans along for the bugs to feed on during the long journey – preferably politicians and economists…..
    😉

  16. Salacious B. Crumb says:

    John M. said:
    “Doesn’t this like violate the Prime Directive or something?”
    Yeah. Damn right! Where’s that Jean-Luc Picard or Jonathan Archer when you need them! Both would send those little Ruskees back to where they belong – and certainly well away from the Federation of Planets..

    Also you could send them Japanese with ’em, who are taking those whales for “scientific research” in the southern ocean, the selling them as food for the folks back home!

  17. Dr. Contaminator says:

    Why do we still have to deal with these selfish geocentric ideas? Why do we think “oooohh let’s be careful when going to Mars/other because if they have life it MUST be reaaaaalllly fragile and our totally powerful Earth organisms are probably gonna wipe them out”? If there is life on Phobos, you can be damn sure that’s it’s gonna be pretty well adapted to life on Phobos, compared to Earth dustmites.

    We should be biobombing the crap out of the entire solar system. For once that we finally have an organism capable of causing panspermia (humans), why the heck are we apprehensive about it? I know why: because we’re thinking of ourselves, our species, our future – but really, we all know that our species has basically no chance to survive another couple million years lolz.. Please people, while we can, We should pansperm the universe. If there is anything that I believe in, it’s spreading life. ANY life. We don’t need to be careful here, life is an absolutely amazing chemical phenomenom that can adapt. If our organisms are totally crappy at living on Mars, they die. If they are good enough, they survive if there is no other life already present. What are the chances that they are somehow mega-adapted from the instant they land? The geocentrism has to stop. We are here to spread life – that’s the ultimate goal of EVERYTHING!!!
    But no, instead we’re “hmmmmm I woooonder if we were panspermmmmed?”
    If we contaminate the solar system and beyond, future/far away sensient beings will be appreciative of our work. If we sit here and study the crap out of life on earth but make sure the rest of the solar system is sterile, we are being irresponsible. We ARE life. We are obligated to spread it. How sad would it be if we had had the ability to spread life but instead decided not to? I’ll be really surprised if humanity still has the ability to travel interplanetarily in another 1500 years. Our window of action is TINY. Act now!

  18. Kevin F. says:

    If a human crashes the first lander on Mars and dies, the same thing will happen. I don’t see the fuss.

  19. HeadAroundU says:

    Lol, you gotta love Russians.

    I’m totally with Durden. Who cares? We kill many things on our own planet, sharks or cows, anything. Oops, I just stamped on an ant.

    It’s just one moon. We can sacrifice it.

  20. Salacious B. Crumb says:

    @ Dr Contaminator and Kevin F
    Population dead world is al well and good, and populating it with Earth-based lifeforms might be a great idea.
    What we have to do is determine what the environment we visit is like and does life already exist there.
    The biggest question is are we alone in Universe. Do you really we won’t to blow our opportunity even before we known if it is true or not?
    You ways honestly sound more like biological terrorism, invasion, genocide reckless.
    We have stuffed our own world, why inflict it one others?
    Anyway the question remains. Is it really ethical?

    Note; How about sending spider, because David Bowie would become a prophet, and we really would have “Spiders from Mars”!

  21. The idea of sending a separate mission with some bugs out to the orbit of Mars is good, but who’s going to pay for it? Also, while there were bacteria that hitchhiked to the moon inside some of the unmanned landers that survived long enough for astronauts to bring back, they weren’t exactly flourishing. If this mission crashed into Phobos the entire area of contamination would probably just be the impact crater. And that would motivate us to go there so we could clean it all up.

  22. Derek says:

    I don’t understand the ethical issue here.

    We find meteors from mars on earth. Cross contamination would have happened long ago.

  23. Salacious B. Crumb says:

    Derek Says:
    “I don’t understand the ethical issue here.
    We find meteors from mars on earth. Cross contamination would have happened long ago”.
    However there is a just slight difference Derek, as natural events are beyond our control. However, the problem with this idea, is we have a choice. However that if something goes wrong and we knowingly contaminate and other planet and moon, are we ethically right to do so?
    Some people look at life (like bugs or bacteria) as there to be used at our will, but others see that any life deserves protected, nurtured, and to use its environment as it sees fit.
    Clearly Phobos having life at all is pretty remote, but should we make certain our assumption is right. My own fear is that if we exterminate some possible life form, we might lose the chance of learning about the origins of ourselves.
    In reality before we do go to Mars with a crew of humans, such debate might be necessary IMO.
    There all might be alternative that are less risky cost no more.

  24. trux says:

    > I don’t understand the ethical issue here.
    > We find meteors from mars on earth. Cross contamination would have happened long ago.

    I do not think it is so much about ethics, but more about being careful and not risking a contamination with no good reason, because we simply do not know the consequences, and may complicate our own future research.

    And cross-contamination with meteros certainly does not preserve biology as easily as a human-made sond. A meteor will typically need thousands or more likely milions of years before it lands on another planet, and any life the rock originally may have contained, will pass through much more stress (high and low temperatures during the impact and during the orbital travel, radiation, acceleration, thermal, and chemical reactions during the impact that sent the rock to the orbit, and then during the landing, etc…). Not impossible, but certainly much less likely to survive than a sample well preserved in a human-made sond with gentle start and landing, and only short time in space.

    As already written before in this thread – why risking a contamination (whatever low the risk is), when we can as well send the sond to a safe orbit around the Sun? It sounds just plain stupid and entirely unnecessary.

  25. Dave says:

    I have to agree with Trux here, why send it to Phobos at all? Why not send it to a mars-sun distant orbit while keeping well away from mars itself…that will reduce the chance of cross contamination, while still putting the lifeforms through the same rigors of earth-mars spacetravel…

  26. Bob Bobicans says:

    Russia is at it again!

  27. Jorge says:

    why send it to Phobos at all? Why not send it to a mars-sun distant orbit while keeping well away from mars itself…that will reduce the chance of cross contamination, while still putting the lifeforms through the same rigors of earth-mars spacetravel…

    Because we don’t have a mission going to a “mars-sun distant orbit” except those going to Mars itself. Space missions are very expensive. This is one experiment in a mission that includes a multitude of other experiments. There’s no way a dedicated mission could be founded just to study the behaviour of biological specimens at martian distances unless it’s doing also other studies of Mars and/or its moons.

  28. Max says:

    There is always the risk of an accidental contamination from manned missions or improperly sterilized robots… but that would be in the process of trying to accomplish some meaningful science.

    We already know bacteria and simple organisms can survive in space so that part of the pan-spermia equation is resolved.
    What we need now is to find life on other worlds and figure out if its related to life from here. The ideal would be to go on mars and find something in the soil that is distinctive yet still very similar to earth life (or not similar at all…)

    Protecting anything existing on mars from life on earth would greatly further the study of pan-spermia and other theories. I think we can strike a reasonable compromise between exploration and science.

  29. Yael Dragwyla says:

    There’s another way of looking at this. When two eukaryotic organisms — vertebrates, invertebrates, take your pick — get together and interact sexually, offspring result, and those offspring have genes from *both* parents. (There are some exceptions, but not that many.) In fact, microbes — both bacteria and viruses — swap genes with one another as well as with eukarya all the time, acting as messengers taking information from organism to organism all over the planet. The result is evolution (and lots of fun, but that’s another story) going beyond what a given lineage of organisms can do on its own. What it *isn’t* is disease or war — when a man and woman get together to have a baby, his sperm combines with her ovum to make what will become a baby, and in most cases no violence or disease is involved. That’s what Earth is trying to do: send her genes out to the universe at large, letting them fall where they may, hoping to make babies with other celestial bodies, and there’s nothing wrong with it. Life on Earth probably began in some little niche in the rock or puddle somewhere, and then spread out across the planet. Was that invasion of or war on the rest of the Earth? No, it was life doing what life always does, reaching for the future by expanding into all possible habitats. The only direction left for Earthly life to expand into is straight up — but that’s great, because perhaps out there Earthly life will finally run into our planetary soul-mates and make beautiful babies with them. 😀

  30. marcellus says:

    Screw Phobos. Send ’em up!

  31. Please see the Planetary Society information on this mission at:
    http://planetary.org/programs/projects/life/
    Including the FAQ “Is it likely that this experiment could contaminate Mars with life, thus confusing future searches for life on Mars? “

  32. Benevolent B says:

    In Soviet Russia – New Overlords Welcome YOU!!

    /sorry best I could do.
    //but it needed to be said!

    ~]3

  33. Miss Conception says:

    Yael Dragwyla says:

    ” …when a man and woman get together to have a baby, his sperm combines with her ovum to make what will become a baby”

    Oh my god!!!! I thought it was a stork!
    Mummy lied!! Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo

  34. NNM says:

    heh, I always pictures a mission like that…
    Only difference: I would have it purposely “contaminate” a planet… Throw seeds all over the place, bacteria, etc..!
    And “see what happens” (in 100 000 years…).

  35. Katie says:

    The chances of one of Mars’ captured moons bearing life or the remnants there of is incredibly low statistically based on all the variables as I understand it, which is why they are heading to Phobos rather than to Mars proper for this experiment. Mars has the real potential to have been home to life at some point in its history; we now have compelling evidence of flowing liquid water and Mars has an atmosphere albeit a thin one, but there are suggestions that this was not always the case. As a result of this, any mission involving Earth flora or fauna (including micro flora and fauna) would obviously create a very real risk of contamination, but the only way to understand the affects of a trip to Mars on living cells and living entities is to travel the distance to Mars and back. However, as Jorge mentioned, single purpose space missions are financially impractical so the best compromise is to hitch a lift to Phobos, do everything possible to prevent contamination and hope like hell that this isn’t the one time that the cosmic random number generator doesn’t roll a 73950923.

  36. Katie says:

    do everything possible to prevent contamination and hope like hell that this isn’t the one time that the cosmic random number generator rolls a 73950923.

    Now that sentence makes sense, missed it in the proof read.

  37. hagnat says:

    > spores… do what ever spores do.

    be the most overrated hype from last year ? have awful drm restrictions ? be forgotten after a week play ?

  38. UK David says:

    A lander mission to Phobos is an exciting prospect in itself.

    Not sure if taking a jar of insects adds greatly to the mission – but Phobos has tremendous potential as a natural holding location for fuels and supplies in future manned missions to Mars, so I imagine Phobos will see lots of life on it in the next few hundred years!

  39. Alex says:

    Russia and the Planetary Society declare biological war on the Martians!

  40. hiro says:

    Why don’t we send it to Venus or Mercury? I just wonder whether these bateria & insects etc… can survive in these extreme environments.

  41. Naia says:

    Of course the universe exists for us to experiment with, be the scale small or large, the risks and possible suffering calculated by us. Isn’t this called anthropocentrism or human supremacy? I believe Carl Sagan, among others, has had something to say about the attitude.

  42. Bonr says:

    Don’t they follow the Prime Directive?!!

    /sorry, also the best I could do.
    // and also needed to be said!!

  43. Joe says:

    Whats the big fuss we will end up colonizing mars sooner or later.

    Joe.TO.

  44. Frank Glover says:

    “Who cares if they contaminate Phobos?

    At * most * there are some microbes or bacteria there… and if there is, I don’t care.”

    It’s a safe bet that nothing lives on the asteroid-like moons of Mars, and I’m no more concerned about Earth-life endign up there (it would almost certinly just curl up and die) than I am with Earth’s Moon. But…

    …Anything sent to the Moon, if it misses, will stay more or less in cisclunar space, perhaps one day eventually impacting Earth or the Moon, no harm no foul. Any kind of navigational or propulsion accident near MARS however (and such has happened to both sides before…indeed, the Russians thed to have very bad luck at Mars), risks impacting and contaminating Mars, possibly making it very difficult for subsequent landers to know if any evidence of biology is native or imported. (This should be obvious, but some people here seem to need that spelled out.)

    If the Russians want do do a long-duration space biology experiment, don’t let recent events make you think that all possible Earth orbts are full…

  45. Rodrigo says:

    I just can’t believe how there is people reading this news and not supporting it.

    where is the crazy scientist inside your hearts ?

    How can you be so scared about “contamination” if we, universetoday reader’s, have something in common, that is, the passion by the universe and the unknown.

    As far as i know, i will try to follow this field test step by step, it’s sounds amazingly interesting.

  46. Aqua says:

    Hopefully the Russians have taken the issue of contamination into their equation? Who do we ask, “What’s being done about that?” In fact, I think we all should ask…

  47. Lawrence B. Crowell says:

    We should explore Mars for possible extraterrestrial life, or molecular traces for maybe prebiotic processes early on. Sending biological specimins to Mars has got to be the stupidest thing imaginable. This would amount to data contamination. Maybe Earth life or bacteria has made it to Mars by secondary meteoroids produced by impacts here, but let’s not intentionally introduced bio-contaminents on a planet which might have valuable data.

    I really doubt we are going to colonize Mars, at least not any time really soon.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  48. Naia says:

    Actually, Lawrence B. Crowell’s comment is eminent and would deserve to be the last in this debate. – But still I have to say: Three things in Rodrigo’s comment baffle me. a) Why can’t he belive people honestly expounding their views, black on white? b) Why should a possible scientist in our hearts be crayzy, why not sane? c) What does a “passion by the universe and the unknown” exclude any apprehensiveness regarding “contamination”? – Kind regards to all.

  49. Naia says:

    Sorry about bad proof reading. Shuld have spelled “crazy” right, and also: c) WHY does a…

  50. Vanamonde says:

    Well, it does make some sense to put the wee beasties into space for some time. But why drop then on Phobos? We are no 100% sure that nothing is there? Who expect Venus to be so hot? Or Mars to have such thin air? Or an ocean on Europa.

    I vote for caution. Like Putin cares.

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