Going where no tardigrade has been before

Russia Will Send Life to Phobos

1 Mar , 2009 by

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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


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Salacious B. Crumb
Guest
Salacious B. Crumb
March 1, 2009 5:43 AM
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… Read more »
Tyler Durden
Guest
Tyler Durden
March 1, 2009 6:17 AM

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.

TD
Member
TD
March 1, 2009 6:52 AM
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… Read more »
Dominion
Member
March 1, 2009 6:58 AM

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?!?

Salacious B. Crumb
Guest
Salacious B. Crumb
March 1, 2009 7:14 AM

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?

Jorge
Guest
March 1, 2009 7:40 AM

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.

Maxwell
Member
Maxwell
March 1, 2009 7:43 AM

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.

Salacious B. Crumb
Guest
Salacious B. Crumb
March 1, 2009 8:17 AM
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… Read more »
Matthias
Guest
Matthias
March 1, 2009 10:35 AM

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…

Sci-Fi Si
Guest
March 1, 2009 8:47 AM

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!

Sci-Fi Si
Guest
March 1, 2009 8:50 AM

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!

Salacious B. Crumb
Guest
Salacious B. Crumb
March 1, 2009 9:19 AM

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!!

Feenixx
Member
March 1, 2009 9:21 AM

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.

John M.
Guest
John M.
March 1, 2009 9:27 AM

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

Feenixx
Member
March 1, 2009 9:31 AM

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…..
wink

Salacious B. Crumb
Guest
Salacious B. Crumb
March 1, 2009 9:40 AM

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!

Dr. Contaminator
Guest
Dr. Contaminator
March 1, 2009 9:49 AM
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 –… Read more »
Kevin F.
Member
March 1, 2009 9:51 AM

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

HeadAroundU
Guest
HeadAroundU
March 1, 2009 10:06 AM

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.

Salacious B. Crumb
Guest
Salacious B. Crumb
March 1, 2009 10:07 AM

@ 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”!

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