Sunday, August 24, 2014

Space Plankton

Space: the final frontier. Where, if you don’t have a pressurized field around you, you either die immediately, or very slowly (depending on which story you’re engaged in). A ridiculous amount of money is needed to build and maintain any life support system needed to survive in such an environment. All of this has been knocked askew now that a galaxy-shattering bit of news has arrived on Earth:

Life can exist in the vacuum of space.

Astronauts aboard the Russian segment of the International Space Station (ISS) took samples from the outside hull of the station, and found marine plankton. Not only was it there, it was thriving, and it has probably been there for years. What one article highlights is that it has been proven that microorganisms can, indeed, survive in space, but what makes this so very peculiar is that it is marine plankton. The plankton in question is not native to the landlocked region the launching area for the Russian segment hails from, but there are several theories as to how it boarded the ISS.

One theory speculates that the plankton hitchhiked on supply ships from areas of the world where the launching stations are closer to water. Another suggestion (by one of the Russian ISS representatives) is that they were carried by air currents the 260 miles between the surface of the planet and the hull of the station. NASA has yet to make an official statement regarding the topic, and one article hints that this may not be news to NASA. Many articles speculate, but all are concrete in affirming that the plankton is from our planet.

This is shattering minds of SciFi nerds across the planet. Shows (like Star Trek and Doctor Who) have had entire plot lines surrounding a species of animal that lives in the vacuum of outer space. In the past, stories like these were less believable because science classes taught us that nothing organic can thrive in the vacuum of space. Those very same plot lines give a new sense of awe because it is possible for such beings to exist. Revisit those episodes, keeping in mind that it is entirely probable that species can evolve to survive in outer space.

Amongst all of this, there are many things that can be done with this knowledge. Although proof that life can exist in the vacuum of space is not new, this is the first we've seen of life reliant on water surviving out there. This still brings about many scientific queries. We can test the reactions of the plankton on the hull of the ISS to different circumstances. It clearly can withstand the cosmic radiation of our galaxy—what about the different kinds of radiation that other parts of our universe can output? How does it react to cooler/warmer temperatures in the vacuum of space? Will the marine plankton respond to high concentrations of ice? The opportunities and possibilities seem nearly endless, and we haven’t even scratched the surface.


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