Water Bears to Travel to Martian Moon, Test Theory of Transpermia

Oct 13, 2009 by Lisa Zyga weblog
(Left) The BioModule will carry 30 samples, and have a mass of 100 grams. Credit: Bruce Betts/The Planetary Society. (Right) Water bears have already shown that they can survive vacuum conditions and intense radiation. Credit: Bob Goldstein.

(PhysOrg.com) -- Tiny microscopic creatures commonly known as water bears (also called Tardigrades), along with a few other life forms, will be sent to the Martian moon Phobos to test whether organisms can survive for long periods of time in deep space. The mission, called the Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE), was originally going to be launched earlier this month, but it has been delayed due to safety and technical issues. Currently, the scientists hope to launch the specimens on the Russian Phobos-Grunt spacecraft in 2011, the next time that the orbits of Earth and Mars offer a launch window.

The LIFE experiment is being developed by The Planetary Society, a publicly supported organization founded in part by Carl Sagan that now has 125 member countries. The researchers will send 10 individual organisms (three of each, for a total of 30 samples) from all three domains of life - bacteria, eukaryota, and archaea - along with some native soil samples to Mars' largest moon on the three-year mission. According to the scientists, the experiment will test part of the theory of transpermia, specifically investigating life's ability to move between planets. In an earlier experiment in 2007, water bears flew on a spacecraft and survived the major hardships of radiation and the vacuum.

In 2011, the life forms will be packed up inside a puck-like container called a BioModule with a total mass of 100 grams, which is designed to resemble a that may have carried earlier life forms between planets. After the 10-month journey to Phobos, the specimens will undergo a 4,000-g impact on the moon's surface, spend a few weeks there in their sealed containers, and then return to Earth on board a robotic interplanetary lander that would crash-land in Kazakhstan. Scientists would then open the containers and see what was still alive.

"If no survive, this does not necessarily rule out the possibility of transpermia, but it certainly calls it into question more," according to The Planetary Society's website. "But if some of the organisms do make it alive to Phobos and back, then at least we would know that some life could indeed survive an interplanetary journey over a three-year period inside a rock."

The experiment would mark the longest time that biological samples have spent in deep space; the Biostack 1 and 2 experiments, flown during the Apollo 16 and 17 missions to the moon, traveled outside the Earth's magnetosphere for about two weeks.

To prepare for the upcoming launch, the scientists had to overcome several challenges. They tested the BioModule's durability by violently vibrating the container while strapped to a shake table, and then shooting the container out of an air cannon to mimic the conditions it would undergo.

More information: The Planetary Society: LIFE Experiment and FAQ

via: Wired

© 2009 PhysOrg.com

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User comments : 22

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LuckyBrandon
5 / 5 (4) Oct 13, 2009
i would think it would make more sense to try to build some kind of sensors into the container to see if they are in fact alive when they get to phobos. if they live to get to phobos, then sit there a few weeks, then die on the way back, then the scientists involved in the study may begin assuming that transpermia is unlikely....

in my opnion, testing after the initial trip, from one planetary body to another would make a much better test than wasting millions of dollars to see if they make it there AND back...
danman5000
5 / 5 (2) Oct 13, 2009
True enough. Also they may be hardy to vacuum and radiation, but good luck with that 4000g impact.
Mercury_01
not rated yet Oct 13, 2009
Well, hopefully if they are dead when they get back, they will be able to pinpoint the exact time and cause of death.
antialias
5 / 5 (1) Oct 13, 2009
How are they going to do this? "Crash them and pick them up"?
Are they just going to crash the 100g module and then go land and look for it? (Crashing the whole mission craft is probably not agood idea)?
What if it rolled to an inaccessible space? Sounds a bit iffy/error prone...
NeilFarbstein
3 / 5 (4) Oct 13, 2009
Nobody cares about destroying the uncontaminated conditions of the moon with habitable life that might eat all indigenous life if it ever existed.
For years and years exobiologists have protested that type of experiment. Where are they now?
djoseff
5 / 5 (1) Oct 13, 2009
This is a bad idea for so many reasons, what could go wrong? Sending alien life to a planetary moon we've never been to... Seems like an exercise in potential unintended consequences. Why not crash into our moon if that's so important, and not contaminate Phobos.
ler177
not rated yet Oct 14, 2009
Why can't we subject them to vacuum, high g-force and radiation on earth?
SmartK8
not rated yet Oct 14, 2009
There also maybe some probability of survival attached. Even if they send it over there, and make it crash. It still can be, that only one in certain amount of such asteroids will truly bring living organisms. Hundreds (or thousands) of such asteroids maybe a failure, but then one will succeed.
probes
3 / 5 (2) Oct 14, 2009
Maybe if they crashed into the south pole of the moon then that would be a softer landing, there may possibly be a thin outer crust but the inner cheese is likely to be very soft. This would also give the life forms something to eat.
Doug_Huffman
not rated yet Oct 14, 2009
A return mission following a 4,000 G impact suggests some amazing technology. Maybe the Phobos lander will find and fetch the "BioModule" home?
vit
not rated yet Oct 14, 2009
Water bears are hardy but I doubt theirs is the kind of life that colonized earth via transpermia (if that's what happened). The first signs of life in the fossil record are bacterial aggregates. On top of all the other problems with this experiment they're using the wrong life forms as subjects.
Hernan
5 / 5 (2) Oct 14, 2009
Hum ... "... return to Earth on board a robotic interplanetary lander that would crash-land in Kazakhstan..." And if transpermia is correct they may bring new germs to Earth. There's so many things in this project that look like they never gave it more than a minutes worth of critical thoughts.
antialias
not rated yet Oct 14, 2009
On top of all the other problems with this experiment they're using the wrong life forms as subjects.


Read the article again. Water bears are only one of 10 types of organsims to be included. The others include bacteria and archaea.
MVV
5 / 5 (1) Oct 14, 2009
And what about the possible mutations of the organism sent and brougth back ?
Bad Idea at so many levels , I truly hope they drop that project.
SteveL
not rated yet Oct 14, 2009
What with all the radiation and high G impacts this sounds like an episode of "Myth Busters".

As for contaminating other planets and moons, if we don't kill ourselves off we'll get there eventually.
tsquare
5 / 5 (2) Oct 14, 2009
I have no objection to sending congress to Phobos to see if it will support life.
LKD
5 / 5 (1) Oct 14, 2009
I have no objection to sending congress to Phobos to see if it will support life.


It's the comments like these that make my day a joy to live. I fully support THAT endeavor, TSquare!
Leannemo
not rated yet Oct 15, 2009
"...crash-land in Kazakhstan"? First Borat, now this! I hope nothing foreign is introduced. Sounds a bit risky to me too.
kuro
not rated yet Oct 15, 2009
Phobos, eh? In a module developed by United Aerospace Corporation no less?
ciantic
not rated yet Oct 18, 2009
And what about the possible mutations of the organism sent and brougth back ?
Bad Idea at so many levels , I truly hope they drop that project.

People have been radiating organisms of various kind intentionally for long time, the mutation is the least of the worries.

Or do you really believe the mutations caused by increased radiation in magical space is somewhat more ominous?

I'd say this article lacks the reasoning how are they really going to bring it back? If I'd have to guess there is error in article. Maybe they are intended to study them only after one-way trip...
MBlueD
1 / 5 (1) Oct 18, 2009
Something like that may have brought life to earth...
Rdavid
not rated yet Oct 19, 2009
carl sagan might appreciate the craft missing its mark, landing on a rock 3 million years from now and destroying a civialization as much as smallpox.