Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Greatest Space Travellers - Germs?

In the 1960's, the great superpowers were engaged in a costly "space race", trying to beat each other to the moon. Much has been made of the cost of this space race, compared to the actual scientific discoveries made once we beat the Russian's, and finally reached the moon. The list of discoveries is vast, but most relate to technology we created to reach our desolate neighbor in space. The question remains; What is the most important discovery we found on the Moon?

The answer to this question might lie in a very overlooked piece of Lunar trivia. One of the early Lunar probes, Surveyor 3, carried traces of the bacterium Streptococcus mitis to the moon on it's metallic skin. Several years later, the astronaughts Pete Conrad and Alan Bean found these bacteria to be alive and well, living in the vacuum of space on the remains of this space probe. These bacteria lived in the vacuum and radiation environment of space for about 940 days, with no food or water. They are the only known living things to have ever done this.

At the time, it was considered a simple contamination problem, and was swept under the carpet. The implications of a common ordinary microbe such as Streptococcus being able to live in the environment of outer space for extended periods is momentus. It means that our ideas of what life requires to survive need to be re-examined. It also opens up the possibility that our Earth has been "contaminated" by life from beyond at some point in time, influencing the genetics of life on Earth.

Maybe microbes and viruses, which now appear to be able to tolerate the rigors of the outer space environment, are commonplace, and blown about the universe much like the solar wind from our Sun. If this is true, then they are truly the greatest space traveller we shall ever see.

Here is a dated article on the topic, (but still a good read)...

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