The question of whether simple life can survive in space is hardly new, but it has lately taken on a new urgency.
It is not only a pressing scientific question — might life from Mars or another body have seeded life on Earth? Might organisms similar to extreme Earth life survive Mars-like conditions? — but it is also has some very practical implications. If humans are going to some day land and live on the moon or on Mars, they will need to grow food to survive.
So the question is pretty basic: can Earth seeds or dormant life survive a long journey to deep space and can they then grow in the protected but still extreme radiation, temperature, and vacuum of deep space?
It was with these questions in mind that the European Space Agency funded a proposal from the German Institute of Planetary Research to send samples of a broad range of simple to more complex life to the International Space Station in 2014, and to expose the samples to extreme conditions outside the station.
Some of the findings have been reported earlier, but last month the full results of the Biomex tests (Biology on Mars Experiment) were unveiled in the journal Astrobiology.
And the answer is that many, though certainly not all, of the the samples of snow and permafrost algae, cyanobacteria, archaea, fungi, biofilms, moss and lichens in the did survive their 533 days of living dangerous in their dormant states. When brought back to Earth and returned to normal conditions, they returned to active life.
“For the majority of the chosen organisms, it was the first and the longest time they ever were exposed to space and Mars-like conditions,” Jean-Pierre Paul de Vera, principal investigator of the effort, wrote to me. And the results were promising.
A microbiologist and planetary researcher at the German Space Agency’s Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin, de Vera and his team went from Antarctica to the parched Atacama desert in Chile, from the high Alps to the steppe highlands of central Spain to find terrestrial life surviving in extreme conditions (extremophiles.)
The samples were then placed in regolith (soil, dust and other rocky materials) simulated to be as close as possible to what is found on Mars.… Read more