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Sounds Sketchy


Russian cosmonaut says that swabs of the outside of the ISS contain “deep space bacteria.”

Whaaaat? This whole story sounds bizzare to me. It seems unlikely – other sources that I found discussing the story went off into “Russia propaganda” conspiracy-land; apparently the idea is that the Russians may be lying about this in order to get space news, or something.

I’m baffled. What do you think? [cnet]

Shkaplerov told the Russian news agency TASS that cosmonauts collected the bacteria by swabbing the outside of the space station during space walks years ago.  

“And now it turns out that somehow these swabs reveal bacteria that were absent during the launch of the ISS module,” Shkapkerov told TASS. “That is, they have come from outer space and settled along the external surface. They are being studied so far and it seems that they pose no danger.”

I would think that those bacteria would be extremely interesting and we would have heard about them long before now. Especially, if they were detected years ago. Yet, there are other reports of “Sea Plankton” being collected on the ISS: [space]

A Russian official claims that samples collected by cosmonauts show evidence of sea plankton on the outside of the International Space Station, news agencies are reporting.

Cosmonauts on the orbiting outpost have allegedly discovered trace amounts of sea plankton and other microscopic organisms living on the outside of the station, exposed to the vacuum of space, according to a news story quoting space station official Vladimir Solovyov.

However, NASA has not confirmed the reports. “As far as we’re concerned, we haven’t heard any official reports from our Roscosmos colleagues that they’ve found sea plankton,” NASA spokesman Dan Huot said. Roscosmos is Russia’s Federal Space Agency.

Naturally, I immediately suspected that it’s tardigrades – those lovably semi-indestructible critters that are, basically, a space suit.

Water bear (Macrobiotus sapiens) in moss. Color enhanced scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of a water bear in its active state. Water bears (or tardigrades) are tiny invertebrates that live in aquatic and semi-aquatic habitats such as lichen and damp moss. They require water to obtain oxygen by gas exchange. In dry conditions, they can enter a cryptobiotic state of desiccation, known as a tun, to survive. In this state, water bears can survive for up to a decade. This species was found in moss samples from Croatia. It feeds on plant and animal cells. Water bears are found throughout the world, including regions of extreme temperature, such as hot springs, and extreme pressure, such as deep underwater. They can also survive high levels of radiation and the vacuum of space. Magnification: x250 when printed 10cm wide.

I hadn’t realized it but it stands to reason that even at the upper reaches of atmosphere, there is going to be low-pressure hardy life. I assumed that the ISS is high enough that there’s no atmosphere, otherwise it’d get drag, slow down, and heat up (eventually heating up quite a lot). It really makes me wonder, though – there were nuclear tests in the 60s that were so huge they carried stuff all the way up to the edge of the atmosphere.

We’ve sent bacteria to Mars, already. [mic]

Spacecraft and associated clean-room assembly-facility surfaces harbour an extremely low biomass (La Duc et al., 2003; Venkateswaran et al., 2001), because of stringent maintenance. However, colonization by micro-organisms specifically adapted to such facility conditions, especially those yet to be cultured and/or characterized, is of major concern to those commissioning modern-day space-related experimentation. The search for extraterrestrial life will rely heavily on validated cleaning and bioreduction strategies to ensure that terrestrial microbial contamination does not compromise the scientific integrity of such missions. It is crucial both to minimize and eradicate such microbial contaminants and to identify and  characterize the recurring, prevalent micro-organisms associated with the surfaces of spacecraft and associated environments.
It’s good to see that scientists are isolating the strains, so that if someone finds bacteria on Mars they’ll be able to tell if they’re NASA bacteria, or Martians.

I had never really thought about it, before, but now I realize that a planet with life resembles a great misty swamp crawling with stuff that’s alive everywhere. Stuff that does nothing but breed (“infect”) and eat (“infect”) things. And evolve. Any ALIEN intelligent enough to get close to a planet with life would nuke it from orbit and not get anywhere close. It certainly wouldn’t swoop down on the denizens and sample poop bacteria from their anuses.

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I’m going to use pretty much any excuse to post pictures of tardigrades.

Comments

  1. says

    John Morales@#1:
    The deep Earth supports an entire biosphere

    That’s super cool. Thank you for sharing that link.

    The variety and weird metabolisms of some extremophiles (like the one that ‘eats’ radon decay) is truly amazing. It’s what makes me wonder if there are extremophiles that live in the high upper atmosphere and whether such things could cling to the outside of something heading up – like a rocket. Or get carried up during the up-welling from an H-bomb test. Tests like Castle Bravo punched completely through the top of the atmosphere, if I understand correctly. They would have killed anything in the fireball, of course, but there was a lot of superheated dust and air carried up.

    I don’t understand why a cosmonaut would make something like that up, since it’s pretty easy to verify – just show the samples. He’s got to expect that everyone’s reaction is going to be “put up or shut up.”

  2. John Morales says

    I’ve seen the story elsewhere. The Slate article mentions this:

    According to Shkaplerov, cosmonauts aboard the ISS swabbed the hulls of the station during spacewalks, particularly in areas where fuel wastes were discharged and in obscure parts of the station’s surface where activity is low.

    Note it’s really hard to do a proper sterilisation of spacecraft. Perfection is not to be expected.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planetary_protection

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Dunno ’bout the ISS, but back when astronauts went up in capsules, didn’t they “flush” their urine straight out through a waste valve (then ooh & ahh about the pretty ice crystals)?

  4. sonofrojblake says

    I had never really thought about it, before,

    I have. And every time I do, I try to stop, as soon as possible. Thanks for the reminder /shudder/.

  5. Dauphni says

    Fun fact, the ISS is actually still within Earth’s atmosphere. The atmosphere doesn’t magically end at the Kármán line, it just thins and thins without having a real edge, and in fact it is still detectable thousands of kilometers out.

    The ISS orbits at an altitude of about 400 km, which is close enough to experience significant atmospheric drag. Not enough for it to heat up and burn just like that, but enough for it to slowly spiral in and need periodic boosts to regain lost altitude.

  6. says

    I always just figured that all of the planets outward from the sun from Earth had some degree of contamination. Some (not a lot, for sure) bacteria or other life could rise high enough in the atmosphere and get caught on the solar wind. Chance of survival: pretty low. But with enough of them . . .

  7. Reginald Selkirk says

    It’s what makes me wonder if there are extremophiles that live in the high upper atmosphere and whether such things could cling to the outside of something heading up – like a rocket.

    Those are two separate things:

    Could surface microbes make it to the upper atmosphere via rockets, astronaut waste, superstorms or volcanic/nuclear eruptions, float around and attach themselves to a space station? Are there microbes that can handle the UV and cosmic radiation? This seems likely to me.

    Are there microbes that routinely “live” in the upper atmosphere? This seems very unlikely to me. What would they live on? They would need to encounter enough metabolites, trace minerals, etc. to not only survive but also to replicate. They would need to maintain some liquid water. I doubt it.

    I am reminded of when SARS was the thing (2003) and some idiot (Chandra Wickramasinghe) suggested that the virus came from outer space. Because it’s completely likely that a virus related to known earth viruses which infect animals humans might encounter, which starts a limited pandemic in a part of the world where those animals might be encountered by humans, and is evolved to parasitize earthly animals, came from some other planet. /s

  8. says

    Reginald Selkirk@#13:
    Are there microbes that routinely “live” in the upper atmosphere? This seems very unlikely to me. What would they live on? They would need to encounter enough metabolites, trace minerals, etc. to not only survive but also to replicate. They would need to maintain some liquid water. I doubt it.

    That seems reasonable. Even if they photosynthesized they’d need the rest of the Krebs cycle. Although, I guess I could imagine a sort of a space volvox with its own trapped atmosphere inside it. It wouldn’t be able to get more stuff to make more of itself, though, so reproduction seems to be out.

    some idiot (Chandra Wickramasinghe) suggested that the virus came from outer space.

    Oh, yeah, I remember that! That was pretty bad – viruses are so dependent on features of existing cells that they wouldn’t be able to evolve to be infectious out in space, where there are no existing cells. Unless they were intelligently designed, that is.

  9. Ice Swimmer says

    My first thought was: Did they check the same bacteria weren’t found in their kvashenaya kapusta (sauerkraut) or kefir (acid fermented milk).

  10. invivoMark says

    There are no space bacteria. But there ARE bacteria in the upper atmosphere. Whether they WANT to be there, or whether they’re simply carried there by wind and by chance, is up for debate, but it’s possible they fix enough nitrogen and carbon (maybe sulfur, too?) on their own that they don’t need a whole lot else and can go several generations on just a few specks of dust (mostly for the phosphorus and metal enzyme cofactors).

    My favorite bacteria hypothesis is that every snowflake starts its life by nucleating around an airborne bacterium. It’s almost plausible, given how many bacteria there are in the sky.

    Also, the planets are definitely contaminated by Earth-based life, but not because they get blown out of the atmosphere. Even a single bacterium getting blown out of the atmosphere is an extraordinarily unlikely event. The far more common event is that meteorite impacts throw chunks of Earth out of orbit, and those chunks then land on other planets. There are several known instances of chunks of Mars landing on Earth, and it can be assumed that the inverse event also occurs. The big question is whether or not a bacterium could survive the journey.

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