Tardigrades Could Be the First Animals Launched Into Interstellar Space

Sunday, 12 November 2017 - 1:41PM
Space
Weird Science
Sunday, 12 November 2017 - 1:41PM
Tardigrades Could Be the First Animals Launched Into Interstellar Space
Wikimedia Commons/Frank Fox/Mikro-Foto.de
Tardigrades, a species of microorganism often referred to as "water bears" or less commonly "moss piglets", are some of the most resilient animals alive, and can survive extreme heat, extreme cold, extreme radiation, extreme pressures, extremely low pressures, and many other extremes that would kill nearly anything else. 

This makes tardigrades uniquely suited to be explorers, if only one millimeter-long explorers (about 0.04 inches), and it just so happens that they can survive in zero-gravity environments like space. And if NASA's Starlight program works out, tardigrades will become the first creatures to travel beyond our solar system. 

The Starlight program's goal is to explore different possible ways in which interstellar travel to nearby solar systems could become a reality, and a current project of theirs involves concepts for a photon-driven, wafer-sized spacecraft which could be capable of moving at relativistic speeds approaching the speed of light. It's still very much in the drawing board stage, but plans are coming together.

Such a small ship in such extreme conditions needs a fitting sort of passenger, and it should already be clear who that would be. According to Philip Lubin, head of the Starlight program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, tardigrades (as well as a similarly durable species of nematode called C. elegans) are their ideal crew for such a ship:

Opening quote
"We are developing the capability to test whether terrestrial life as we know it can exist in interstellar space by preparing small life-forms… C. elegans and radiation-resistant tardigrades… which are ideal candidates to be our first interstellar travelers."
Closing quote


It certainly helps that alongside that durability, tardigrades are able to withstand being near-completely dehydrated and frozen for long amounts of time, and then reawaken as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened. That would be useful since this interstellar voyage would launch the tardigrades toward Alpha Centauri, a nearby star in which a trip which would take 20 years at even half the speed of light.

Assuming this trip takes even longer, tardigrades would still be able to survive it. And it helps that they're small enough for the journey, since at this stage in our technological advancement, even our conceptual ideas still require spacecrafts that fall short of human-sized.



The Starlight program's maiden tardigrade voyage is still some ways away from becoming a reality, and it could be at least a couple decades until an interstellar spacecraft with live organisms (at least, ones that are supposed to be there) is actually launched.

But Lubin, as well as plenty of other researchers at NASA, firmly believe that while not remotely easy or anywhere close to cheap, interstellar travel is absolutely possible.

It's just something we'll have to do in steps: send the tardigrades where no one has gone before, and eventually we'll be sending humans where no non-tardigrade has gone before.
Science
Science News
Space
Weird Science
No