Bugs in Space?

During my working life I worked in a company born during the original space race. Really, our company was hatched in NASA’s Skylab space station, from the MLM (Microbial Load Monitor) module. That piece of equipment led to McDonnell Douglas forming a subsidiary named Vitek Systems, focusing on medical microbiology laboratories. McDonnell Douglas is no more, they and Boeing merged in 1997, but the Vitek carries on.  It is widely used in microbiology labs, and at NASA it has been used for studies of microbial response to microgravity, radiation, and other environmental challenges.

That’s all well and good, but what about the extreme environment of outer space? How does that affect microorganisms? Can and do microorganisms exist and survive for long periods of time in the harsh environment of space? Those questions lead to this question…did life on Earth come from life elsewhere, via riding on/inside debris from space? This question is not new, it has been debated for centuries. Spoiler alert, there is no answer yet. However, it is intriguing to consider the possibility, so let’s dive in.

There are two basic hypotheses for Earth to have been “seeded”.

One, the hypothesis that organisms, either complete or in the form of spores survived millennia or longer after having been blasted away from their home body by a collision. Nestled inside of big rocks they then survived the fiery entry through Earth’s atmosphere. This would definitely fit into the definition of extreme conditions. Could living organisms survive that trauma?  Seems unlikely. Spores of bacteria and molds can survive for centuries but it is unknown if they can survive for thousands of years. Especially in those conditions. We have extremophiles here on Earth that do just fine deep in the ocean near volcanic vents, or at the edges of toxic ponds. How would they do if an asteroid blew them into space?

Another hypothesis is through organic chemistry. Our universe and our Earth are loaded with hydrogen and carbon, the primary components of organic compounds.  Mix in abundant oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur and the possibilities are enormous. Most amino acids (building blocks of proteins) are composed of these simple ingredients, but the trick is to get them combined just right. Conditions must be pretty good in space because at least one amino acid – glycine, has been detected in galactic dust clouds. Organic compounds have been detected in meteorites, Saturn’s moon Titan, and good old dwarf planet Pluto. Organic molecules seem to be common so the development of amino acids should not be a big surprise. However, more amino acid evidence is needed to start making a case.

What’s in the Sky?

February 12-13; around 8 pm; east: The bright waxing gibbous Moon is in Gemini, between the brothers on the 12th, lined up with Castor and Pollux on the 13th.

Zodiacal Light: Get away from lights and starting on 02/18, look to the west after sunset. Look for a roughly triangle shaped haze of light climbing from the horizon. It’s caused by interplanetary dust scattering sunlight.