Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
December 8, 2021

LIFE mission tests the resilience of microbes in deep space

By Julia Zhang | October 21, 2009

Russia's Phobos Grunt Mission is taking a different approach to studying life in outer space. Instead of trying to find evidence of extraterrestrial life, Phobos Grunt is planning to send life forms from earth into space.

The idea is to transport microorganisms from the Bacteria, Eukaryota and Archaea domains in a puck-shaped BioModule designed to look like a meteorite to one of Mars' moons.

The project is called LIFE (Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment) and will test the endurance of organisms called tardigrades, also known as water bears, and several other extremophiles on Phobos.

The mission was originally scheduled for 2009, but had to be postponed for technical reasons. The next launch window, determined by the relationship between Earth's orbit and Mars', is in 2011.

"I think the Phobos Grunt Mission is a very exciting and important mission and I was very sad to know that it has been delayed," Ilara Pascucci said. Pascucci is a research scientist in the department of Physics and Astronomy at Hopkins.

"There is a lot of discussion in the scientific community about how life emerged on Earth, whether simple life forms existed (or still exist) on some of the Solar System planets or even on their moons," she said.

If the organisms do manage to survive, there are many interesting implications. "The fact is that life is everywhere on Earth: from the surface to the bottom of the sea to several miles in the air," Pascucci said.

"Life can adapt (and thrive) under extreme conditions on Earth. But can it survive the deep space? We don't know. I think that a mission like Phobos Grunt is really needed to answer this question. If some of the microorganisms survive we will know, for example, which species are more resistant: This could guide future life searches on planets close to Earth. In addition, we would know that meteorites could naturally transfer life forms from one planet to another," she said.

This is not the first time that life has been sent into space. Biostack Experiments I and II, flown during the Apollo 16 and 17 missions to the moon, showed that organisms could survive two-week-long journeys in space. In the LIFE experiment, however, organisms will be sent further out into deep space and for a much longer time period of 34 months.

The experiment is also far from being simple to design. Scientists had to figure out how to pack three each of ten different organisms (for a total of 30) into a 100 gram BioModule. This small spacecraft has to survive the stresses of a landing with a 4,000 gram impact. The container also has to stay sealed so that the surfaces of Mars and Phobos will not be contaminated.

"Of course, Phobos Grunt Mission is not an easy mission to design and a big concern for many is whether Phobos and/or Mars would be contaminated by these microorganisms. This could confuse future searches for life. I am not too worried about this since the species are desiccated, if they can survive and multiply on Mars that would be even more exciting to me, testifying that life adaptation and evolution are indeed robust processes," Pascucci said.

To test the durability of the BioModule, scientists filled the container with a fluorescent liquid before violently vibrating it on a shake table and then shooting it out of an air cannon. The first time, it was clear that some of the liquid leaked and that the structure was not durable enough. The second time, the structure remained sealed. More tests need to be done, which is part of the reason for the postponement of the mission.

There is still a waiting period of two years before the launch can occur. Clearly though, the LIFE experiment is one worth following up on: it might just be the key to envisioning a life in space.

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