Water Bears and Star(c)hips

A few random thoughts on Day 11 of Endeavour‘s last flight

A few random thoughts on Day 11 of Endeavour‘s last flight:

  • Tomorrow STS-134 astronaut Mike Fincke will become the U.S. record holder for time spent in space, eclipsing chief astronaut Peggy Whitson’s 377-day mark.  Not bad for a guy who once washed out of Air Force fighter pilot training. “My arms weren’t golden enough to be a really great pilot,” he jokes.  Plus, he’s one of the rare astronauts with his own page on the Internet Movie Database. He even appeared (in animated form) on the kids’ show “Arthur.”

  • “Water Bear” may be too cute a name for creatures that can withstand radiation, total vacuum, and temperatures near absolute zero, which is what a bunch of tardigrades (their formal name) did for 10 days on the Foton-M3 mission in 2007. Tardigrades are one of only three animals—the others are brine shrimp and a type of African midge larvae—known to have survived in open space. (Bacteria have, too, although the old Apollo 12 story that bacteria survived three years on the lunar surface turns out to be false.) The Planetary Society launched tardigrades, along with several other hardy organisms, on STS-134 as a trial run for a more ambitious experiment to be flown on the Russian Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars. Researchers want to know if organisms could have survived a trip from Mars to Earth locked inside a meteorite. So to simulate (roughly) that voyage, they’ll be sealed inside tubes and sent on a 34-month round trip to Mars. Then scientists will try to revive them when they return to Earth. The shuttle experiment is a trial run to check out the hardware and handling procedures.
  • Another small payload that deserves more attention is  the “Sprite” satellite on a chip sponsored by Cornell University. Last week astronauts Drew Feustel and Greg Chamitoff attached these chip satellites, along with other material samples, to the outside of the space station to see how exposure to space affects them. Cornell’s Mason Peck envisions chip-size satellites being used someday for interstellar missions. I’m happy to see any progress, however modest, in that direction.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.