Description: The purpose of this study is to examine how well microbes survive after landing on a planet. For more information, please visit both the BYU News coverage of this project at http://news.byu.edu/news/
- Start: July 1, 2015
- End: June 30, 2018
- Sponsor: National Aeronautics and Space Administration
- Principal Investigator: Daniel Austin
- Co-PI(s): Richard Robison
Every time a satellite is launched into space, microbes from earth are nearly guaranteed to also travel to space. Scientists must do everything possible to prevent earth microbes from contaminating any type of matter in space. This is because of the possible risk that earth microbes could kill possible existing life in space. Contaminating microbes could also thrive in space, which would yield inaccurate data in man’s search for life in space. Complete sterilization of the equipment is impractical and most likely impossible, however. Studies in the past have examined the survivability of organisms in various conditions related to space launches. However, not much data has been collected regarding how many organisms survive both on the flight into space and during the landing impact of the spaceship, satellite, etc. on the planet. The length of time these microbes could survive on the planet is also unknown.
Because there are countless ways microbes could travel to and contaminate space, researcher Daniel Austin and his team have developed an instrument that can simulate an environment where microbes are possibly being released onto a landing site in space. For example, in one scenario microbes could be shaken off onto the planet from the surfaces of the spacecraft. It is also possible for the microbes to be released and buried in the planet’s dust, debris or soil upon impact. If any part of the equipment breaks upon impact, microbes could also be release from inside the equipment. Researchers will use this simulation technology to examine many different types of organisms and determine their impact survivability.
In this project, Austin hopes to discover these microbes’ survivability rates and the specific ways the microbes are damaged upon impact. Some of the independent factors considered in the project include the bioburden, or the count of bacteria living on the surface of the equipment, at the time of the launch. They will also consider the likelihood of bacteria surviving in space after a long flight in addition to the surface of a planet. Daniel Austin and his team will study several types of organisms. Some of the characteristics of the organisms include: spore-forming and non-spore-forming bacteria, extremophiles (bacteria that can survive extreme conditions) and some fungi. The researchers will specifically look at the impact velocity and different characteristics of the planetary surface, such as material, temperature and density. Through these experiments, researchers will eventually be able to predict microbe behavior in specific scenarios in space.
Up until this study, most simulations have been focused on demonstrating microbe survival rates in the interior of a meteorite. These simulations have used different instruments such as plasticine targets, light-gas guns, and simulations of microbes within rocks. The main results of these experiments have not yielded much information except for the confirmation that survival rates range according to the different organisms and the conditions of the experiment. Results are also affected by the variations in shock pressure and velocities at impact. Furthermore, past studies have not confirmed whether the microbes can continue to live after being introduced to a new space environment after landing. Earlier studies suggest that there might have been microbes transferred to Earth via meteorites, but they don’t address Earth microbes and their life in space.
As a result of this study, Daniel Austin and his team will be able to provide information to better evaluate the microbe contamination in space missions in the past, present and future. This means scientists will be able to determine the location and velocity at which these microbes will be released. They will also be able to know when the microbes will be considered dead after landing. With this information, scientists will then be able to determine the need to possibly redesign spacecrafts used, launch patterns and how many microbes are deemed safe to be on the equipment. This experiment will also yield more information about bacteria and how well they survive after shock and/or impact.