Is it possible for life to exist on other planets? This is a question that has occupied scientists for years. Recent scientific research has revealed more and more secrets of our solar system, but are still yet to find concrete evidence of life in space. But a new research project has proven it definitely isn’t impossible.
Earth-based organisms have survived 533 days in space stuck to the outside of the International Space Station (ISS). The German Aerospace Center (DLR) led the experiment called BIOMEX. The long-term research project saw organisms such as bacteria, algae, lichens and fungi exposed to Mars type conditions while attached to the ISS. The results even impressed the researchers themselves.
Tough as Nails Lichen
"Some of the organisms and biomolecules showed tremendous resistance to radiation in outer space and actually returned to Earth as 'survivors' from space,"Astrobiologist Jean-Pierre Paul de Vera from the DLR Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin-Adlershof, said.
"Among other things, we studied archaea, which are unicellular microorganisms that have existed on Earth for over three-and-a-half billion years, living in salty seawater. Our 'test subjects' are relatives of theirs that have been isolated in the Arctic permafrost. They have survived in space conditions and are also detectable with our instruments. Such single-celled organisms could be candidates for life forms that might be found on Mars."
Life on Mars is Possible
The main goal of the experiment was to see if living things from Earth could survive in the extreme environments found in space. The results prove that beyond doubt it can happen. The study gives new hope we might still discover life on the red planet.
"Of course, this does not mean that life actually exists on Mars," de Vera is quick to note. “But the search for life is more than ever the strongest driving force for the next generation of missions to Mars." Theoretically, it is widely accepted that life on Mars is possible. Over the decade's space research has uncovered some of the main ingredients required such as an atmosphere, elements such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorus, and even water, at least in the form of ice. But so far no Mars based research has actually found life itself.
ISS hosts samples
The BIOMEX experiment was kickstarted on 18 August 2014 when Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev placed several hundred samples in a specially designed experiment container on the exterior of the 'Zvezda' Russian ISS module.
They contained primitive terrestrial organisms such as mosses, lichens, fungi, bacteria, archaea ('primeval bacteria') and algae, as well as cell membranes and pigments. Some were pressed into soil samples from Mars with an artificial mars atmosphere.
Samples Examined by Range of Astrobiologists
A week later the protective covers of the containers were removed and the specimens were exposed to the space environment. Space is a large vacuum with intense ultraviolet radiation and harsh temperature changes.
"Once again, the ISS provided ideal conditions for an experiment that could only be carried out under space conditions," de Vera explained.
On 3 February 2016, the samples were placed back under a cover and the samples were brought inside the ISS by cosmonauts Yuri Malenchenko and Sergei Volkov. On 18 June 2016, the samples made their long journey back to Earth accompanied by ESA astronaut Tim Peake on board a Soyuz spacecraft.
The samples were then distributed to the DLR site in Cologne, and BIOMEX scientists at 30 research institutions in 12 countries across three continents. The results from all these different examinations have been collected in 42 peer-reviewed articles. The journal Astrobiology dedicated a special issue to BIOMEX in February. This week the results of the experiment are being presented in Berlin at a special conference.