Pigs in a Space Blan­ket

Newsweek International - - CON­TENTS - BY MEGHAN BAR­TELS @meghan­bar­tels

: ’ to be the Earth crea­ture to ex­plore space be­yond our so­lar sys­tem. In­stead, that ti­tle will go to two mi­cro­scopic or­gan­isms sci­en­tists have deemed hardy enough to have a shot at sur­viv­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence. Meet your com­pe­ti­tion. Tardi­grades (aliases in­clude wa­ter bears and moss piglets, be­cause sci­en­tists can’t re­sist their pudgy cute­ness) can plau­si­bly claim to be the most re­silient an­i­mals on the planet, which is why they are a re­ally good can­di­date to leave it. There are more than 1,000 species of tardi­grade, and some wa­ter bears are so in­de­struc­tible sci­en­tists think no mat­ter what hap­pens to Earth, th­ese lit­tle bug­gers could prob­a­bly sur­vive.

The other crit­ter pack­ing its bags is a mi­cro­scopic round­worm called

Caenorhab­di­tis el­e­gans, or C. el­e­gans for short. It’s been a work­horse for more than five decades in lab­o­ra­to­ries. Sci­en­tists use it to study ev­ery­thing from sleep to ag­ing, and some of th­ese worms al­ready sur­vived one of the great­est space tragedies, the de­struc­tion of the space shut­tle

Colum­bia in 2003. They’d been on board to help sci­en­tists see whether genes are ex­pressed dif­fer­ently in space, com­pared with here on Earth.

The mis­sion look­ing to en­list tardi­grades and C. el­e­gans is called Starlight, and the plan is to use a gi­ant laser beam to push a small space­craft— about the size of a smart­phone or smaller—out of the so­lar sys­tem at very fast speeds. Ideally, ac­cord­ing to the project’s lead sci­en­tist, the small­est of th­ese space­craft would be able to reach a quar­ter of the speed of light, which would mean they could reach the near­est star (and the near­est planet not in our so­lar sys­tem) about 20 years af­ter launch­ing. (The only space­craft to have left our so­lar sys­tem so far is Voy­ager 1, and it took al­most 40 years just to hit the edge.)

The Starlight team wants to put its tiny as­tro­nauts into a dor­mant state for launch, then nudge them awake pe­ri­od­i­cally and watch them ev­ery so of­ten along the jour­ney. Tardi­grades nor­mally live a few months, but take away the wa­ter around them and they en­ter a co­cooned state in which they can sur­vive for decades, which makes them the per­fect fre­quent fly­ers.

CRAWL SPACE Tardi­grades, con­sid­ered vir­tu­ally in­de­struc­tible on Earth, will now have their met­tle tested in space.

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