Russia is claiming to have found previously undiscovered living bacteria clinging to the external hull of the International Space Station, but with much further reaching implications, they’ve gone on to claim that the bacteria may not be terrestrial in origin.
According to an interview released by the Russian state-owned news outlet TASS on Monday, Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov claims the bacteria was found on the outside of the Russian segment of the ISS and has since been returned to Earth for further study. The bacteria was gathered when astronauts used cotton swabs to take samples of the space station’s external surfaces during a series of space walks. These bacterial samples were primarily found on portions of the ISS that see accumulated fuel wastes that are discharged during the engine’s operations, as well as other portions of the space station’s external hull that see limited human interaction.
And now it turns out that somehow these swabs reveal bacteria that were absent during the launch of the ISS module. That is, they have come from outer space and settled along the external surface. They are being studied so far and it seems that they pose no danger,” the cosmonaut said during his interview.
Based on those comments alone, it seems like quite the revelation… but it may be premature to celebrate the discovery of extra-terrestrial microbial life. While all components of the space station undergo extensive decontamination procedures prior to launch, it is widely considered to be near impossible to purge our space fairing vessels of all possible bacteria before their journey to the great beyond. This mindset is exactly why NASA chose to crash the Cassini space craft into Saturn, rather than permit it to potentially impact with one of the planet’s many moons, some of which scientists believe could potentially harbor life.
To further complicate matters, bacteria is known to reside within the earth’s atmosphere at altitudes as high as 20 miles above sea level. That means even a well decontaminated craft is still highly susceptible to picking up bacterial stowaways along its route to orbit or beyond, and with so many missions traveling to and from the International Space Station to resupply the crew or exchange personnel, the chances of bacterial contamination become exponentially higher than even other space missions.
Of course, the interior of the space station, which has been continually inhabited since 1998, is chock full of all sorts of bacteria, as are all environments humans inhabit.
Many forms of earth-bound bacteria have already proven to be extremely hardy in space. In 2010, bacteria originally pulled from rocks on the cliffs of the (comically named) British village of Beer managed to survive for a full year and a half in the vacuum of space. The photosynthesizing bacteria seemed utterly unconcerned with the conditions of the ISS’s exterior.
All of these variables mean that, although Shkaplerov may be ready to claim the credit for discovering alien life in the name of Mother Russia, the jury is still out until a complete analysis of the bacteria has been revealed.
Image courtesy of NASA