TINY INTERSTELLAR SPACE TRAVELERS
Interstellar space travel to a neighbouring star system may sound like something out of a Christopher Nolan or Ridley Scott feature film. However, sending organic life this far out into our galaxy may soon become a reality using tiny organisms known as Tardigrades, according to UC Santa Barbara physics professors Philip Lubin and Joel Rothman.
Tardigrades, also known as “water-bears” or “moss-piglets”, are 500 million year old eight-legged micro-animals that are capable of enduring extreme conditions, repairing their own DNA and suspending all of their metabolic functions – oh, and can survive almost anything.
These qualities, according to scientist’s, make the Tardigrade the perfect organism for interstellar space travel.
But what could possibly be used to deliver a microscopic organism into deep space? Well, UC Santa Barbara professors are designing what is being called a “wafer-craft”, which may be capable of some crazy speeds.
Professor Lubin said in a press release that “It would probably look like a semiconductor wafer with an edge to protect it from the radiation and dust bombardment as it goes through the interstellar medium.” Lubin continued to say “It would probably be the size of your hand to start with.”
Light Speed Travelling Tardigrades
Professors Philip Lubin and Joel Rothman theorise that with continued innovation and research into the wafer-craft idea, that relativistic speeds of up to 100 million miles per hour (161 million km/h) may be possible. This would allow the tiny wafer-craft to ” reach the next solar system, Proxima Centauri, in roughly 20 years.”
They also predict that this technology could be used on a larger scale for future human spaceflights to Mars and beyond, with NASA already supporting relativistic flight technology via “directed energy propulsion”.
Although the technological innovations that may come from the attempt to send tiny organisms to another star system may sound cool, ethical issues have also been raised over the question of “forward contamination.”
Professor Lubin noted in the UC Santa Barbara press release that “I think if you started talking about directed propagation of life, which is sometimes called panspermia — this idea that life came from elsewhere and ended up on the earth by comets and other debris, or even intentionally from another civilization — the idea that we would purposefully send out life does bring up big questions.”
The UC Santa Barbara physicists concluded that there is there is “no risk of forward contamination, as the probes nearing any other planet would burn up in their atmosphere or be obliterated in the collision with the surface.
Furthermore, the press release pointed out that “because the wafer-craft are on a one-way trip, there’s no risk that any extra-terrestrial microbes will return to Earth.”
Learn more about Professor Lubin’s work and mission by watching his most recent TED video: