There’s no oxygen, zero gravity, extreme temperatures and a constant barrage of cosmic radiation on the outside of the International Space Station. So how did sea plankton get there and why is it still alive and thriving?
Russian cosmonauts Olek Artemyev and Alexander Skvortsov were on a routine spacewalk to launch nanosatellites (tossing them like tennis balls to Russian wolfhounds) when they noticed some dirt on the outside of the Russian side of the space station and on a window called an illuminator. They used wipes to clean the surfaces and a later analysis of the microscopic particles identified them as sea plankton and other microorganisms.
This has never been seen before, says Vladimir Solovyev, chief of the Russian ISS orbital mission. It must have been on the module when it was launched, you say? Good guess but Solovyev says the sea plankton is not indigenous to Baikonur, Kazakhstan, where the Russian launches took place.
So how did sea plankton end up 260 miles up in space? It didn’t just float up there on its own, did it? You’re getting warmer, says Solovyev.
Plankton in these stages of development could be found on the surface of the oceans. This is not typical for Baikonur. It means that there are some uplifting air currents which reach the station and settle on its surface.
The first components of the space station were launched in 1998 so the plankton could have been living there for years. It's known that microorganisms can live in extreme conditions but this is a first for the ISS. So far, NASA has made no comment about the plankton discovery nor if our astronauts are as diligent as the Russians in keeping our side of the space station clean and shiny.
In the meantime, Solovyev plans further studies on the outer space plankton.
If this stuff can grow without oxygen or gravity under extreme temperatures while being bombarded by cosmic radiation, it sounds like the perfect thing to put in my office instead of plants.