The list of passengers for the first interstellar space mission has been released and, sorry Elon, you’re not on it and neither are any other Trekkie-wannabes – with or without their own rockets. However, if you’re a Caenorhabditis elegans or a tardigrade, you may want to check the manifest of the starchip USS Starlite to see if it has a tiny seat with your name on it.
“We are developing the capability to test whether terrestrial life as we know it can exist in interstellar space by preparing small life-forms … C. elegans and radiation-resistant tardigrades … which are ideal candidates to be our first interstellar travelers.”
“Small and radiation-resistant” – that second qualification knocked Peter Dinklage off the list but, in a speech given at the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program’s 2017 Symposium in Denver reported on by Space.com, Philip Lubin, head of the Starlight program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, gave an update on who would be making the first trip-on-a-chip to another star. Project Starlite (also referred to as DEEP-IN (Directed Energy Propulsion for Interstellar Exploration) and DEIS (Directed Energy Interstellar Studies)) is NASA’s program to use lasers to propel chip-sized spacecraft or wafer-sats at up to one-quarter the speed of light on long-distance voyages.
“Besides being microscopic, and thus conveniently fitting on our first interstellar wafer craft, they can be frozen and put into a state of anhydrobiosis, meaning they can be dehydrated and put into suspended animation. When they are re-hydrated, they wake up as good as new!”
No jet-lag … that pretty much eliminates the rest of us humans. While those cute little tardigrades are better known and have better nicknames (water bears, moss piglets, space bears), Caenorhabditis elegans (which means recent, rod-like and elegant) seems better suited for a trip to Alpha Centauri on a DVD-sized spaceship. C. elegans was the first multicellular organism to have its whole genome sequenced, they’re hermaphrodites and can be re-hydrated after years in a dehydrated state with a tiny drop of water – assuming there is water of some kind at its destination. Tardigrades are a more complex organism that have shown in previous orbital space flights to be extremely resistant to radiation, G-forces, temperature fluctuations, lost luggage and anything else they might encounter on a 20-year trip.
How will future mission control specialists know that the space travelers survived the trip in their miniature chambers? The craft’s onboard plutonium will power a warm-up and tiny cameras to monitor their awakening … not to mention any close encounters with aliens of their size or larger. Anticipating your questions and concerns about contamination, NASA escapes through a loophole – while it is participating in sending the ship, it will not participate in the funding of the C. elegans/tardigrades portion and the reanimation itself will occur in space near Alpha Centauri, not on a planet.
Should we be sending Earth creatures into deep space? Will, as believers in panspermia suggest, the worms and water bears be greeted by long-lost relatives? Will they survive or die in a few hours like Laika, the first dog to orbit the Earth 60 years ago this month?
Or will an extraterrestrial skeet-shooter blast the star-chip to bits before anything can happen?