Unwanted Life Forms Abound In Sick Spacecraft

Spacecraft start out clean - as close to germ-free as humans can make them. But after years of use, unused spaces within the walls can become home to unwanted life forms.

When NASA joined the Russian space program in its evaluation of the microbial activity aboard the Mir spacecraft, they made some interesting discoveries. NASA's plan was to obtain information that would be useful during long-duration missions.

Mir had suffered several power outages during its fifteen years in LEO; temperature and humidity had gone well beyond normal levels. In 1998, NASA astronauts were collecting samples from air and surfaces. Imagine their surprise when they opened an obscure service panel in Mir's Kvant-2 Module and discovered a free-floating mass of water.

"According to the astronauts' eyewitness reports, the globule was nearly the size of a basketball," C. Mark Ott, health scientist at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, said.

Following a thorough search, several more globules were discovered. The water wasn't clean, either; two of the blobs were brown and the other was milky white. Samples taken back to Earth for analysis contained several dozen species of bacteria and fungi, plus some protozoa, dust mites, and possibly spirochetes. The temperature behind the panels was a toasty 82 degrees Fahrenheit - perfect for microorganisms.


(Dust mite found in globule of water on Mir spacecraft)

Colonies of unwanted organisms were also found growing on rubber gaskets around windows, on space suit components, cable insulations and tubing, on the insulation of copper wires, and on communications devices.

In the near future, astronauts won't need to send out the samples to a lab. They will use the new LOCAD-PTS handheld microorganism detector, developed by NASA to give results in just ten minutes.

Microorganisms can pose a real hazard to the health of a spacecraft. According to Andrew Steele, senior staff scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington working with other investigators at Marshall Space Flight Center:

"Microorganisms can degrade carbon steel and even stainless steel. In corners where two different materials meet, they can set up a galvanic [electrical] circuit and cause corrosion. They can produce acids that pit metal, etch glass, and make rubber brittle. They can also foul air and water filters."

Science fiction authors have worried about unwanted alien life forms in spacecraft for years. In his 1985 novel Schismatrix, sf author Bruce Sterling wrote about "sours:"

Each Concatenate world faced biological problems as it aged...

The Republic struggled to control its Sours...Mutant fungi had spread like oil slicks, forming a mycelial crust beneath the surface of the soil...
(Read more about sours)

Ten years earlier, rat-sized aliens with inborn engineering skills destroyed a spacecraft from within the walls in The Mote in God's Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.

In the 1960's, the problem was addressed humorously in The Trouble with Tribbles, a classic Star Trek episode written by sf author David Gerrold, first broadcast on June 21, 1968. Storage bins on Deep Space Station K7 are being used to store quadro-triticale, a bio-engineered grain. Irresponsible entrepreneur Cyrano Jones brings cute furry animals called tribbles onto the station. It turns out that tribbles get into everything, and have a spectacular rate of reproduction (according to Dr. McCoy, "they're born pregnant").


(Captain Kirk confronts the enemy within the walls)

What are your favorite aliens hiding in the walls of spacecraft? Read more at Science@NASA.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 5/13/2007)

Follow this kind of news @Technovelgy.

| Email | RSS | Blog It | Stumble | del.icio.us | Digg | Reddit |

Would you like to contribute a story tip? It's easy:
Get the URL of the story, and the related sf author, and add it here.

Comment/Join discussion ( 12 )

Related News Stories - (" Space Tech ")

Is 'The Pulsar Positioning System' Evidence For SETI?
'For a hyperspace jump, you need at least four beacons for an accurate fix.' - Harry Harrison, 1959.

Are Observed Radio Bursts An Alien Propulsion Technology?
'These cones were driven through space by light pressure, the possibilities of which force they had long utilized.' - Edmond Hamilton, 1929.

Caltech's ET Laboratory Looks For New Earths
'...set my automatic astronomical instruments to searching for a habitable planet.'- Edmond Hamilton, 1936.

Shh! USAF's Secret X-37B Space Plane Breaks Record
'More airplane than spaceship...' - Robert Heinlein, 1951.

 

Google
  Web TechNovelgy.com   

Technovelgy (that's tech-novel-gee!) is devoted to the creative science inventions and ideas of sf authors. Look for the Invention Category that interests you, the Glossary, the Invention Timeline, or see what's New.

 

 

 

 

 

Current News

Cattle Avoidance Feature In Indian Autonomous Cars
'The driver went about the business of gently slipping the teflon-coated metal scoop beneath the first animal...'

Project KOVR Fashion Protection From Infosphere
'... the entire shroudlike membrane took on whatever physical characteristics were projected at any nanosecond.'

Twist Bioscience High Density Digital Data On DNA
'They tied the memory to the bloodline and that was their record!'

'We're Not Creating A Terminator' Say Russians About Gun-Wielding Robot Fedor
Nobody is thinking about the Terminator. Westworld, maybe.

Vantablack Now IMMEASURABLY Black
'a black coating now thatís ninety-nine percent absorptive...'

Mercedes-Benz Autonomous Taxi Fleet In 3 Years
'... the taxi utilized sophisticated electronic sensors to perceive its surroundings.'

Is 'The Pulsar Positioning System' Evidence For SETI?
'For a hyperspace jump, you need at least four beacons for an accurate fix.'

Someday, You Might Like VR Enough To Move In
'That barrier was going to melt away someday soon. The transhumanists had promised...'

Humans Use Mental Power For Turtle Slavery
Now we need to start looking for animals with fingers...

Solar-Powered Moisture Vaporator
'The atmosphere yielded its moisture with reluctance.'

DxtER! Tricorder Prize Won By Final Frontier Medical Devices
We've been waiting a long time for this, Star Trek fans.

President Trump's Wall As Otra Nation Hyperloop
'...an hollow tube must be constructed the whole distance... as to admit a four wheeled carriage...'

Pickup Lines From Artificial Intelligences
'They hate us, you know... The humans. They'll stop at nothing.'

Pooper Scooper Drone Robot Watchdog 1
'Robots pick up the garbage and junk...'

Cassie Robot Brings AT-ST Walker To Life
There's even a log test!

Hundreds Of Robot Lawnmowers Invade Texas Town
'The mower reached the edge of the lawn, clucked to itself...'

More SF in the News Stories

More Beyond Technovelgy science news stories

Home | Glossary | Invention Timeline | Category | New | Contact Us | FAQ | Advertise |
Technovelgy.com - where science meets fiction™

Copyright© Technovelgy LLC; all rights reserved.