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 ")

Nifty New SDS Space Debris Sensor For ISS
'Their radars... could easily pinpoint the debris of the early Space Age.' Arthur C. Clarke, 1978.

NanoRacks Space Station Module Concept Validated
Space junk into space architecture.

Interstellar Asteroid Visits Our Solar System
'This asteroid had whirled in from the cold of the interplanetary space...' - Ray Cummings, 1930.

UM Hall Thruster Breaks Records
Someday, we'll see an ion drive used to get to Mars.

 

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

Orwell's Memory Hole Looms Larger Thanks To Nvidia
'All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.'

Pipefish Robot Checks Pipes Cheap
Just like capsule endoscopy, but for bigger pipes. That go underground.

Nifty New SDS Space Debris Sensor For ISS
'Their radars... could easily pinpoint the debris of the early Space Age.'

NanoRacks Space Station Module Concept Validated
Space junk into space architecture.

Nuclear Drones Could Fly For Years
'I sent my eyes on their rounds and tended my gallery of one hundred-thirty changing pictures...'

SciFiQ Science Fiction Writing Aid
'Books were just a commodity that had to be produced, like jam or bootlaces.'

Robot Only Faster, Not Better, At Recycling
'Whenever a robot finds something it can't identify straight off... it puts whatever it is in the hopper outside your window.'

Poland Starts With 1000 Warmate 'Suicide Drones'
'Royal Security had told the pods to electrocute you or blast you into chum.'

Dream Of Building Your Own Rocket?
Fiorello Bodoni, you inspire all of us.

Zero Mass 'Vaporators' Pull Drinking Water From The Air
Did you think of Star Wars?

Elon Musk Fears A 'Fleet-Wide Hack' Of Autonomous Vehicles
'Khan grinned. 'It's alive! Bu-wahhahahah!''

China Melts Tibetan Permafrost To Plant Forest
'Can you give us a microwave spotlight?'

iFlytek Doctor Robot First To Pass Medical Exams
Doctor shortage? No problem, we'll just use the autodoc.

Slaughterbot AI KIller Quadcopter Drones
'The real border was defended by... a swarm of quasi-independent aerostats.'

Do We Really Want Backflipping Robots?
Also includes wonderful blooper reel.

RNA-Based Biocomputing Device
Living things can sense and analyze complex signals in living cells.

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.