'Water bears' are first animal to survive space vacuum
Tiny invertebrates called ‘water bears’ can survive in the vacuum of space, a European Space Agency experiment has shown. They are the first animals known to be able to survive the harsh combination of low pressure and intense radiation found in space.
Water bears, also known as tardigrades, are known for their virtual indestructibility on Earth. The creatures can survive intense pressures, huge doses of radiation, and years of being dried out.
To further test their hardiness, Ingemar Jönsson of Sweden’s Kristianstad University and colleagues launched two species of dried-up tardigrades from Kazakhstan in September 2007 aboard ESA’s FOTON-M3 mission, which carried a variety of experimental payloads.
After 10 days of exposure to space, the satellite returned to Earth. The tardigrades were retrieved and rehydrated to test how they reacted to the airless conditions in space, as well as ultraviolet radiation from the Sun and charged particles from space called cosmic rays.
The vacuum itself seemed to have little effect on the creatures. But ultraviolet radiation, which can damage cellular material and DNA, did take its toll.
In one of the two species tested, 68% of specimens that were shielded from higher-energy radiation from the Sun were revived within 30 minutes of being rehydrated. Many of these tardigrades went on to lay eggs that successfully hatched.
But only a handful of animals survived full exposure to the Sun’s UV light, which is more than 1000 times stronger in space than on the Earth’s surface.
Before this experiment, only lichen and bacteria were known to be able to survive exposure to the combination of vacuum and space radiation.
"No animal has survived open space before," says developmental biologist Bob Goldstein of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who was not affiliated with the study. "The finding that animals survived rehydration after 10 days in open space - and then produced viable embryos as well - is really remarkable."
This ability to survive in extreme conditions “might be important when we consider the habitability of other bodies in our solar system or beyond,” says astrobiologist Gerda Horneck of the German Aerospace Center. But the results say little about how the animals might develop and reproduce in harsh environments, Horneck says.
The authors aren’t sure what causes the animals to be as resistant as they are to the effects of ultraviolet radiation. They speculate their hardiness might stem from the same adaptations that enable tardigrades to bounce back from being dried out.
Journal reference: Current Biology, vol 18, p R729