Worms survived shuttle disaster
The Washington Post
Tiny nematode worms in aluminum canisters aboard the space shuttle Columbia fell up to 25 miles when the orbiter disintegrated but were recovered alive in Texas.
The survival of the nematodes, each about as big as a comma on a sheet of newsprint, suggests ways simple life forms might endure traumatic interplanetary journeys, the researchers said.
The report, in a paper published last week in the journal Astrobiology, said a team led by NASA's Ames Research Center had placed six coffee-can-size canisters of nematodes aboard Columbia to monitor muscular atrophy during spaceflight. Each canister held seven or eight petri dishes containing the worms.
Team member Catharine Conley, a NASA astrobiologist, said nematodes are useful in studying how prolonged spaceflight can affect the aging process in humans as well as human tolerance for cosmic ray exposure and muscular deterioration from weightlessness.
The team said that when Columbia broke up on the morning of Feb. 1, 2003, the nematode canisters plunged from the orbiter at speeds up to 650 mph and hit the ground with an impact 2,295 times the force of Earth's gravity.
"I can't say I was surprised the worms were alive, because we spin them up to 2,000 G's in the lab without thinking about it," Conley said in a telephone interview. "What surprised me was that they found the canisters at all." Conley said four of five recovered canisters had at least some live nematodes.
Officials said the nematodes' survival offers evidence that life could survive re-entry under adverse conditions.
"You could argue that something could survive tens of thousands of years of space travel, but the chances it eventually will hit something hospitable are really minimal," Conley said.
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