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 ")

Comercial Airlock 'Bishop' Now On ISS
'They put the bones and the glass can that had contained the soup into the double-doored partition or vestibule...' - John Jacob Astor IV, 1894.

Space Station Could Use Some Martian Sawgrass
'What better purifying machine is there than a plot of grass?' - George O. Smith, 1942.

Arches Of Chaos: Jovian Space Manifolds Create A Celestial Autobahn
'Commute ships roared on all sides, as Ed Morris made his way wearliy home to Earth at the end of a long hard day at the office.' Philip K. Dick,

ESA Space Claw To Grab Space Junk
Now, where have I seen this idea before?

 

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

Las Vegas Tunnels To Have Autonomous Teslas
'...just a steady velvety whirr as the taxi sped along.'

TCL CSOT 17-Inch Printed OLED Scrolling Display
'..a wide sheet of clear material suddenly flared with light and swirling colour.'

Reachy Humanoid VR Teleoperation App
"I went to the control room where the three other men were manipulating their mechanical men...'

Unitree A1 Robot ala Black Mirror and Snow Crash
'The legs are long, curled way up to deliver power...'

DALL-E Makes Creative Images From Text
Okay, sf fans. If you could have some art created from a science fiction sentence, what sentence would you pick?

BladeBUG Robots Clean Massive Wind Turbine Blades
'There were the cleaners, with large padded feet, who were apparently polishing their way the whole length...'

Looms To Manually Weave Lunar Rover Wheels
It's fascinating to me how the Apollo program forced people to think outside their usual boxes.

IceBot Antarctic (Planetary?) Robotic Explorers Made Of Ice
'Some will combine in place to form more complicated structures, like excavators or centipedes.'

Glad 2020 Is Over
Maybe you missed one of these?

PEDOT Polymer Could Enhance Brain-Machine Interfaces
'the hair-fine wire going deep into Owen's brain, down into the pleasure center.'

Study: Robots Encourage Humans To Take Risks
Not exactly Three Laws compliant.

Kinetic Buildings And Psychotropic Houses
'There was a dim whirring, and the spheres tipped and began to rotate...'

Jupe Urban Escape Pods Have Tesla, SpaceX Roots
'The houses are prefabricated units... and they sell at the flat rate of five hundred dollars a room set up.'

Best Robot Dance Video Of 2020
'I can Mashed Potato... I can do the Twist.'

Vertical Farm In Singapore's Output Is 1.5 Tons Per Day
'A towering eighty-story structure like the office "In-and-Out" baskets stacked up to the sky.'

3D Printed 'Blisk' Manufactured In Orbit
'It can be mass-produced only in the orbiting factories...'

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.