|How Beer came to be on the space station|
29 August 2009
There are chunks of Devon coastline in space. I jest not.
On the end of Europe’s Columbus science laboratory at the International Space Station, there is a small cluster of boxes known as Eutef (European Technology Exposure Facility).
And tucked in one of those boxes are tiny cubes of rock taken from a cliff face at Beer, a fishing village not far from Lyme Regis.
They don’t do anything. They just sit there, sunning themselves as the ISS circles the Earth at 27,000 km/h.
The cubes have been in orbit now for about a year-and-a-half. They were taken up to the station when Columbus itself was launched.
But in about a week’s time, astronauts from the space shuttle Discovery will go and retrieve them.
It’s time for the Beer rock to come home.
The cubes are part of a European Space Agency exobiology experiment that investigates how life might survive elsewhere in the Solar System.
When the scientists get the cubes back in the lab, they will try to find out if any of the microbes that normally live in the cliffs of Beer have survived their stay in space.
If they have, there could be something very special about them.
Living in rock is not easy at the best of times, but in space the Beer microbes would have been exposed to extreme ultraviolet light, cosmic rays, and dramatic shifts in temperature.
All the water in the rock would also have boiled away into the vacuum of space.
Professor Charles Cockell from the Open University is part of the experimental team. He told me:
"The microbes have got to be able to survive desiccation because it’s a vacuum in space; that’s the main problem. Radiation you can survive by living inside the rock and some of these microbes live just under the surface.
"But if you are desiccated, you are inactive. So the issue is: how long can you remain inactive when you’ve got background levels of radiation damaging the molecules inside the cell? We’re trying to find out which microbes might best be able to survive extreme space conditions."
The experiment could say something about how life might exist on Mars today just below its red surface. It could give clues as to how micro-organisms may be transported between the planets in rocks - in meteorites, for example.
And it could also help identify microbes that would be useful to future astronauts who venture beyond low-Earth orbit to explore the rest of the Solar System.
These spacefarers may use life-support systems that rely on microbes to generate oxygen, to provide food and even recycle waste.
Space shuttle Discovery (STS-128) is due to blast off for the ISS on Tuesday. The mission’s first spacewalk, scheduled currently for Saturday 29 August, will be when the small chunks of Devon are pulled off Columbus and packed up for their trip home.
There are some good ISS sighting opportunities from the UK in the next week. The station will appear as a bright star moving swiftly over the early morning sky, from West to East.
When someone asks you in the pub where the highest point is along the world famous "Jurassic Coastline" of southern England, you now know the answer.
You can point up to that bright light in the sky and say, "It’s on the space station".
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