Thursday, 20 Jan 2022

Boffins to fire tiny tardigrades at 100m mph to see if they’ll survive in space

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Ambitious boffins want to fire 'indestructible' tardigrades into the stars at 100 million miles per hour using massive lasers in spacecrafts the size of a human hand, in a bid to show what space travel does to the organisms.

The microscopic animals have an ability to survive extreme conditions, and that will be put to the test by researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, as detailed in a paper published in the journal Acta Astronautica.

"This has never been done before, to push macroscopic objects at speeds approaching the speed of light," said Professor Philip Lubin at UC Santa Barbara.

The small spacecraft containing the tardigrades 'would probably be the size of your hand', according to Professor Lubin.

"It would probably look like a semiconductor wafer with an edge to protect it from the radiation and dust bombardment as it goes through the interstellar medium," he said.

Tardigrades are microscopic eight-legged animals that have been to outer space before, and would likely survive the apocalypse, according to National Geographic.

Explaining the reasons behind the thinking of the project, study author Professor Joel Rothman, also at University of California, Santa Barbara, said that they will study the tardigrade's behaviour as they hurtle to outer space.

"We can ask how well they remember trained behaviour when they're flying away from their earthly origin at near the speed of light, and examine their metabolism, physiology, neurological function, reproduction and ageing," he said.

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"We could start thinking about the design of interstellar transporters, whatever they may be, in a way that could ameliorate the issues that are detected in these diminutive animals."

The entire launch process – which would use laser light – would consume one tenth of the entire US electrical grid, the researchers admit. However, they think it's our "destiny" to keep exploring.

"I think it's our destiny to keep exploring," said Professor Rothman. "Look at the history of the human species.

"We explore at smaller and smaller levels down to subatomic levels and we also explore at increasingly larger scales.

"Such drive toward ceaseless exploration lies at the core of who we are as a species."

Scientists at Japan's National Institute of Polar Research successfully revived a tardigrade which they collected from Antarctica and had been frozen for a total of 30 years.

Tardigrades, more widely known as 'water bears' are tiny creatures, usually around 0.5mm in length.

A tardigrade can go years without food or water and can endure extreme radiation and temperatures.

The creatures feed on plant cells and algae.

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