Could tardigrades survive re-entry?

The latest from Phil Plait at his Bad Astronomer blog is that the “doomed Russian space probe” Phobos-Grunt will be crashing back to Earth within a half-hour of this post.

This concise summary was from his post on January 4th:

In November 2011, the Russian space agency launched the much-anticipated Mars probe called Phobos-Grunt (which means “Phobos dirt” or “ground”), which would go to the Red Planet, soft-land a probe on the tiny moon Phobos, and return a sample of the surface to Earth. Unfortunately, the booster that would take it from Earth orbit into a Mars-intercept trajectory failed to fire, stranding the spacecraft in low-Earth orbit. Atmospheric drag has doomed the mission; it will most likely burn up sometime in the next two weeks.

I’ve been following this story a little bit since I learned about the ten species that were being sent up to the Martian moon to learn if living organisms could survive the 3-year, out-and-back journey.

Alas, they can be squished. (See Ed Yong comment below)

The Planetary Society very carefully selected representative prokaryotes, eukaryotes, and archaea as described in the table at their website. One of these was the remarkable tardigrade, represented in this plush toy gift we gave to our daughter this Christmas. My new boss, biologist Meg Lowman, wrote a nice article on the tardigrades for her weekly column in the News & Observer.

These are unusual microscopic multicellular invertebrates that can survive being dried out (dessication) and revived as long as a year later. Their ability to survive hostile conditions where any self-respecting organism would die is the reason they are called extremophiles.

K. Ingemar Jönsson at Kristianistad University in Sweden has been running the Tardigrades in Space (TARDIS) program since 2007 when several species of organisms were successfully returned to Earth from the FOTON-M3 mission and survived exposure to both space vacuum and solar radiation.

But I doubt very much that they will be able to survive directly burning up, sans spacecraft, as Phobos-Grunt disintegrates over the Pacific Ocean within minutes.

Requisat en pace, tardigrades.

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4 Responses to Could tardigrades survive re-entry?

  1. Jeff says:

    But I doubt very much that they will be able to survive directly burning up, sans spacecraft, as Phobos-Grunt disintegrates over the Pacific Ocean within minutes.

    The LIFE module is located inside the Phobos-Grunt sample return capsule, which is designed to survive reentry and a hard (no parachutes or retrorockets) landing. Thus, there is at least slim chance that the experiment can be recovered should the capsule, or fragments of it, hit land.

  2. Ed Yong says:

    Here’s a thing about tardigrades that everyone forgets. They’re famously invincible to a wide variety of environmental and chemical threats. But as Jonsson once told me, they’re “vulnerable to mechanical damage”. They can still be squished easily enough.

  3. Mike Shaw says:

    Thanks for the great article, David !
    Too bad the Russian mission didn’t work out as planned. I hope there will be other similar missions. I’ve posted a bit about it (in the early phase) on my site: http://www.tardigrade.us

    All the best to you!
    Mike

  4. David Kroll says:

    Hi, Mike! So great to see you here. I’ll definitely be adding your site to my daily reading. tardigrade.us is a great resource for learning about these creatures.