Could a dead astronaut spread life to Mars?

IT’S now known that the living conditions in space can wreak havoc on the human body – but how might the human body leave its mark on the cosmos?

Plans for more rigorous missions have increased the likelihood for the eventual death of an astronaut in space, and scientists now say it’s possible that a rogue corpse could provide the spark for life on another planet.

While the conditions would have to be ‘ideal,’ a human body that manages to avoid incineration in the atmosphere and lands on a distant world could transport microbes or even act as the ‘starter-pack’ for the emergence of life.

Under a certain set of circumstances, microbes carried by a human corpse might be able to survive the space environment, especially in a world like Mars, explained Louisiana State University microbial biologist Gary King in an interview with Astronomy Magazine.

The researcher, who studies microbial life in extreme environments, says these organisms are already known to live in harsh, space-like conditions.

‘We’ve pulled microbes out of permafrost, and there we’re talking about organisms surviving around one million years in suspended animation,’ King told Astronomy Magazine.

‘Especially if the trip is somewhere close, like to Mars, bacterial spores in the human body will survive for sure.  'It’s also possible that other, non-sporing bacteria could survive as well. ‘I’m thinking about microbes like Deinococcus radiodurans, which we know can survive low levels of water and high amounts of ionizing radiation’ he said.

But, the successful transport of such microbes would be dependent on three major factors: protection of the corpse, its storage, and the corpse’s flight time.

The body would have to be encased in a spacecraft or something similar for the microbes to survive passage through the atmosphere, and in order for them to spread after landing, the craft would have to be cracked.

Along with this, it would need either to be kept in above-freezing temperatures that would allow for liquid water, or freeze-dried.

But, this second scenario could be far more likely, as the researcher notes that ‘space is kind of the ultimate freeze-dryer.’

Microbes would also better able to survive within the solar system, as longer time spent floating in space will subject the corpse to higher amounts of cosmic radiation, Astronomy Magazine reports.

Travelling to another system, like Proxima Centauri, would severely limit survival as radiation would cause mutations within the DNA and RNA.

‘But,’ King said, ‘I won’t say impossible, if you need only one of the vast number of microbes on the human body to survive the trip.’

Even if all microbes are killed off as the corpse plummets through space, scientists say it’s possible that it could lead to a new form of life altogether given the perfect conditions.

If the corpse landed on a planet which already hosts certain fundamental molecules, like the DNA building blocks triphosphates, it could spark life.

‘The molecules released from the decaying astronaut could potentially provide a boost to a new origin [of life] if the environmental conditions were almost perfect for life to begin, but just a few ingredients were missing or present in too low concentrations,’ Jack Szostack, a Nobel winning geneticist at Harvard Medical School, told Astronomy Magazine.

And, according to University of Glasgow chemist Lee Cronin, a new genesis would have a much better chance if entire ill-fated crew, rather than a single corpse, landed in the right environment – like a shallow pool – on the right planet. 

 

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Monday, 20 January 2020
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