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Space Science

Earth Bacteria May Hitch A Ride To The Stars 221

An anonymous reader writes " has an article on how old rocket stages are carrying bacteria from Earth to interstellar space. For example, four upper rocket stages were used to boost deep space probes Voyager 1, Voyager 2, Pioneer 10 and New Horizons. The spacecraft were sterilized, but the rocket stages were not, and they now carry the bacteria of the engineers who handled them. If the rocket stages hit a habitable planet, and the bacteria survive the journey, they would be able to reproduce and colonize the planet ... not that there's a high liklihood of that. 'In 40,000 years, this wayward 185-pound (84 kilogram) lump of metal will pass by the star AC+79 3888 at a distance of 1.64 light-years. ... Given the sheer expanse of time that lies ahead of the four discarded rockets, at least one is likely to eventually encounter a planet. But even if that planet's environment is conducive to life, the long dormant bacteria will not just gently plop into some exotic ocean. No soft landing can be expected.'"
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Earth Bacteria May Hitch A Ride To The Stars

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  • by tttonyyy ( 726776 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @11:46AM (#19052479) Homepage Journal
    ...we'll send all the telephone sanitisers after the discarded rocket stages to clear up any unwanted bacteria. Get 'em loaded in the arc!
    • by Pharmboy ( 216950 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @12:03PM (#19052775) Journal
      Actually, I'm thinking that there was at least ONE engineer who didn't wash his hands after using the restroom, and how THOSE bacteria will become the overlords on some planet...
      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by loganrapp ( 975327 )
        I, for one, welcome our galactical pee-born bacterial overlords.
      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by Howserx ( 955320 )
        I'm more inclined to think that bacteria and viruses won;t be overlords. More likely they'll go into marketing, politics, and management. There's a McBride gonna-be floating out there right now.
    • Ah Golgafrinch I miss you! And how about hair stylists, nail manicurists, etc.
  • Justification? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @11:47AM (#19052485)

    Given the sheer expanse of time that lies ahead of the four discarded rockets, at least one is likely to eventually encounter a planet.
    I don't see the justification with this statement. Why can't a discarded rocket be locked into a stable orbit around a star instead? Or hit an asteroid? Or go into a star? I think they're being a little too optimistic that one of these fragments is going to land on a planet.
    • Re:Justification? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by GodInHell ( 258915 ) * on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @11:52AM (#19052605) Homepage
      It's part fo the "space is infinite so all things which can exist do exist" line of (incorrect) thinking.

      Two thumbs down for cliched half-truths on this article.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Ngarrang ( 1023425 )
      My thought drifted more towards the fact that space is HUGE. The likely hood of impacting ANYTHING but dust is remote.
    • by griffjon ( 14945 )
      ...or not be sterilized/killed by the extreme heat of entry into this other planet's atmosphere?
      • Re:Justification? (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Rei ( 128717 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @12:39PM (#19053299) Homepage
        That's the real problem here. It's not just moving at interplanetary speeds; it's moving at interstellar speeds. When it approaches a star, it's going to be accelerated towards it. The kinetic energy of impact will be crazy-high. Plus, 40,000 years of ionizing radiation on a thin-hulled body? Not exactly an environment conducive to life.

        On the other hand, it doesn't take human launched stages to get bacteria from Earth to other planets. In fact, odds are, we've already had bacteria from Earth touch down alive on Titan []. The K-T dinosaur-killing impact alone launched about 600 million rocks from Earth into space. As we now know, Earth rocks tend to be infested with microorganisms, and most rocks that are ejected won't kill the bacteria on the inside (spalling has already been demonstrated to be gentle enough). The sun, Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars bear the brunt of the impacts. Mercury and Mars impacts are harsh, due to tenuous atmospheres. Venus impacts are more gentle, but obviously, Venus is a hellish inferno. However, Jupiter can eject fragments further, and that's where things get interesting. About 100 objects strike each Galilean satellite However, with their weak to nonexistent atmospheres, they hit very hard -- 8-40 km/s. You'd be lucky to have even proteins survive. However, Titan has a huge atmosphere, ideal for aerobraking. From this one impact, about 30 Earth meteorites hit Titan within a few million years. They enter the atmosphere at 5-20 km/s, brake, break into fragments, and the fragments hit the surface intact.


        "That's food for thought -- could Earth have seeded Titan with microbial life? If Gladman's simulations are correct, the material has definitely gotten there in the past. Gladman added, in conclusion, that "if you ever had atmospheres on any of the [presently] airless satellites, they could have acted as aerobrakes" just like Titan's would today."
    • Re:Justification? (Score:4, Informative)

      by Deadstick ( 535032 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @12:44PM (#19053377)
      Why can't a discarded rocket be locked into a stable orbit around a star instead?

      Orbit capture is an extremely improbable event. In a pure two-body situation it can't happen at all: the approaching body will either hit the primary body or zing by it in a hyperbola. Something has to decelerate it during a critical period as it's arriving, and that means there has to be a third body in the right place at the right time. A wandering rocket would have to experience thousands of encounters to have a realistic probability of being captured in one.


    • by Manchot ( 847225 )
      Well, it's extremely unlikely that any rocket will enter a stable orbit around a star. Because it was launched outside of the gravitational well of all other stars, if it approaches any of them, it will automatically have more than enough energy to escape. It may be deflected, but it probably won't be captured. Having said that, if it encounters enough resistance while near that star (e.g., due to solar wind), it might be possible, assuming that it is enough to lose all of its initial kinetic energy.
  • Screaming (Score:4, Funny)

    by kevinbr ( 689680 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @11:47AM (#19052491)
    In space, no one can hear bacteria scream
  • by Recovering Hater ( 833107 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @11:49AM (#19052541)
    And then some poor alien life forms will contract an illness from the bacteria. This in turn kills off the only other sentient beings besides humans. We will learn of this tragedy from messages recieved from SETI with aliens cursing humans. Oh the irony. Smallpox blankets in space. :P
  • by brejc8 ( 223089 ) * on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @11:49AM (#19052545) Homepage Journal
    Dear Mr Johnson, We are contacting you from the planet Xunxu as you owe twenty five million dollars in child support charges for your population of contribution to our planet.
  • civilization? Perhaps, we should consider GAing some bacteria with more of our genome (and other plants/animals) and sending them to the stars.
  • by tb()ne ( 625102 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @11:51AM (#19052591)
    Hopefully, the bacteria won't be deemed a biological attack by the technologically advanced (yet extremely vengeful) inhabitants of whatever planet the rocket stage hits.
  • by Ruvim ( 889012 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @11:52AM (#19052607)
    If planet is habitable, it got to have the atmosphere. Here is a pretty good chance that the stage will just burn-up on entry. I doubt that any bacteria will survive the temperature at which the metal burns.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by WindBourne ( 631190 )
      In 40K years, we will either be in the same realm or we will be extinct. Either way, it does not matter.
      • At least when we get there, we will be immune to the bacteria and will have weakened or wiped out tlhe alien life forms. We could just move into their houses, etc.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward
      After thousands of years of radiation, there's no way the bacteria could have any DNA intact. Alive, bacteria can repair damage or simply reproduce those who survive radiation. These bacteria on space objects are dormant, so the damage just builds up.
  • asdf (Score:3, Insightful)

    by UPZ ( 947916 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @11:52AM (#19052609)
    perhaps life came to earth the same way
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by ls -la ( 937805 )
    • Ah yes, and the advanced life that got them into space was who? Oh, and who got into space to make the one that made them, and so on, and so on, ad infinitum. Panspermia is a horrible theory, somewhere life had to sprout for it to get spread around, all the hand waving in the world wont make that go away, and if it evolved someplace else, it is no more or less likely that it evolved here.

  • Don't they know that a fiery explosion is what the bacteria need to escape!
  • Just four.... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by sholden ( 12227 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @11:54AM (#19052627) Homepage
    More likely for them all to end up in a star/black hole than a planet, or a huge gas giant than a nice habitable planet with water oceans.

    It's unlikely to just happen to pass through the "disk" around a star where the planets are at near parallel angle, more likely to come from "above" so to speak and hence unlikely to hit much - of course my understanding of astronomy approaches zero.

    Not to mention sterilized by close encounters with a radiation source (like say a star)...

  • I doubt it (Score:5, Insightful)

    by peterprior ( 319967 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @11:54AM (#19052633)
    To quote the late Douglas Adams:

    "Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space."
    • by Himring ( 646324 )
      So was earth's oceans barely 500 years ago....

      As the ancient Greek said who could only dream of going to space: "Always upwards...."

      I think, one day, our descendants will read such statements as, "space is just too big" and mildly smile....

      • More likely, they will comments like yours and think:
        "hey, how condecending those ignorant fools were throwing around idiotic analogies!".
    • I prefer:

      "The simple truth is that interstellar distances will not fit into the human imagination."

  • towel? (Score:2, Funny)

    by Google85 ( 797021 )
    Will the bacteria hitch-hike to the stars by sticking to towels? After all, a towel is the most important thing for anyone hitchhiking thru the galaxy
  • Not A Worry (Score:5, Interesting)

    by logicnazi ( 169418 ) <<logicnazi> <at> <>> on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @11:56AM (#19052663) Homepage
    First of all the probability that these rockets hit a habitable planet rather than a star or jupiter like object is going to be extremely low no matter what the article claims. The vast maority of bodies in the universe are not habitable and when you add this to the fact that the really heavy (hence gravitationally powerful) ones aren't habitable the odds become really low. Add in the requirement that the planet not only be habitable but actually habitable by earth bugs and that they land safely after a long radiation filled interstellar journey and it starts to get really unlikely.

    But even if this is the case what's the big deal. The big reason we want to prevent contamination of mars and similar bodies is for our scientific interest (don't mess up our later experiments). If these organisms colonize some distant planet why is this a bad thing? Now some planet that didn't have any life at all now does. Maybe in a billion years it will evolve spaceships and explore the universe (hell maybe that's how we happened :-) ).

    Either life is common in the universe in which case we just foster a little bit of microbacterial competition (our diseases aren't going to infect complex multicellular aliens) or life is uncommon and we seed a planet with life that might not have otherwise had it. Either way whats the problem?
    • God always washes his hands before handling rocket stages.

    • First of all the probability that these rockets hit a habitable planet rather than a star or jupiter like object is going to be extremely low

      But if it does hit a gas giant, it is fairly likely to survive because of the thick, fluffy atmosphere. I think hitting a gas giant is more likely than a star because anything entering a star's solar system will still likely have angular momentum and thus orbit the star. This is where Jupiter-like objects will snag it.

      Now, it may be possible that once Jupiters are in
  • We should be actively sending microbes/bacteria etc to the other planets in our system with every mission. Survivors will only make the terraforming process faster and easier.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      Actually, the next time we go to mars the lander should plant something hardy, like a cactus, to see what happens.
  • If (and I mean "if") the bacteria survive an interstellar trip across the great vacuum of space *AND* they survive the immense heat of re-entry *AND* the explosive impact they deserve to live. It's highly unlikely that the bacteria are even still alive in the cold and after the heat of the rocket. Those earth bacteria are pussies.
  • I can appreciate that this is interesting speculation - a possibly new if unlikely angle on an established set of facts - but... well, isn't that our job? This isn't science, or a new discovery, or a new application of knowledge, or...

    Look, it's just a random throwing-it-out-there speculation. That's what comments are for in Slashdot, surely - not actual stories!


  • by ase ( 39429 )
    Where's your prime directive when you really need one?
  • Oblig... (Score:2, Funny)

    by styryx ( 952942 )
    I, for one, hope that they welcome their new rocket-dwelling, bacteria overlords.
  • by B5_geek ( 638928 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @12:07PM (#19052851)
    As all great discoveries start with "gee that's weird.." we can thank the Space Shuttle Columbia for proving to us that bacteria can survive an atmosphere entry and planet impact. l []

    • by Excelcia ( 906188 ) <> on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @01:05PM (#19053665) Homepage Journal
      The worms were in canisters, the canisters were in a spacecraft designed to (even if it didn't actually) withstand the stresses of reentry. The spacecraft had already endured most of the heat of reentry and was torn apart by atmospheric stresses, not thermal. The canisters would have rapidly decelerated to their terminal velocity after the orbiter's breakup. In short, the survival of those worms is not so much a demonstration that organism can survive reeentry, than it is a demonstration of stupidity on the part of the scientists who used the fact they survived the accident to posit that organism can survive reentry.

      I'm not suggesting than no organism can surive reentry, just that this isn't a valid precedent.
    • Nematodes are bacteria?

      I must have slipped into an universe with an alternate taxonomy...
  • The Earth (and Mars) shed rocks over time, due to meteor strikes, and some of those will escape the solar system, so it's not like this hasn't been happening over geologic time. Some of the rocks from Mars were ejected gently enough that bacteria would have survived inside. While inefficient, I bet that literally megatons of biologically active rocks have been ejected in this fashion.

    By the way, they missed one. Pioneer 10 and 11 were identical spacecraft, both had upper stages that have left the solar syst
  • ... in 40K years, we'll have the technology to retrieve those discarded items from our distant past thus nullifying any hypothetical outcome we are already discussing here.
  • Given the sheer expanse of time that lies ahead of the four discarded rockets, at least one is likely to eventually encounter a planet.

    how did they come up with that?
    thats like saying, am throwing up 4 balls in the air, am sure one of them will hit the moon.

    space is curved, there are gravitational fields everywhere. chances are that the rockets would be locked in an orbit of some sort or crash somewhere due to the fields.
  • 1.64 light years? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by thewils ( 463314 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @12:28PM (#19053131) Journal
    I thought the nearest star (after Sol, of course) was Proxima Centauri at 4.2 light years? Is this one closer?
    • I thought the nearest star (after Sol, of course) was Proxima Centauri at 4.2 light years?

      Actually, the article is incorrect. Pioneer 11 will get within 1.65 light-years of the red dwarf AC+79 3888. That will happen sometime around 42,400 AD. Currently, it's about 16.6 light-years away from the sun.

      Interestingly, by the time Pioneer 11 reaches AC+79 3888, the red dwarf will only be about 3 light-years away from us (as it's hurtling through space in our general direction).
  • C'mon, be serious and look at the chances. There's space. It is huge. It is mostly black. And all that black is a big nothing. And in between of those big areas of nothingness there are a few tiiiiiiny little stars. And those few tiiiiiny little stars have even tiiiiiiiiiiinier little planets.

    Now, let's be generous and say that this piece of space junk somehow gets into the gravity of one of aformentioned minuscle pieces of light. Let's take this almost improbable chance into account. Now our piece of space
  • by Nom du Keyboard ( 633989 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @12:30PM (#19053167)
    You don't have to hit a planet to kill a Base-Star full of Cylons. They only have to intercept your probe in space. That would seem to increase the odds of doing damage by sending out unclean derbies from Earth.
    • by Shotgun ( 30919 )
      That was a neat plot prop, but would a seriously intelligent race go around picking up strange objects floating in space without any thought given to a quarantine. There is a reason that all the space movies where the aliens show up on Earth begin with guys in white hazmat suits showing up to erect a tent. I suspect any species that has made it to the point of space travel will be paranoid enough not to take ridiculous chances like taking the strange artifact directly to their leader.
  • by peter303 ( 12292 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @12:44PM (#19053367)
    It is likely that Mars become more hospitable to life earlier than early by solidifying sooner. Dozens of Martian meterites have been discovered on earth. Perhaps there have been thousands or millions Martian meteorites over the eons. Bacteria have been found living five miles deep in earth where they may have been cut off from the surface from tens of millions of years or longer. They either live extremely slowly or metabolize other nutrients inside rocks. Rocks are excellent insulators from the heat and pressure of bombardment. Some meteors hitting earth are cool inside, even though their out layers have evaporated away from the heat.

    Some these all together and you can make a case for bacteria first evolving on Mars and then infecting earth through meteroic hitchhiking, this happening billions of years ago. then they evolved on Earth while Mars became hostile to life.
  • Have they turned it into a blog where any moron [] can write a story [] and get it on the front page []?

    The only way this improbable event will ever happen is if there was a nice cup of really hot tea powering those boosters.
  • Bacteria isn't really the matter, spores are a much greater threat to contaminating the rest of the universe and can happen easier than through space launches.

    See: []

    Spores can survive in space for a fari amount of time as they are resistant to much of the radiation they might encounter there. Furthermore, is is supectec that they already are capable of floating in the air to the upper atmosphere and leaving earth's gravity well. If that is the case then we have been

  • by gregor-e ( 136142 ) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @01:47PM (#19054527) Homepage
    Aside from all the aforementioned problems, we have a small design flaw in our form of organic life: DNA is inherently unstable. Thymine dimerization [] is energetically favored, and is catalyzed by UV and other forms of radiation. But even apart from radiation, these dimers will form given the passage of time and non-absolute-zero temperatures. Our DNA-based life requires constant molecular upkeep to repair these problems. Any putative bacterial hitch-hikers would have had to sporulate to be able to continue existing without any metabolism, so no upkeep will be possible. Even if they become detached from the booster and are able to avoid a fiery re-entry onto a hospitable planet, they still have to hit it within a few centuries or their information will be irretrievably corrupted.
  • To assume that earth is home of the first beings in the universe is quite an odd assuption.

    If you assume that other beings have intentionally or inadvertently sent objects into space then the likelyhood of spreading life surpases that of evolution from scratch.

  • it'll be Earth that it will hit and any bacteria will overcome all immune defenses...
  • Slashdot editors shouldn't let lame speculative BS like this get posted in the first place. There is not a serious response.
  • With the luck of Teela Brown, some will manage to survive.

Evolution is a million line computer program falling into place by accident.