Scientists yesterday announced the startling discovery that life can survive in the vacuum of space.
Lichen carried into orbit by a European probe called Foton-M2 was exposed to the hostile environment for more than 14 days.
It was forced to suffer extreme fluctuations of temperature and constant bombardment of cosmic radiation.
But when the samples were returned to Earth the lichen was still alive.
The discovery has profound implications for the existence of life on other planets. The research team say their results show that lichen could survive on the surface of Mars.
Meteorites blasted out of the Martian surface have already been found on Earth – one showing clear signs of fossils – and astronomers expect similar rocks from Earth to litter the surface of the Red Planet.
It means that life could have been carried from one planet to another.
Methane gas in the atmosphere of Mars is another indicator that alien organisms clould be living in the planet’s soil.
The lichen – a mix of algae and fungus that is a more advanced form of life than bacteria – was carried into space in the summer.
After being exposed to the vacuum, it was enclosed in a box to protect it from re-entry and the samples were then examined by scientists in the Netherlands.
Dr Judith Pillinger, wife of Beagle mastermind Professor Colin Pillinger, was involved in the Foton research. She said last night: “We knew that lichen was hardy but this was a fascinating experiment. It seems to go into a kind of suspended animation.
“What we would like to know now is whether lichen could survive entry into the atmosphere if it was on a piece of rock from another planet.”
Biologists have become increasingly amazed by the extreme conditions in which life can exist on Earth, including volcanic vents.
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