Columbia: Nasa opens a can of worms

Tiny worms survived the disaster that destroyed the space shuttle Columbia killing seven astronauts, scientists have revealed.
The discovery boosts the amazing idea that life could have been carried to Earth from space inside meteorites.
Columbia exploded in a mass of fireballs as it re-entered the atmosphere in February 2003.
But the creatures, flown on the mission for biological research, were recovered alive in their heat-damaged canisters among debris scattered across the United States.
Astronauts had been studying the growth and reproductive behaviour of soil roundworms less than 1mm long called Caenorhabditis elegans.
The worms survived a fall of 25 miles at up to 650mph, striking the ground at 2,295 times the force of gravity, a Nasa team of scientists report in the magazine Astrobiology.
Despite the tragedy, the discovery has profound implications, say the Nasa team.
Principal investigator Dr Catharine Conley said: “This is a very exciting result. It’s the first demonstration that animals can survive a re-entry event similar to what would be experienced inside a meteorite.
“It shows directly that even complex small creatures originating on one planet could survive landing on another without the protection of a spacecraft.”
The discovery follows a separate experiment last year that showed life could survive in the vacuum of space.
Lichen carried into orbit by a European probe called Foton 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 lichen – a mix of algae and fungus – were returned to Earth it was still alive.
Meteorites blasted out of the Martian surface have already been found on Earth – one showing what appeared to be fossils. It suggests life could have been carried from one planet to another.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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