Jurassic parklife to fly in space

Primitive life-forms from a real life Jurassic Park will find themselves rocketed on a trip into orbit this week. The simple organisms, collected in rocks from South West England, could help UK scientists discover if life was brought to Earth from outer space.

Cliffs at BeerSamples taken from cliffs at Beer on East Devon’s famous Jurassic Coast, have been fitted to the outside of a Russian spacecraft’s heat shield.

The Foton-M3 capsule will be launched by a Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan this Friday – and indeed it all sounds like something out of Borat.

But the 400kg European payload of rocks, plus micro organisms, antibodies, and fluorescent dyes, is part of serious research into the origins of life. They will also help with investigations into how astronauts could survive a lengthy mission to Mars.

The spacecraft will spent nearly 12 days in low-Earth orbit where the payload – called Biopan – will be exposed directly to the harsh, airless environment of space. The samples will endure extreme temperatures, cosmic rays and harmful radiation from the sun, plus a near-perfect vacuum.

A similar experiment on another spacecraft, Foton-M2, suggested two years ago that samples of lichen had survived a space vacuum.

Fragments of rocks from the Jurassic Coast – a World Heritage Site in the same league as the Grand Canyon – are fitted directly to the latest probe’s heat shield where they will experience the additional effects of re-entry including searing heat.

UK scientists want the samples to get similar treatment to meteorites that spend aeons in deep space before falling to Earth. When they are returned to the ground, in a remote part of the Kazakhstan-Russian border, the experts will be eager to see if the “Devon-to-heaven” organisms have survived their space trip.

Professor Charles Cockell, of the Open University, said: “We know that life can make it from continent to continent, but what about from planet to planet? Of course, at the moment we don’t know of life on another planet, but this experiment is an intriguing test of an interplanetary version of an old ecological question and can at least tell us whether the Earth has always remained a biological island in space.”

Dr David Cullen, of Cranfield University, said the tests on how antibodies and dyes behaved through a space mission were all critical issues for a future Mars mission.

Dr Mark Sims, of Leicester University, said: “Space is inherently a risky business but there are only so many tests that you can do on the ground. Biopan provides us with a platform to expose biological samples to a space radiation environment in order to confirm their survivability.”

Last year, Indian scientists controversially claimed to have detected alien life forms in mysterious red rain. Evidence for alien life has allegedly been found in a meteorite.

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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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