Bruce BettsSep 01, 2011

Phobos LIFE Ready to Launch

Years in the making, our Phobos LIFE (Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment) is nearing launch this November. Phobos LIFE will send millions of passengers on a 34-month journey to Mars’ moon Phobos and back. These travelers include 11 kinds of tiny organisms from all three domains of life (bacteria, eukaryota, and archaea). This will be the first time organisms will be tested for survivability outside Earth’s protective magnetosphere for more than just a few days. We are testing the portion of the transpermia hypothesis that involves interplanetary flight: can life travel between planets naturally inside meteoroids?

Our simulated meteoroid is hitching a ride on board the Russian Phobos Sample Return mission. The mission includes a suite of lander instruments that will study Phobos as well as a process to collect samples from Phobos and send them back to Earth for study. A Chinese orbiter is also hitching a ride to Mars on this launch to study Mars’ exosphere.

Our organisms range from bacteria to the tiny animals called tardigrades (nicknamed “water bears”). A subset of these organisms took a flight on the last flight of space shuttle Endeavour earlier this year. You can find out more about Shuttle LIFE in the June 2011 issue of The Planetary Report.

At the time of launch, we will open one of our three Phobos LIFE Earth “control” biomodules. The controls are identical to the flight biomodule. Opening one at the time of launch will allow us to study the effects of the loading of the module and sitting around on Earth waiting for launch, so that we can then “subtract” those results from our study of the flight organisms when they come back from space. That way, we can isolate the effects of spaceflight.

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