Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Curious Case of Space Plankton

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Curious Case of Space Plankton

Article excerpt

While on earth it may be a difficult time for US-Russia relations, above us the International Space Station (ISS) remains an outpost of collaboration between the two countries.

At least, that's the idea. In practice, communication may be breaking down between the astronauts on board humanity's most expensive scientific experiment.

Russia's Itar-Tass news agency reported on 19 August that Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, had found sea plankton living on the outside of the ISS. It quoted the ISS mission chief for Roscomos, Vladimir Solovyov, who said they were found outside the Russian section of the ISS. This is surprising, as none of the astronauts or agencies involved put them there. Indeed, Nasa doesn't quite believe it. Its spokesperson said that Nasa hadn't heard any official reports from its Russian colleagues.

Plankton (from the Greek for "drifter") are micro-organisms such as bacteria and algae that float around in water and are unable to swim against the current. We don't know yet what kind of plankton Roscosmos claims to have found. Yet the assertion is plausible--if unlikely.

It's increasingly becoming clear that space is a more hospitable environment than was assumed. It's a mistake we can be forgiven for making--after all, for human-sized animals, space is a terrible place. Yet, for some organisms, it is no more challenging than some of earth's more intimidating ecological niches, such as volcanic vents at the bottom of the oceans or Antarctica. …

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