Space is the “final frontier” because of the distances involved and the environment which is hostile to life. Or at least most forms of it. Scientists have now found that one animal common on Earth does fine when exposed to these conditions. These animals are called Tardigrades or “water bears.” They are small – from 1mm to 1.5 mm in size and are to be found on wet moss and lichen. These tiny creatures don’t need space suits to survive the cold vacuum and radiation of outer space.
Since they need moisture to survive, when their homes turn dry they also dry out and entry a kind of suspended animation state. In this condition, from which they can revive themselves are years, once conditions improve, they are resistant to cold, heat and radiation. In theory they seemed to be the ideal creatures to survive in space with no protection. The proof of this came a year ago when they were shot off into space aboard a satellite and were given no protection from the conditions that prevailed 270 Kms above the Earth. When the satellite returned to Earth, scientists found that most of them had survived the vacuum, cosmic rays and solar radiation at levels over a 1000 times higher than would be experienced on Earth. They remained unaffected. Even more surprisingly, this exposure to radiation did not turn them sterile and they were able to reproduce with no problems.
What is perhaps most astonishing is the water bears’ immunity to Ultra Violet (UV) radiation. UV is made of high energy light particles that cannot be detected by the human eye and cause damage to skin tissue. A common example of this is sun burn. A more serious consequence of this kind of exposure is cell damage leading to skin cancer. This is while sun blocks are recommended for strong sun conditions.
How the water bears survived all this is still a mystery that scientists are work to unravel. At present the speculation is that their ability to survive dry conditions by drying themselves out until conditions improve could account for their ability to cope the rigors of outer space.