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Scientists Shot Tardigrades 200mph Out A Gun To See If They’d Survive Interplanetary Travel

by : Julia Banim on : 23 May 2021 12:32
Scientists Shot Tardigrades 200mph Out A Gun To See If They'd Survive Interplanetary TravelShutterstock

Tardigrades are perhaps one of the most fascinating creatures on our planet; now, scientists have shot them 200mph from a gun to see whether or not they’d survive interplanetary travel.

For those yet to get a glimpse of mighty, microscopic animals, tardigrades are often described as being ‘indestructible’ creatures, being famously able to survive temperature extremes and intense pressures. They can even withstand being boiled.

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Invisible to the naked eye, tardigrades – which can range from 0.5mm to 1.2mm in length – are actually kind of cute when observed under the microscope, and are sometimes referred to as water bears or moss piglets.

Tardigrade under the microscope (PA Images)PA Images

It’s already understood that tardigrades can survive being miles beneath the ocean or within the cold vacuum of outer space.

For some time now, scientists have also been wondering whether these tiny but tough critters can also withstand the pressures of travelling between planets. This possibility could help improve our understanding of how life developed on Earth, and the potential for this on other planets.

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In a study published in Astrobiology this month, PhD student Alejandra Traspas and professor of space science Mark Burchell, both from the University of Kent, said ‘there is no knowledge of how [tardigrades] survive impact shocks’.

They continued:

Accordingly, we have fired tardigrades at high speed in a gun onto sand targets, subjecting them to impact shocks and evaluating their survival.

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The researchers wanted to know if tardigrade-like organisms can survive certain conditions in space, so as to put constraints on where and how human beings may be able to discover extra-terrestrial life in the solar system going forward, and how contamination can be avoided.

For the experiment, Traspas and Burchell loaded tardigrades into a number of nylon sabots, each of which were frozen so as to induce hibernation, with 20 frozen tardigrades that had not been shot out of a gun used as a control sample.

Those loaded into a gun were then fired at sand targets within a vacuum chamber at a variety of velocities, from 0.556 to 1km per second.

Then, the sand target was poured into a water column to isolate the tardigrades, which were then separated and analysed to work out how long it would take them to revive from hibernation. Recovery took around eight or nine hours.

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Tardigrade under the microscope (PA Images)PA Images

Tardigrades were found to survive up to an impact velocity of 825 meters per second. However, recovery time did take longer, pointing towards internal damage.

The researchers wrote:

In the shots up to and including 0.825 kilometers per second, intact tardigrades were recovered post shot, but in the higher-speed shots only fragments of tardigrades were recovered.

Thus, shortly after the onset of lethality, the tardigrades were also physically broken apart as impact speed increased.

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This would suggest that the impact velocity survivability threshold can be found between these two numbers, and is the equivalent of a 1.14 gigapascals shock pressure. This would place some significant constraints on the creatures’ impact survivability.

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Julia Banim

Jules studied English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University before earning her masters in International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands (Hoi!). She then trained as a journalist through News Associates in Manchester. Jules has previously worked as a mental health blogger, copywriter and freelancer for various publications.

Topics: Science, Now

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Astrobiology and 1 other
  1. Astrobiology

    Tardigrade Survival Limits in High-Speed Impacts—Implications for Panspermia and Collection of Samples from Plumes Emitted by Ice Worlds

  2. Science Alert

    Scientists Fired Tardigrades Out of a Gun to See if They Can Survive Space Impacts