All vehicles, great and small, eventually need to have their windows cleaned, and the International Space Station is no different. Granted, given how clean space tends to be, they have to do it a lot less often than we do, but eventually enough gunk from engine firings and space dust do add up.
Of course, the astronauts can’t just pull up to a gas station and pull out a squeegee. Instead, they have to don their space suits, climb out an airlock, and clean everything manually. That’s the equivalent of climbing out on the hood of your car while you’re driving at 17,000 miles per hour just so you can clean the windshield. Absolutely nothing can go wrong, right? Well, it turns out that something went marvelously, miraculously right.
Plankton on the ISS
You see, Russian cosmonauts claim that while they were giving the ISS windows a good wipe down, they found plankton growing on them. Apparently moss piglets have a contender for the Earth’s toughest organism.
It’s been long documented that there are a lot of life forms that can exist in places that they have no right to. Moss piglets, and now plankton, are the best example of this. Able to withstand some truly mind boggling conditions, like being able to survive both near absolute zero and being boiled alive, hundreds of times more ionizing radiation than what is required to kill a human, and even the vacuum of outer space. Up to this point, we thought they were the only creatures capable of these amazing feats.
Now, it seems plankton shares some of these traits as well, apparently forming colonies on the exterior ISS windows, the cosmonauts claimed.
Of course, just a big a mystery as how the plankton is surviving is how it got up there in the first place. There are two prevailing theories so far. Because the type of plankton is not native to Baikonur (currently the only spaceport capable of sending manned rockets to the ISS), according to Vladmir Solovyev, the head of the Russian ISS orbital mission, there is the possibility that “there are some uplifting air currents which reach the station and settle on its surface.”
Those Are Some Pretty Hardcore Air Currents
The other prevailing theory is even more outrageous: that the plankton hitched a ride 15 years ago when construction began on the ISS. That would mean that the microbes have been living, feeding, and reproducing in hard vacuum, one of the most actively hostile environment known to man.
Sounds a little farfetched, doesn’t it? Well, apparently you’re not the only one who’s skeptical. NASA spokesperson Dan Huot said in an interview, “As far as we’re concerned, we haven’t heard any official reports from our Roscosmos colleagues that they’ve found sea plankton [on the exterior of the ISS].” That means that, as with anything in science, it’s usually best to wait for peer review.
Of course, if it turns out that there really are microbes living on the outside of the ISS, it could have some rather stunning implications. For one thing, does that mean that other satellites might also face the same contamination? Could microbes on the surface of communication or GPS satellites possibly interfere with their function? Not only that, but it gives credence to the theory of panspermia, which states that life could arise from microbes carried on the backs of comets and meteorites which impact the surfaces of planets.
Much more research is required, obviously, before any of these claims can be made. Still, it’s a very interesting development that’s come out of what should have been a relatively simple window washing.