“Astrobiology, Planetary Protection and Life beyond the Planet of Origin”
The focus of this project is on life moving beyond its planet of origin, a question of evolutionary interest and because the human exploration of space is the movement of life from Earth and the movement of possible life to Earth from other planets, especially Mars and Europa. With this project, we propose a focused research plan as a nucleus for an expanded emphasis on this area of interplanetary travel of life as the field of Astrobiology matures. Moving beyond the planet of origin requires a vehicle for transport, the ability to transport, and the ability to colonize, thrive and ultimately evolve in the new environment. The core of this study will be to identify organisms and ecosystems that are likely to withstand the rigors of space, using as a guiding principle the hypothesis that desiccation resistance and natural exposure to high levels of radiation are good predictors of survival of travel from one planet to another. Once this work — collecting candidate organisms from various environments, testing them in the lab and in a space simulator, looking at mechanisms underlying the results of survival and death — has been established, we will expand the research to include a flight component and to bring in workers from related fields to study other aspects of natural transport (natural transport mainly mean via a meteorite while intentional transport involves a sample return mission). Primary to this effort is the identification of mechanisms that permit certain organisms to withstand space radiation, space vacuum, desiccation, time in transit, and the physical rigors of leaving the parent body and landing on a new one. Each of these factors can be associated with a probability of survival— the product of the probabilities then provides an estimate of the overall likelihood of survival. This proposed research will provide new insights into the ability of life to propagate through space.