14 Sep 2007

OU science samples in experiment for life in space

Rock from Devon on space mission

Rock from Devon on space mission

Samples of micro organisms, antibodies, fluorescent dyes and rock from Devon are amongst a European payload which will be sent into near Earth orbit this week onboard an unmanned Russian spacecraft – exposing them to the extreme conditions found in space.

The Foton - M3 capsule will be launched by a Soyuz rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Friday 14th September at 12 noon BST (1700 local time). After 9 minutes of propelled flight the Foton will reach a low earth orbit where it will remain for nearly 12 days before the re-entry capsule will return to Earth.

The Foton-M3 will be carrying a European payload of 400 kg covering experiments including one co-ordinated by scientists from The Open University in a wide range of disciplines including fluid physics, biology, crystal growth, meteoritics, radiation dosimetry and exobiology.

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Biopan facility which is attached to the outside of the Foton will be used to expose experiment samples directly to the space environment in order to study the impact of space’s extreme temperatures, ultraviolet, cosmic and other solar radiation, and near-perfect vacuum.

Amongst the samples that make up the Biopan payload are the following which are in part funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC):-

• Antibodies and fluorescent dyes to be used in the Life Marker Chip (LMC) instrument that is being developed under UK lead for ESA’s ExoMars mission

• Micro organisms for ESA’s STONE artificial meteorite experiment

• Rock samples containing micro organisms from cliffs at Beer, East Devon

The LMC will look for specific molecules associated with life by detecting biomarkers. Such techniques have been developed in the medical and biotechnology sectors but have not been used in space before.

Professor Charles Cockell

Professor Charles Cockell

Open University Professor of Microbiology Charles Cockell, also an ESA STONE scientist, explains further: “This work advances our knowledge of how island biogeography might work on an interplanetary scale. We know that life can make it from continent to continent, but what about from planet to planet? Of course, at the moment we don’t know of life on another planet, but this experiment is an intriguing test of an interplanetary version of an old ecological question and can at least tell us whether the Earth has always remained a biological island in space.”

Professor Cockell adds: “We will also be sending up samples of rock from Beer in Devon as part of experiment called LITHOPANSPERMIA. The samples contain diverse photosynthetic organisms. This is to test the ability of organisms to survive in interplanetary conditions.

Photosynthesis is the basis of a productive biosphere, so understanding its ability to be transferred between planets is of great interest. ”
The re-entry capsule is scheduled to land in a remote area on the Russian/Kazahkstan border on 26th September where it will be recovered by a specialist team. The samples from the ESA experiments will first be transported to its ESTEC facility in the Netherlands and then to various other institutions for further analysis.

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