By Brannen Basham
Life on Earth has evolved to live in a bubble.
Due to the effects of our planet’s atmosphere, gravitational pull, and magnetic fields, our terrestrial environments are far removed from the boundless outer space that surrounds us. In fact, space is so inhospitable that the vast majority of life as we know it would be extinguished after being exposed to the horrors of space for under a minute.
Unlike our planet, most of space is a pressureless, empty vacuum devoid of any gases, solids or liquids. This is very unhealthy to our bodies, which have built themselves on the assumption that they would be immersed in a dense, heavy atmosphere.
Earth creatures do some strange and terrifying things when introduced into a vacuum for more than a few seconds, including the rapid de-oxygenation of our blood and bubbles rapidly forming throughout our bodies.
The lack of a protective atmosphere and magnetic field also leaves anything floating in outer space largely unshielded against cosmic radiation, which depending on the type can blast astronauts with incredible heat and/or give them extreme sunburn in a few seconds. Astronauts who spend time in the International Space Station witness the effects of radiation first hand.
Even though the station orbits close enough to the Earth that it can take advantage of most of the protection that the planet’s magnetic field provides against radiation, studies are discovering that high amounts of radiation break through the field at those altitudes. The immune systems of station occupants are weakened through this radiation exposure.
The long-term effects of these doses are still being studied, however future manned trips away from the Earth will have to take this into consideration as they bulk up protective radiation-proof layers. Studies are even being conducted on medicines that could help the bodies of astronauts better withstand the onslaught of cosmic radiation.
Unlike the residual heat that can be held in our oceans and atmosphere, which warms dark areas of the planet through convection driven by sunlight, anything in the vacuum of space that is not bombarded by solar radiation is extremely cold.
An unprotected person flung into this deathtrap would find themselves experiencing a quick and unpleasant death through frying, freezing or a combination of both. While this is true for the vast majority of life on our planet, scientists have discovered that a relatively common Earth organism would most likely survive a naked trip through space.
Tardigrades, also called water bears, are a microscopic organism commonly found in water and moist areas on land. Tardigrades require water in order to go about their lives, and they have evolved a way to survive periods of drought in order to make it through dry seasons.
Using methods that are still relatively nebulous to scientists, water bears are able to dry themselves out, fill their bodies with antioxidants, and enter a period of hibernation as they wait for local conditions to become more favorable for life. Scientists have been taken aback that water bears in their dry state can survive even the harsh temperatures, vacuum and radiation of outer space.
It seems that UV radiation is the only weakness for these creatures. Due to recent events, tardigrades are not only found on Earth. In early 2019 an Israeli lunar lander crashed onto the lunar surface and brought with it thousands of water bears as passengers.
Many scientists believe that if they landed in a dark crater or recess, these tiny organisms most likely survived the crash. While they are still likely in an inactive state, it seems that water bears have beaten humans in making the first moon colony.
Brannen Basham and his wife, Jill Jacobs, operate Spriggly’s Beescaping, a business dedicated to the preservation of pollinators. He can be reached at email@example.com.