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Wednesday, 26 July, 2000, 07:40 GMT 08:40 UK
Hot-spring bug goes into space
Launch Serts
A 1997 launch of the solar telescope
By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

The controversial theory that microbial life was once delivered to Earth on a meteorite is about to be tested by researchers.

The scientists will send microbes on a 20-minute suborbital rocket journey on 26 July to test how the micro-organisms cope in the space environment.

The tiny space travellers will be in four test tubes each holding about 100 million cells. They will be exposed to the vacuum of space and solar radiation for 10 minutes.

The experiment will shed light on the ability of toughest-known lifeforms to survive the ultimate in extreme conditions.

Training regime

Scientists from the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute (UMBI) and Nasa want to learn more about how the Sun's extreme ultraviolet, or EUV, radiation affects living cells.

Launch Serts
This type of launch does not leave much time to get an experiment done
"We routinely look for DNA repair systems in extreme microbes that might be useful in biotechnology or medical research," said project leader Dr Jocelyne DiRuggiero. "In this case, we may also want to know what kind of lesions EUV can cause to the DNA of these micro-organisms."

Nasa's Joseph Davila, principal investigator for the flight, said: "Exposure to direct UV from the Sun is not a well known field. We know a bit about short gamma rays, but with EUV, not much is known at all about how to be protected from these fields."

The microbe selected for the experiment does not as yet have a biological name. But its training regimen has been rigorous, according UMBI research Professor Frank Robb.

"We thought this strain was a good candidate," he said. "We found it living in the sediments of Potts hot springs in Yellowstone National Park, where it was exposed to steamy plumes, alternating with hot, dry conditions."

Hitching a ride

Laboratory experiments showed that the strain survived gamma rays and a hard, or space-like, vacuum.

A second microbe, a radiation-resistant bacterium called Deinococcus radiodurans, extensively studied by the US Department of Energy, will also be on the launch as a control in the experiment.

The microbes will be passengers on the latest launch of the Solar EUV Rocket Telescope and Spectrograph, or Serts, which is going up on a Terrier-Black Brant sounding rocket.

The vehicle is scheduled to launch at 1800 GMT on Wednesday. Powered flight will last just 45 seconds. The payload will then separate and coast upwards to an altitude of 320 km (200 miles). There will be just seven minutes useful time above the Earth's atmosphere before the payload parachutes back to Earth less than an hour later and 80 km (50 miles) downrange.

Lift-off is from the White Sands Launch Base in New Mexico.

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See also:

10 Jul 00 | Sci/Tech
Snow microbes found at South Pole
10 Dec 99 | Sci/Tech
Bacteria found in Antarctic ice core
26 Jan 00 | Sci/Tech
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25 May 00 | Sci/Tech
How life survived the big freeze
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