Sea plankton is living on the outside skin of the International Space Station (ISS), according to a Russian scientist. If confirmed, this could provide evidence that life on Earth may have originated in outer space.
Plankton may have come to the space station from the Earth, according to some skeptics of the announcement. Others say the samples discovered on the Russian segment of the ISS came from contamination of the American portion of the international craft.
Russian scientists announced on 19 Aug. that their cosmonauts discovered sea plankton living on a window, or illuminator, of their module on the orbiting outpost. The discovery was made using high-precision equipment aboard the craft.
"Results of the experiment are absolutely unique. We have found traces of sea plankton and microscopic particles on the illuminator surface. This should be studied further," Vladimir Solovyev, chief of the Russian ISS orbital mission, said.
Plankton have been known to rise into the atmosphere, and Solovyev believes the micro-organisms could have risen up to the International Space Station. The Russian mission chief would not directly confirm reports that the plankton was still alive on the space station exterior.
Panspermia, the idea that terrestrial life originated in outer space, may be supported by the discovery of space-faring plankton. Other micro-organisms may have also been detected by Cosmonauts during the mission. This finding could suggest that micro-organisms could survive long periods in outer space, possibly traveling to Earth on asteroids and comets which collided with our home planet.
NASA has, so far, been unable to confirm or deny if the material found by their Russian counterparts are truly alive.
Lynn Rothschild, a NASA scientist, stated her belief that if Russians did find plankton living on the outside of the space station, it may have arrived on an automated resupply vehicle.
Conditions on the outside of the space station are extremely harsh on any living organism. A near vacuum, combined with temperatures near absolute zero and extreme levels of radiation can be deadly to any living being.
The outside of the orbiting vehicle is covered in various materials left over from rocket engines as vehicles pass by the outpost.
"We are conducting special works to polish somehow and put illuminators in order. This is particularly needed during long space flights," Solovyev told the press.
Cosmonauts were performing experiments on the outside of their windows as recently as a few days before the organisms were reported. NASA is not certain what the tests entailed, or if they could be responsible for the finding.