When ancient Eurasians first began brewing the vinegary, tea-based beverage known as Kombucha, they could not have fathomed that it would one day be shot into space as part of an effort to explore the possibility of extraterrestrial life.
Even to a member of modern society, the idea of bolting a container filled with the slimy mixture of bacteria and yeast that ferment Kombucha tea to the outside of a spaceship may seem like something from the science and technology section of The Onion. But news of this experiment comes straight from the European Space Agency, as both space Kombucha and the scientific motivation behind it are very real.
Kombucha has become popular in the world of yoga enthusiasts and homeopathic hipsters for its supposed health benefits, but scientists have taken interest in the ancient brew due to the remarkable resilience of the microorganisms that produce it. A mixture of various bacteria and yeasts feast on the sugars in tea to create the acidic, slightly alcoholic fermented beverage. As they perform the fermentation, they form a slimy cake of micro-critters that looks like it very well could be from another planet.
Experiments on Earth have shown that these mushy microorganisms are actually extremely tough – even tough enough to survive in space unprotected. So ESA scientists fastened specialized containers filled with these organisms to a spacecraft last year for an 18-month excursion to space.
Known as Expose-R2, this vessel is attached to the International Space Station and full of containers that leave their contents vulnerable to the harsh elements of outer space, including cosmic radiation, unfiltered solar light, vacuum and extreme temperature changes. On board along with the Kombucha are 758 other samples grouped into four separate experiments.
Ground-based tests have revealed that the bacteria and yeast that ferment Kombucha react favorably with moon dust — but only a true trip into space will tell whether they can withstand the combination of conditions that make space uninhabitable for most life found on Earth. Those results are expected to come in next year, after the samples have returned to Earth for analysis.
Photo: Ed Summers | Flickr