Life Tags Along

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Science  07 Aug 2009:
Vol. 325, Issue 5941, pp. 659
DOI: 10.1126/science.325_659c
CREDIT: THE PLANETARY SOCIETY

Could martian life have come from Earth or vice versa? The transpermia hypothesis suggests that life hopped planets on debris kicked up by asteroid impacts. Now researchers are gearing up to test whether that was possible.

The Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE), designed and sponsored by the Planetary Society in Pasadena, California, will hitch a ride on a Russian sample-return mission to Mars's moon Phobos to see whether Earth life without special protection can survive a 34-month space voyage. “We view this as a simulated meteoroid,” says Bruce Betts, the society's director of projects.

The scientists will fill a hockey puck–sized capsule with 10 different organisms, including Bacillus subtilis bacteria and the seeds of the mouse-eared cress plant (Arabidopsis thaliana). The tiny disk will launch in October aboard the Russian probe, nicknamed Phobos-Grunt. Phobos-Grunt will collect rocks and dirt from Phobos and return them and the LIFE capsule to Earth in 2012. Biologists will then examine how the tiny spacefarers fared.

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