A Russian “sex satellite” mission studying the cosmic reproduction of geckos, flies and bacteria has returned to Earth with the geckos dead but some of its bacteria still alive.
Two basalt discs with bacteria samples had been affixed to the outside of a Foton-M satellite that was launched into space by a Soyuz rocket in July. After almost six weeks in orbit 350 miles above the earth and a fiery reentry into the atmosphere, a strain of bacteria resistant to extreme heat was found alive in three of 24 indentations on the discs, a researcher from the mission announced at an astrobiology and aerospace medicine conference in Moscow on Wednesday.
“We were able to prove that one of our thermophilic bacteria can survive on the surface of a meteorite during its passage through the earth’s atmosphere,” said Alexander Slobodkin of the Russian Academy of Sciences Microbiology Institute, according to state news agency Tass.
According to Slobodkin, several other strains of thermophilic and spore-generating bacteria did not survive or were dislodged from the discs, and the live cells numbered less than 100. But once the survivors were placed in a nutrient solution they began to multiply, he said.
Foton-M4 became known as the “sex satellite” because it was also carrying geckos and fruit flies to test the effects of weightlessness on their reproductive behaviour. In addition, the mission was researching the influence of cosmic radiation on seeds and moth eggs.
“The Foton-M and its happy crew have returned to Earth,” Dmitry Rogozin, deputy prime minister for the space and defence industries, wrote on Twitter following the satellite’s touchdown in September.
But in fact the five geckos did not survive the flight. Although some initially speculated that low temperatures had killed the reptiles, researchers have disagreed about the cause of their death, since they had withstood similar conditions during a dry run on Earth. The Institute of Biomedical Problems told news agency Interfax that their bodies were found “partially mummified,” indicating they died at least a week before landing. Russia’s space agency Roscosmos said it was appointing an accident commission to ascertain the reason for the geckos’ death.
In October, Roscosmos announced that astronauts had found bacteria and the DNA of a bacterial plankton from the Barents Sea in probes taken from the outer surface of the International Space Station, confirming that microorganisms can survive on the sides of spaceships. Last year, bacteria that survived reentry on the outer surface of the Russian satellite Bion-M1 provided the basis for the Foton-M4 experiment.
“One strain of thermophilic bacteria managed to survive, so we have evidence for the panspermia hypothesis,” Russian Academy of Sciences researcher Vladimir Sychyov said after the Bion-M1 mission. The panspermia hypothesis holds that life is distributed throughout the universe by microbes carried on space rocks.
The findings from the “sex satellite” mission follow news this week that western space agencies have been tracking the unusual manoeuvres of a secret space object launched by the Russian military earlier this year. Some analysts believe it could be a “satellite killer” from a Soviet space warfare programme that Russian officials have previously threatened to restart.
Despite its recent scientific achievements, the Russian space industry has suffered a number of setbacks in recent years, including the crash of a Proton-M rocket carrying the country’s most advanced satellite in May.
When an unmanned US supply rocket exploded after liftoff last month, suspicions quickly fell on a modified engine produced in the Soviet Union.
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