While scientists have yet to discover life on other planets, they have found organisms on earth that can survive in space. Polyextremophiles, as the name suggests, can survive extreme conditions, like the height of the Himalayas and the depth of ocean trenches. Some can survive temperatures close to absolute zero, temperatures as high as 151°C (303°F), 1,000 times more radiation than other animals, nearly a decade without water, and now even space.
Since 2007, researchers have been sending microorganisms into space in the hopes that they can survive the empty vacuum. One project, created by the International Space Station and headed by a team of Italian astrobiologists, was called BIOKon In Space. Researchers were trying to find if any life could sustain a short-term space flight with the unshielded radiation of the sun.
Mike Shaw, a naturalist based in Richmond, Virginia, has avidly studied the first organism that can live in space: the tardigrade. Tardigrades are nicknamed “water bears” because of their bear-like gait, claws, and rotund bodies. These little guys can dehydrate themselves through a metabolism stopping state called anhydrobiosis. Even with these odd adaptations, tardigrades have a muscular structure and nervous system similar to humans.
Shaw has done a field study of tardigrade populations in New Jersey, where they often inhabit the surfaces of lichens and mosses. Before Shaw’s study, there was no knowledge of tardigrade existence in New Jersey. Shaw found the little bears to be ubiquitous throughout the Garden State, and may have even discovered some new ones.
Some scientists assert that tardigrade tolerance of space is evidence of panspermia, the belief that life exists throughout the universe and arrived at earth via asteroids and meteors. This theory dates all the way back to Greek naturalist Anaxagoras who rejected all supernatural theories of genesis, and committed himself fully to the belief in panspermia. In an interview with Vice, Shaw stated that he isn’t sure if tardigrades were the first settlers of our planet, but he isn’t ruling it out. “The answer right now is, anything is possible,” said Shaw, an assured lover of space bears.