Like science fiction, like science, tardigrades are a natural choice for Starlight’s dangerous mission.
“These are real interstellar passengers,” said Philip Lubin, head of the Starlight program at UC Santa Barbara, at the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Symposium in Denver, back in September. Lubin, his students, and his research colleagues established the Starlight program with funding from NIAC. “We are developing the capability to test whether terrestrial life as we know it can exist in interstellar space by preparing small life-forms… C. elegans and radiation-resistant tardigrades… which are ideal candidates to be our first interstellar travellers.”
The Starlight team’s current research is looking for a way to safely store the tiny trekkers in a biological state known as anhydrobiosis — a dormant state that can occur in small invertebrates, such as tardigrades and nematodes, and some plant seeds. Induced by drought, the organism becomes almost completely dehydrated to reduce its metabolic activity to almost nothing. This strategy allows the creature to survive severe drought and extreme temperature conditions. The team wants to be able to wake up the passengers at specific points during the voyage for observation, in search of a better understanding how humans can later survive similar journeys across the stars.
Launched in 1977, it took the Voyager 1 spacecraft 35 years to reach interstellar space, and it would take roughly 80,000 more years for it to reach the Alpha Centauri System, 4.2 light-years away. The Starlight program seeks to speed up the commute, using photonic (laser) propulsion to shorten the journey for their interstellar passengers to an estimate 24-year extrasolar trek.