When NASA isn’t launching satellites into space or helping others service the International Space Station, they are making discoveries closer to home. A group of scientists from the famed space organization have uncovered a unique group of microorganisms dwelling inside the giant crystals of the Naica mine in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.
Previously a lead, zinc and silver mine, the famous crystal cave has been home to over a hundred different kinds of microorganisms, over 90% of which had never been observed prior to NASA’s discovery. These ancient microbes have been locked within the crystals, some as old as 60,000 years, feeding on sulphite, manganese and copper oxide.
NASA’s Astrobiology Institute’s Penelope Boston, who is currently writing a scientific paper on her findings, believes that these microorganisms will help further scientists’ knowledge of their evolutionary history. Although not the oldest microbes to be found – scientists have found some as old as 500,000 years old – it still is a major discovery, and one that could eventually have effect on future space travel and exploration.
Boston believes that these microorganisms’ evolution to be able to proliferate in such harsh and extreme environments could mean that they may have survived in such environments on other planets or moons in our own solar system. Whilst it is unknown if such bacteria or other organisms are indeed present outside of our planet, it still causes some worry for scientists.
These organisms’ ability to survive in such hardy conditions opens the door to the possibility that other, potentially unknown microorganisms from space or other planets could hitch a ride on space equipment being brought back to Earth, subsequently contaminating it. The worry is also two-fold, with scientists and researchers hoping that microbes from Earth don’t contaminate other planets – namely Mars, where several American rovers and Soviet probes have come in contact with the Red Planet since the 1970s.
Although NASA does thoroughly sterilise any equipment leaving and returning from space, there is still some fear associated to the risk that an ultra-resistant microbe survives. What such a microbe could achieve in Earth’s unique environment is unknown, which is exactly why it is deemed dangerous.