26 September 2007

Space junk: threat to earth

"she was walking all alone / down the street in the alley
her name was sally
she never saw it / when she was hit by space junk
in new york / miami beach
heavy metal fell in cuba
angola saudi arabia
on xmas eve
said norad
a soviet sputnik hit africa
india venezuela (in texas/ kansas)
it's falling fast peru too
it keeps coming
and now i'm mad about space junk
i'm all burned out about space junk
oooh walk & talk about space junk
it smashed my baby's head
and now my sally's dead"

Space junk, comets crashing through our atmosphere, extra-terrestrial micro-organisms that survive in appalling cold or searing heat, bacteria that grow more virulent in the gravity-free vacuum of space. What happens when fate conspires to bring such creatures and creations to earth?

We've all seen the B-grade 1950's sci-fi flicks, the Roswell and X-Files conspiracies, wild Chariots of the Gods alien theories, the mysterious Peruvian meteorite illnesses. There's no shortage of speculation of what the future might hold, what with holes in the ozone admitting cosmic radiation and comets, meteorites, space junks and all the microscopic hitchhikers they might be carrying hurtling towards us at mind-boggling speeds. Agggghhhhhhhhhhhhhh!

Now there's a new kid on the inter-planetary catastrophist's block: superbugs. Super spacebugs.
Scientists working on and with the space shuttle have found certain bugs, dangerous enough when earth-bound, will grow more powerful in space. Like salmonella, which acts differently, genetically, in space, making it stronger, more deadly.

Arizona's Centre for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology has found space salmonella, after 12 days, killed mice more swiftly and exhibited genetic variations. Space evidently triggers a different response in the bacterium even if scientists insist it's nothing it can't do on earth given the right circumstances.

They cite an influence called "fluid shear", the effect fluids have have passing over a bacterium. In space, like in the human body's intestines, it assists the bug's virulence. It simply takes lots of movement, lots of shaking the flasks containing the bug that are sent aloft into space.

It's just salmonella, nasty enough in its own right, and hardly what you might think is going to slaughter the human race ahead of the asteroid 99942 Apophis due to arrive between earth and the moon on April 13, 2029 or perhaps climate change-driven tidal waves a non-Kyoto future holds for us. But what of the bugs that might be attached to all the space junk, the old satellites, rockets, probes, missiles constantly falling back to earth?

There's no shortage of outdated, second-hand space trash orbiting the earth while harbouring who knows what kind of mutating space bugs in the weightless environment so conducive to extraordinary growth and genetic variation. Do stories like Michael Crichton's Andromeda Strain really give us an idea of what we might face as we dabble with space discovery and scientific experiments ostensibly aimed at furthering medicine and mankind's advancement as a civilisation?

BBC reports that even here on earth we have French scientists trying to discover what secrets lie within Antarctic ice where tiny bubbles of ancient air going back 800,000 years through the ice ages are to be found up to three kilometres beneath the surface. In Spain's red-running Rio Tinto are metals dissolved by water made highly acidic by bacteria living underground. The latest results from rovers on the planet Mars suggests that planet may once have run with similar acid waters.

Does the mysterious Peru asteroid _ which made 600 people ill after crashing into the earth and leaving behind a 39-metre wide crater and some evil-smelling gasses _ hold a clue to what the future holds? And who needs super-tech military weapons or global warming to wipe us out when our headlong pursuits of curiosity can do it all by accident?

the earth with dandruff

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

one wonders if it was "spacejunk" like the satellite shot yesterday. 02-20-08