The Russian Luna space project, active from 1959 through to 1976, scored many firsts for Russia’s space race.
OK, Luna 1 totally missed the Moon, but it did accidentally become the first spacecraft to fall into orbit around the Sun. Epic accidental win.
Luna 2 did what it had to do, becoming the first man-made object to reach the Moon, giving it the finger to Luna 1.
Luna II, source: NASA
In October 1959, Luna 3 returned the first photographs of the dark side of the Moon, which can never be seen from Earth. It took Pink Floyd another 14 years to sing about it.
There were many successes with the Luna space project, but one very dark catastrophic failure that was hushed up for decades.
On the early morning of 24 September 1970, after a successful Moon mission, Luna 16 parachuted down into Kazakhstan carrying a payload of 101g of Moon soil, the world’s first fully-automatic recovery of soil samples from the surface of an extraterrestrial body.
Another world first, another Russian success.
Or so they thought.
The 101g of luna soil was removed from the lander, still in the hermetically sealed and sterilised canister that it was collected in on the Moon’s surface. The soil was transferred to a top secret underground military installation located deep in the heart of Baikonur Cosmodrone, the Earth’s first and largest operational space launch facility, located in the desert steppe of Kazakhstan.
source: New Scientist
There, a team of edaphologists (soil dudes) and astrobiologists recovered dormant bacterial strands of unknown origin, recording their structures and composition, before extracting them from the soil and preserving them for future analysis.
The bacteria remained dormant for 18 years, until 15 November 1988, when the launch of the Soviet space program’s Buran reusable orbiter triggered a sudden germination event, infecting 30 scientists who were working in the underground lab, causing them to exhibit symptoms similar to those of Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome: pulmonary oedema and shortness of breath, followed rapidly by coughing up blood and a violent death.
Structure of the Hantavirus, source: Pearson Education
The outbreak, known as the Stepanov Episode – after the first person to die from the mysterious illness – claimed 23 of the 30 scientists’ lives. The underground installation was quarantined for 6 months and the Russian authorities buried the story, which has only just recently begun to resurface.
A mysterious addendum to the story is that in 1993, three tiny samples, just 0.2g of that very same Luna 16 soil, were sold at a Sotheby’s auction in New York for $442,500.
source: The Manilla Standard, 13 December 1993
OK, now the ratty bit that screws up the whole story. I totally lied. At least the part about the Stepanov Episode. I’m blowing smoke up your ass with that one. Everything else is true.
The thing is, I did it for a reason. To demonstrate a point. That stuff can happen, but it can also happen in reverse.
Back contamination is the transfer of extraterrestrial organisms (if we ever find any) back into Earth’s biosphere.
Forward contamination is the transfer of viable organisms from Earth to another celestial body.
source: Space Safety Magazine
And it’s this forward contamination stuff which just isn’t good. The more we go off exploring the ‘big out there’, the more chance there is that we could end up polluting our solar system. If bacterial life on other planets works in much the same way as it does on Earth, then the smallest Earth-born samples of bacteria can pollute any chance we have of finding original life elsewhere, as we could very easily kill the ass off it before we even know it’s there.
So, when Agent J and Agent K start getting all up in your face, talking about protecting the Earth from the worst scum in the universe, they really need to take a good, long, hard look at themselves.
source: Sony Pictures
While Earth is the only planet that we know definitely harbours life, we also know that living things can be extraordinarily hardy. Just take a look at this crazy water dude called the water bear, or the tardigrade if you want to seem like some kinda biology boffin.
source: Universe of North Texas
This thing can survive stuff that would be instantly fatal to pretty much all other known forms of life. It can withstand:
freezing temperatures as low as −272 °C (1 Kelvin – almost absolute zero!)
raging heat as high as 150 °C , way more than the boiling point of water
pressures around six times greater than those found in the deepest ocean trenches
ionizing radiation at doses hundreds of times higher than the lethal dose for a human
the vacuum of outer space
going without food or water for more than 30 years
drying out to the point where they are 3% or less water
…so it’s not unreasonable to imagine a terrestrial organism hitching a ride on a spacecraft and surviving the journey. If that spacecraft comes into contact with a potentially habitable environment they could become an invasive species on another world.
But them boffins have a plan to preserve the planetary record of natural processes on other planets. Good old boffins! And this plan has been kicking around since September 1956, when the International Astronautical Federation convened in Rome for its seventh congress.
source: The Register
This spawned the Planetary Protection Office, formed by NASA in the 1960s, which has defined different levels of risk to our alien friends, each requiring a different level of spacecraft decontamination before we wave it goodbye and fire it into the big black stuff. These categories are part of the outer space treaty, an international agreement signed by all space faring nations.
Now, while robotic missions can be sterilized to high standards, crewed missions cannot. You’d kinda end up killing the crew. So, currently the outer space treaty small print prevents any landing of a crewed mission before that place has been visited by a robotic mission to verify the region is inhospitable. From there, if necessary, special regions are designated where humans are not allowed to enter.
But is this enough? The dawning reality of Elon Musk’s human voyage to Mars will be an invasion of terrestrial organisms to the max, and that could put our hopes of finding alien life at risk. At the moment, the Curiosity rover is cruising around on the surface of Mars as I type this, but even that tin can isn’t clean enough to go take a closer look at a potential water source.
Or maybe we’ll find all that alien life soon enough, when Elon Musk’s SpaceX mission to Mars triggers a badass full-scale alien invasion of planet Earth.
Shine on you crazy diamond.
And on that note we’ve come full circle, almost skimming past the Dark Side Of The Moon, before fading away beneath the Delicate Sound Of Thunder. Google the weirdness of that sentence and start a new adventure.
source: Pink Floyd
And that’s what it’s all about, adventures and exploration. We can’t not do something that could be so spectacular, just because it could interfere with something that we don’t even know exists and will never know exists if we don’t do these things in the first place. And stuff.
Anyways, you sleep well tonight, you happy sack of electrical impulses and chemical reactions, you. Beep, beep, bubble.