The Sun, seen from the International Space Station. Photo: STS-129/Nasa
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The curious case of space plankton

It’s increasingly becoming clear that space is a more hospitable environment than was assumed.

While on earth it may be a difficult time for US-Russia relations, above us the International Space Station (ISS) remains an outpost of collaboration between the two countries. At least, that’s the idea. In practice, communication may be breaking down between the astronauts on board humanity’s most expensive scientific experiment.

Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency reported on 19 August that Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, had found sea plankton living on the outside of the ISS. It quoted the ISS mission chief for Roscomos, Vladimir Solovyov, who said they were found outside the Russian section of the ISS. This is surprising, as none of the astronauts or agencies involved put them there. Indeed, Nasa doesn’t quite believe it. Its spokesperson said that Nasa hadn’t heard any official reports from its Russian colleagues.

Plankton (from the Greek for “drifter”) are micro-organisms such as bacteria and algae that float around in water and are unable to swim against the current. We don’t know yet what kind of plankton Roscosmos claims to have found. Yet the assertion is plausible – if unlikely.

It’s increasingly becoming clear that space is a more hospitable environment than was assumed. It’s a mistake we can be forgiven for making – after all, for human-sized animals, space is a terrible place. Yet, for some organisms, it is no more challenging than some of earth’s more intimidating ecological niches, such as volcanic vents at the bottom of the oceans or Antarctica. The high radiation, lack of pressure and extremes of heat and cold in space are tough but not deadly to creatures that exist on the scale of fractions of a millimetre or less.

We know this because for years the ISS has been running experiments to test micro-organism hardiness. In 2008, bacteria living in rocks found in Devon were put outside the ISS and left there for 533 days. When the rocks were brought back to earth, the bacteria happily began multiplying again. These were ordinary Gloeocapsa cyanobacteria, of a kind found all over the world. Several other experiments – with lichen and with the particularly hard-to-kill tardigrades (eight-legged creatures known as “water bears”) – have also shown how some life forms can hibernate until conditions improve. This is why the panspermia hypothesis – that earth life originally came on an asteroid or comet – has been gaining traction in recent years.

If there are plankton living on the outside of the ISS, they could have come from a contaminated component, or been blasted on to the station by thrusters from a supply ship. Cleaning spacecraft is exceedingly difficult – Nasa is reasonably certain that its landers, including Viking and Curiosity, were probably not completely sterile when they were launched. Perhaps when human beings finally travel to Mars, we won’t be the first earthlings there. Some of our microscopic relatives could be waiting for us. 

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

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Fark.com’s censorship story is a striking insight into Google’s unchecked power

The founder of the community-driven website claims its advertising revenue was cut off for five weeks.

When Microsoft launched its new search engine Bing in 2009, it wasted no time in trying to get the word out. By striking a deal with the producers of the American teen drama Gossip Girl, it made a range of beautiful characters utter the words “Bing it!” in a way that fell clumsily on the audience’s ears. By the early Noughties, “search it” had already been universally replaced by the words “Google it”, a phrase that had become so ubiquitous that anything else sounded odd.

A screenshot from Gossip Girl, via ildarabbit.wordpress.com

Like Hoover and Tupperware before it, Google’s brand name has now become a generic term.

Yet only recently have concerns about Google’s pervasiveness received mainstream attention. Last month, The Observer ran a story about Google’s auto-fill pulling up the suggested question of “Are Jews evil?” and giving hate speech prominence in the first page of search results. Within a day, Google had altered the autocomplete results.

Though the company’s response may seem promising, it is important to remember that Google isn’t just a search engine (Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has too many subdivisions to mention). Google AdSense is an online advertising service that allows many websites to profit from hosting advertisements on its pages, including the New Statesman itself. Yesterday, Drew Curtis, the founder of the internet news aggregator Fark.com, shared a story about his experiences with the service.

Under the headline “Google farked us over”, Curtis wrote:

“This past October we suffered a huge financial hit because Google mistakenly identified an image that was posted in our comments section over half a decade ago as an underage adult image – which is a felony by the way. Our ads were turned off for almost five weeks – completely and totally their mistake – and they refuse to make it right.”

The image was of a fully-clothed actress who was an adult at the time, yet Curtis claims Google flagged it because of “a small pedo bear logo” – a meme used to mock paedophiles online. More troubling than Google’s decision, however, is the difficulty that Curtis had contacting the company and resolving the issue, a process which he claims took five weeks. He wrote:

“During this five week period where our ads were shut off, every single interaction with Google Policy took between one to five days. One example: Google Policy told us they shut our ads off due to an image. Without telling us where it was. When I immediately responded and asked them where it was, the response took three more days.”

Curtis claims that other sites have had these issues but are too afraid of Google to speak out publicly. A Google spokesperson says: "We constantly review publishers for compliance with our AdSense policies and take action in the event of violations. If publishers want to appeal or learn more about actions taken with respect to their account, they can find information at the help centre here.”

Fark.com has lost revenue because of Google’s decision, according to Curtis, who sent out a plea for new subscribers to help it “get back on track”. It is easy to see how a smaller website could have been ruined in a similar scenario.


The offending image, via Fark

Google’s decision was not sinister, and it is obviously important that it tackles things that violate its policies. The lack of transparency around such decisions, and the difficulty getting in touch with Google, are troubling, however, as much of the media relies on the AdSense service to exist.

Even if Google doesn’t actively abuse this power, it is disturbing that it has the means by which to strangle any online publication, and worrying that smaller organisations can have problems getting in contact with it to solve any issues. In light of the recent news about Google's search results, the picture painted becomes more even troubling.

Update, 13/01/17:

Another Google spokesperson got in touch to provide the following statement: “We have an existing set of publisher policies that govern where Google ads may be placed in order to protect users from harmful, misleading or inappropriate content.  We enforce these policies vigorously, and taking action may include suspending ads on their site. Publishers can appeal these actions.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.