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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Move objects with your mind – telekinesis is coming to a human brain near you

If a user puts on the Neurable headset, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

On 30 July, a blog post on Medium by Michael Thompson, the vice-president of Boston-based start-up Neurable, said his company had perfected a kind of technology which would be “redrawing the boundaries of human experience”. 

Neurable had just fulfilled the pipe dreams of science fiction enthusiasts and video game fanboys, according to Thompson – it had created a telekinetic EEG strap. In plain English, if a user puts on the Neurable headset, and plays a specially-designed virtual reality video game, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

Madrid-based gaming company eStudioFuture collaborated with Neurable to create the game, Awakening. In it, the user breaks out of a government lab, battles robots and interacts with objects around them, all hands-free with Neurable's headset. Awakening debuted at SIGGRAPH, a computer graphics conference in Boston, where it was well received by consumers and investors alike.

The strap (or peripheral, as it’s referred to) works by modifying the industry standard headset of oversized goggles. Neurable's addition has a comb-like structure that reaches past your hair to make contact with the scalp, then detects brain activity via electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors. These detect specific kinds of neural signals. Thanks to a combination of machine-learning software and eye-tracking technology, all the user of the headset has to do is think the word “grab”, and that object will move – for example, throwing a box at the robot trying to stop you from breaking out of a government lab. 

The current conversation around virtual reality, and technologies like it, lurches between optimism and cynicism. Critics have highlighted the narrow range of uses that the current technology is aimed at (think fun facial filters on Snapchat). But after the debut of virtual reality headsets Oculus Rift and HTC Vive at 2016’s Game Developers conference, entrepreneurs are increasingly taking notice of virtual reality's potential to make everyday life more convenient.

Tech giants such as Microsoft, Facebook and Google have all been in on the game since as far back as 2014, when Facebook bought Oculus (of Oculus Rift). Then, in 2016, Nintendo and Niantic (an off-shoot from Google) launched Pokémon Go. One of Microsoft’s leading technical fellows, Alex Kipman, told Polygon that distinctions between virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality were arbitrary: "At the end of the day, it’s all on a continuum." 

Oculus’s Jason Rubin has emphasised the potential that VR has to make human life that much more interesting or efficient. Say that you're undergoing a home renovation – potentially, with VR technology, you could pop on your headset and see a hologram of your living room. You could move your virtual furniture around with minimal effort, and then do exactly the same in reality – in half the time and effort. IKEA already offers a similar service in store – imagine being able to do it yourself.

Any kind of experience that is in part virtual reality – from video games to online tours of holiday destinations to interactive displays at museums – will become much more immersive.

Microsoft’s Hololens is already being trialled at University College London Hospital, where students can study detailed holograms of organs, and patients can get an in-depth look at their insides projected in front of them (Hololens won’t be commercially available for a while.) Neurable's ambitions go beyond video games – its headset was designed by neuroscientists who had spent years working in neurotechnology. It offers the potential for important scientific and technological breakthroughs in areas such as prosthetic limbs. 

Whether it was a childhood obsession with Star Wars or out of sheer laziness, as a society, we remain fascinated by the thought of being able to move objects with our minds. But in actual realityVR and similar technologies bring with them a set of prickly questions.

Will students at well-funded schools be able to get a more in-depth look at topography in a geography lesson through VR headsets than their counterparts elsewhere? Would companies be able to maintain a grip on what people do in virtual reality, or would people eventually start to make their own (there are already plenty of DIY tutorials on the internet)? Will governments be able to regulate and monitor the use of insidious technology like augmented reality or mixed reality, and make sure that it doesn't become potentially harmful to minors or infringe on privacy rights? 

Worldwide spending on items such as virtual reality headsets and games is forecast to double every year until 2021, according to recent figures. Industry experts and innovators tend to agree that it remains extremely unlikely you’ll walk into someone examining a hologram on the street. All the same, VR technology like Neurable’s is slowly creeping into the fabric of our lived environment.