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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Why did Julian Assange lose his internet connection?

Rumours of paedophilia have obscured the real reason the WikiLeaks founder has been cut off from the internet. 

In the most newsworthy example of "My house, my rules" this year, Julian Assange's dad (the Ecuadorian embassy in London) has cut off his internet because he's been a bad boy. 

Rumours that the WikiLeaks' founder was WiFi-less were confirmed by Ecuador's foreign ministry late last night, which released a statement saying it has "temporarily restricted access to part of its communications systems in its UK Embassy" where Assange has been granted asylum for the last four years. 

Claims that the embassy disconnected Assange because he had sent sexually explicit messages to an eight-year-old girl —first reported by the US political blog Daily Kos — have been quashed. Wikileaks responded by denying the claims on Twitter, as Ecuador explained the move was taken to prevent Assange's interference with the US election. The decision follows the publication of leaked emails from Hillary Clinton's campaign adviser John Podesta, as well as emails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC), by WikiLeaks.

Ecuador "respects the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states," read the statement, though the embassy have confirmed they will continue to grant Assange asylum. 

Assange first arrived at the Ecuadorian embassy in London in June 2012, after being sought for questioning in Sweden over an allegation of rape, which he denies. WikiLeaks claims this new accusation is a further attempt to frame Assange.  "An unknown entity posing as an internet dating agency prepared an elaborate plot to falsely claim that Julian Assange received US$1M from the Russian government and a second plot to frame him sexually molesting an eight year old girl," reads a news story on the official site.

It is unclear when Assange will be reconnected, although it will presumably be after the US presidential election on 8 November.

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