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Invaders Are Eating the International Space Station (ISS)

Updated on April 27, 2012
STS-135 final flyaround of ISS. This picture of the International Space Station was photographed from the space shuttle Atlantis as the orbiting complex and the shuttle performed their relative separation in the early hours of July 19, 2011.
STS-135 final flyaround of ISS. This picture of the International Space Station was photographed from the space shuttle Atlantis as the orbiting complex and the shuttle performed their relative separation in the early hours of July 19, 2011. | Source

Hungry Bugs

The International Space Station, parts of which have been orbiting the Earth since 1998, is being eaten by microbes that have stowed away on equipment and inside human crews. When the first crew members arrived in 2000, a stew of hardy microbes awaited their arrival-- and greeted the new microbes the humans brought with them.

The longer they are in the station, the more likely they are to evolve and become aggressive. They've already gone through the “selection” of cleansing on Earth and are exposed for long periods of time to cosmic radiation. The worst have eaten-- or corroded-- holes in metal panel covers, chewed through seals and wiring insulation, leaving bare leads-- even glass is being eroded by the tiny invaders.

Approach view of the Mir Space Station viewed from Space Shuttle Endeavour during the STS-89 rendezvous. A Progress cargo ship is attached on the left, a Soyuz manned spacecraft attached on the right. 1998.
Approach view of the Mir Space Station viewed from Space Shuttle Endeavour during the STS-89 rendezvous. A Progress cargo ship is attached on the left, a Soyuz manned spacecraft attached on the right. 1998. | Source

MIR

“We had these problems on the old MIR space station, now we have them on the ISS. The micro flora is attacking the station. These organisms corrode metals and polymers and can cause equipment to fail,” said Anatoly Grigoryev, the vice-president of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Ultimately, MIR failed because of age and damage caused by microbes. The ISS is funded for operation until 2020 and could operate until 2028. The contamination gets worse as it ages.

Diagram of a typical bacterium.
Diagram of a typical bacterium. | Source
Russian cosmonauts in the Zvezda Service Module of the International Space Station. See any places microbes might hide?
Russian cosmonauts in the Zvezda Service Module of the International Space Station. See any places microbes might hide? | Source

They're Everywhere

Microbes-- bacteria, fungi and viruses-- are, of course, everywhere, from the deepest, hottest sulfur vents miles below the ocean's surface to, now, outer space. Some microbes kill us, some keep us alive, but most are harmless. Without the beneficial microbes, we couldn't digest our food, produce vitamins and would be exposed to harmful bacteria if the good ones didn't crowd them out. We can't get away from microbes.

It's not like space station components are slapped together in a garage by greasy mechanics who don't wash their hands after defecating. Strict procedures are followed in quarantined areas and equipment is coated with anti-microbial chemicals to prevent microbes from hitching a ride on equipment, or, more correctly, to reduce the number of hitchhikers, and each crew member's health is strictly monitored. Still, nobody expects to achieve 100% sterility.

In the meantime, specially treated tissues are used by the crew to swab the surfaces in the ISS modules to keep the contamination under control. Unfortunately, there are many hard-to-reach places where wiping down isn't possible. Plans are in the works to send up a powerful anti-bacterial UV lamp soon; also, a special extinguisher designed for use behind the panel covers is undergoing tests.

We Don't Need No Stinkin' Space Ship

Experiments have shown just how hardy microbes are. In one test, small chunks of limestone from the cliffs of Beer, a small English village on the south coast, were collected and sent up to the station. The fragments, containing bacteria inside as well as on the surface, were placed outside the space station. The bacteria were constantly exposed to the vacuum of space, harsh ultraviolet light, radiation and extreme temperature fluctuations. After more than 550 days in space, many were still alive. Their progeny are thriving at the Open University in Milton Keynes.

What About Diseases?

Then there's the question of the effect mutated microbes might have on humans themselves. “Uncontrolled multiplication of bacteria can cause infectious diseases among the crew,” said Grigoryev. Nor is it clear what might happen when these microbes ride back to the surface of the Earth in their human hosts or returning equipment.

This is not to say the ISS is doomed or that humanity will be wiped out, but the microbe problem is not something that scientists are ignoring or taking lightly. In space, nothing can be taken lightly.

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    • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

      David Hunt 

      5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      In so many ways the tiniest forms of life are the hardiest. I guess that's how life gets a foothold. Thanks for commenting, Greekgeek.

    • Greekgeek profile image

      Ellen 

      5 years ago from California

      Truly amazing and fascinating hub. I knew Mir had mold problems, but I ignorantly assumed that was just because Mir ran on a shoestring budget during the waning years of the USSR and wasn't built under the sterile conditions of NASA/ESA tech. Shows my prejudice!

      There are so many reasons that human spaceflight is harder than we realize. Here's another one. Quite a sobering problem, as it means any longterm facility on Mars or the Moon could quickly become unlivable.

    • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

      David Hunt 

      6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks, kcsummers. I appreciate you reading and commenting.

    • kcsummers profile image

      kcsummers 

      6 years ago from East Tennessee

      Great article. Interesting!

    • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

      David Hunt 

      6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      And that was a truly cool bit about knights! Thanks for commenting, Barnsey.

    • Barnsey profile image

      Barnsey 

      6 years ago from Happy Hunting Grounds

      Truly cool stuff, thanx for all the info and not to mention the follow ups from you and others thereafter! Same reason knights of old never touched their blades barehanded, the microbes would ruin their weapons!

    • sparkster profile image

      Sparkster Publishing 

      6 years ago from United Kingdom

      It certainly explains why they need to dump the ISS in order to prevent the build-up of space junk - something which I have previously written about. It could also be an expplanation for all the satellites that seem to be falling to Earth lately.

    • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

      David Hunt 

      6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      sparkster, I wonder how this affects long-termed manned flight? It's probably not a huge problem on a two year round trip, but it sounds like a problem for longer trips.

    • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

      David Hunt 

      6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for commenting, point2make. It's kind of amazing that these little guys might put a crimp in our exploration of space.

    • sparkster profile image

      Sparkster Publishing 

      6 years ago from United Kingdom

      The microbes have won, there are plans to dump the ISS into the pacific ocean in 2020.

    • point2make profile image

      point2make 

      6 years ago

      A very interesting and informative hub. Thanks for the info. I didn't realize that the microbes were such a problem on the ISS. It begs the questions how long can the station remain unaffected, operationally, and will science eventually come up with a solution or will the microbes...win?

    • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

      David Hunt 

      6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      sparkster, it does give you something to think about, doesn't it? Thanks for the comment.

    • sparkster profile image

      Sparkster Publishing 

      6 years ago from United Kingdom

      Hmm if microbes can survive outside in actualual space then that means that these microbes could have evolved into something much bigger elsewhere in the universe.

    • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

      David Hunt 

      6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      dmop, I don't usually LOL but I laughed out loud when reading your comment. Thanks for the vote up and sharing!

    • dmop profile image

      dmop 

      6 years ago from Cambridge City, IN

      This was a fascinating article, microbes seem to be one of the last problems you would face in outer space, but I suppose the opposite is true. You say nothing can be taken lightly in space, but isn't everything weightless. Just a funny observation. I voted this up, interesting, and sharing.

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