First creatures to embark on interstellar travel within a generation

Scientists are planning to send the first creatures on a journey beyond the solar system within a generation, using laser-propelled spaceships and suspended animation.

“Humanity has dreamed of interstellar flight for more than 100 years. We are working on bringing this dream to reality for all of us, but particularly for the next generation,” said Philip Lubin, a physicist at University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) and leader of the university’s Experimental Cosmology Group, where he is pioneering the research with colleague Joel Rothman.

The would-be interstellar astronauts are nematodes and tardigrades, microscopic creatures commonly used in scientific research, which would be used to assess the viability of stasis as a means of achieving interstellar travel.

“Following the longest voyage ever taken by a terrestrial creature, we can wake them up and ask how they’re enjoying the trip, whether they reproduce normally and how well they remember what we taught them on Earth,” said Rothman, a biologist at UCSB.

A proposed laser-propelled sail. Image courtesy of Adrian Mann / UCSB Experimental Cosmology Group

The journey will be taken on tiny spacecraft propelled by lasers, which are currently being developed in a NASA-backed project at UCSB known as Starlight.

These spacecraft, which have been dubbed spacechips, are radically different from those currently in use, involving the  highly focused projection of energy in the form of light – a laser beam – onto a ‘sail’ made up of large mirrors.

Currently in the very early stages of development, they are considered the most promising approach to interstellar travel, and could one day, likely in the far future, be used to transport humans across the stars.

Initially, however, they will only be capable of carrying very small payloads, which is why microscopic creatures have been selected to be the first passengers.

The beloved tardigrade, which will be one of the first creatures to be sent on an interstellar mission

The creatures themselves, nematodes and tardigrades, the latter of which are also known as water bears, have been selected as they have already been used in a multitude of Earth and space-based experiments, making them species where much is known about their behaviour and biology.

Tardigrades also have been subject of considerable attention from the popular science community due to their bizarre yet almost cute appearance and their astonishing hardiness. Resistant to asteroid impacts, gamma ray bursts and supernovae, it is thought that they will be the last creatures to survive on Earth long after every other species has perished.

The project will be showcased at the Raw Science Film Festival, which is taking place later this week in Santa Barbara.

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