It’s an affliction we’ve suffered from for nearly fifty years.
And enjoyed every second. Charmed and intrigued by an alien space being – that inscrutable and totally logical Vulcan known as Doctor Spock.
Sadly, the charismatic Leonard Nimoy who played Spock in the 1960s TV series Star Trek, has passed on.
It is the end of a legend.
But our fascination and often dread for things alien is a lasting legacy – and the spirit of Spock will live on for aeons to come.
“Is there life out there?” is a question we already seem to have answered ourselves.
Out of which comes our continuing paranoia – “What if it comes here?”
It’s not just in sci-fi that it receives such focus.
Real eggheads in research centres all over the world worry about it in sci-fact too.
When the original Star Trek took to the airwaves in 1966, space travel was still just throwing rockets up and watching them go round and round.
Three years later came Apollo 11 and two men walked on the moon.
Infection from space
What dangers did they risk? What contamination did they face?
And most paranoid of all, what extra-terrestrial hazards did they bring back?
They walked the moon’s surface, moon dust was on their clothing. The moon’s electro-magnetic influence infused their being.
More to the point, out of the six Apollo moon landings between 1969 and 1972, 2,415 samples of rock from the moon – almost a third of a ton – came back too.
And what defence do we have from possible alien life forms? (Tweet this) Embryo creatures trapped in lunar basalt, or deadly viruses set to take over our planet?
It is a recurring headache for scientists everywhere – how to avoid contamination of space with Earth-originated organisms.
And the other way around. How to prevent our own contamination.
Kinda difficult now that some 300,000 pieces of space junk larger than 1 cm are estimated to be in orbit up to 1,200 miles out – detritus from rocket stages, old satellites and other broken bits of nothing.
Not a bit of it.
After the Apollo 12 mission, the camera from a previous Surveyor 3 probe was brought back to Earth and found to have Streptococcus mitis alive on its casing – attributed by NASA to its not being sterilised on Earth prior to launch, two and a half years previously.
A technician sneezed on it.
NASA’s watchdog against any repeat is its Office of Planetary Protection, which applies muscle to measure, control and reduce spacecraft microbial contamination by law.
Sterilising spacecraft is difficult, given their construction from sensitive materials and the many fragile electronics systems involved. Repeated exposure to ultra violet light covers many stages of preparation, so does bombarding with gamma rays.
But Earth’s microbes have already proved themselves able to withstand extremes of temperature, radiation exposure, and even survive being in a vacuum.
Outer space? Been there, done that.
Currently, two methods are accepted for sterilising spacecraft – cooking with dry heat up to 233 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 hours – or exposure to hydrogen peroxide.
The hydrogen peroxide route is under close scrutiny – favoured for its effectiveness in eliminating all viruses and bacteria – but questioned for the moisture it introduces when deployed as a vapour, a major advantage over manual wipe methods.
Sterilising that works
That could be about to change – and remember, you read about it right here, first.
Already deployed throughout hospitals and public buildings is an automatic Hypersteriliser that ionises hydrogen peroxide into a dry mist that substantially outperforms the vapour method.
Ionising in the spray nozzle causes the hydrogen peroxide molecules to become charged, dispersing widely and quickly as their like charges repel each other, forcing them apart.
The same charge attracts them to any surfaces or airborne particles, actively grabbing at viruses and bacteria which they destroy by thrusting oxygen atoms at them. In as little as an hour, any enclosed space and its contents becomes clinically sterile.
Good to know we have that kind of protection. Especially as we are still smitten.
As we learned from the movie Alien – in space, no one can hear you scream.