Today has seen the launch from Florida of the Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter that has 5 sorties planned on Mars. It’s all over the news – see for instance here. I hope the mission is a success no matter what the scientific results.
Of course it is the next step towards trying to get people to the red planet. But there are still problems with that, the biggest is radiation in both space and on Mars. Various solutions have been proposed, but the cost has proven to be prohibitive. Which is why I welcome the the results of an experiment that have been taking place on the International Space Station (ISS).
They have taken a fungus that has survived Chernobyl and exposed it to space radiation. See here. In summary, the melanized, radiographic fungus, C. sphaerospermum is capable of converting radioactive energy into chemical energy, which it does using melanin pigments inside its cell walls. Sounds weird, but it’s analogous to photosynthesis, in which plants convert energy from visible light to useful energy. Results showed that the fungi were capable of adapting to the microgravity environment of low Earth orbit and live off the incoming radiation. What’s more, the experiment showed that a 1.7-millimeter-thick layer of growth blocked incoming radiation somewhere between 1.82% to 5.04%.
This means we can effectively paint the outside of our spacecraft with the fungal growth to reduce the amount of radiation leaking into the spacecraft. It sure is a cost effective way of doing it compared with other methods, so should at least be considered as part of a suite of anti-radiation measures.
Note these fungi were grown on a petri dish, so had nutrients supplied – much like plants take nutrients from the soil. Mars being the arid planet it is, is no petri dish. So it is not surprising similar fungi have not been discovered on Mars.
But what about Europa (a moon of Jupiter), Enceladus (a moon of Saturn) and many more which have sub-ice oceans with vents to spray the liquid and gases into space? Could this fungus be used as a surface anti-radiation shield?
Up to now, the assumed best places for colonisation in the Solar System have been the Moon, Mars and Callisto (another moon of Jupiter). But will this radiation absorbing fungus make the ocean moons more habitable?
It could well do. Which means the dynamics of purported future politics will change. It will go from Earth-centric asteroid mining and supply of agricultural goods to possibly independence of the ocean moons fighting for the same goods as Earth wants.
Um… err… yikes! The science fictional power balance of the Solar System has just changed from we science fiction readers are used to.
Yes I know there have been stories about under-ice exploration and colonisation of the ocean moons, but to change the power balance? That is another kettle of fish (sorry about the pun).
Note the stories of the colonisation of Mars cannot just be rewritten as the colonisation of the ocean moons – there is the small matter of the extra distance to get from Earth to ocean moons. It has a considerable impact on story dynamics. This really is a clean sheet of paper start for a new generation of Solar System development science fiction stories.
I do so wish my C.A.T. novel had been published. There is a hint of what can happen in these ocean moons in my Guard Cat story. (See here for UK Amazon link.) But heck the novel goes on to describe more interesting stuff that can happen down the vents on the way to the oceans. And this is only just the start!