Miniscule research worms kept in special aluminum canisters aboard the doomed space shuttle Columbia survived after plunging from the spacecraft and hitting the ground with an impact 2,295 times the force of Earth's gravity, according to a research paper in December's issue of the journal Astrobiology (click here for PDF).Shuttle researchers were studying the growth and reproductive behavior of the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans, a small (about 1mm long) soil roundworm commonly used in biological studies. Specifically, the scientists were examining a liquid growth medium called CeMM and its potential for use in enabling automated experiments on Caenorhabditis elegans during future space flights.
At the Texas crash site of the craft--which broke apart on Feb. 1, 2003--live worms were found in four or five of the recovered canisters, according to the research paper, a discovery that demonstrates how small life can survive a relatively unprotected re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.
"This is a very exciting result," said Catharine Conley, a biologist at the NASA Ames Research Center and principal investigator on the experiment. "It's the first demonstration that animals can survive a re-entry event similar to what would be experienced inside a meteorite. It shows directly that even complex small creatures originating on one planet could survive landing on another without the protection of a spacecraft."