By Anupum Pant
February 1, 2003 was a sad day for science. Space shuttle Columbia, during re-entry, due to a broken piece of insulation, got completely disintegrated. With the shuttle, died all the 7 astronauts who were aboard. [Remembering Columbia]
Scientists had lost hope on all of the 80 experiments that were on board. Only several days later while sifting through the wreckage they found something interesting – at least not all was lost. A live group of lucky worms (roundworms) was successfully salvaged from the wreckage. Yes, odd, but true.
Why were there worms in the shuttle?
The space shuttle Columbia was a research flight and contained 80 experiments on board. The group of live worms, sealed in a metal container which was ensconced in a safe locker, was a part of one of those 80 experiments.
Although the particular gene experiment that had to be conducted with fresh-worms-from-space was lost because they had entered Earth several days back, the worms still proved useful for other science experiments.
From these worms scientists learned a great deal about what micro-gravity could do to animals – Like weakening of muscles and manifestation of diabetic symptoms. When in space, these are the similar things that happen to humans as well.
How did they not get killed?
Firstly, they were in a strong metal container that was nicely protected by a second layer – a reinforced locker meant to really protect things.
Since the shuttle was coming in at a speed more than 2 times the speed of sound, the locker must have hit the ground pretty hard, right? No, till the time it reached the surface, the drag slowed it down. So, the worms basically experienced just a harder-than-normal landing.
What are they doing now?
Well, as round worms don’t really live longer than 2 years usually, they must have died long back. But their descendants have been stored safely in a genetic center – lucky worms indeed. Some of these descendants were lucky enough to be sent to space during 2011 in the shuttle Endeavour.