Do you wash your hands regularly? We hope so! Not only do our hands get dirty throughout the day, they can also become covered with germs that can make us sick. Washing your hands with soap and water helps to get rid of those nasty germs.
Some people hate germs with a passion and avoid them at all costs. These people who fear germs and contamination are often called germaphobes, although the phobia they have is officially known as mysophobia.
If you suffered from mysophobia, where might you go to be safe from germs? Some people might think outer space would be a good place to go. After all, there is no air in space and all that cosmic radiation would have to kill off all the germs, right?
To the surprise of many scientists, many missions to outer space over the past several decades have revealed that over 250 different species of bacteria and fungi can not only survive, but even thrive in the harsh conditions of outer space.
For example, the Russian space station Mir encountered problems with a film growing over its windows, reducing visibility while in orbit. Upon its return to Earth, scientists were shocked to discover numerous bacteria and fungi covering the window.
Moreover, the microorganisms had done more than just coat the window and block astronauts' views of space. They had actually corroded the window. This concerned scientists, because the window was made of quartz glass in a titanium frame encased in enamel — a combination scientists had thought could withstand just about anything outer space could throw at it.
Closer examination of the Mir space station revealed that microorganisms had also damaged electronic equipment by rusting copper cables. Scientists also found fungi coating various polyurethane surfaces.
Scientists were so surprised because space vehicles are thoroughly cleaned with toxic gases before being sent into space. They now suspect that certain bacteria and fungi may survive fumigation by hiding under areas where gas does not penetrate. So why do they survive and thrive once in outer space?
Scientists speculate that bacteria come out of hiding once in outer space. In a sterile environment without competing microorganisms around, they multiply and thrive. Instead of killing them, cosmic radiation may also help them to mutate and aggressively grow faster than they normally could on Earth.
These findings were reinforced by recent experiments conducted on the International Space Station (ISS). Bacteria-laden rocks were installed on the exterior of the ISS to see how they would react to the conditions of outer space, including wild temperature swings, lacks of air, and extreme exposure to ultraviolet light and cosmic radiation.
While some bacteria did succumb to these harsh conditions, a group of bacteria known as OU-20, which resemble the cyanobacteria genus Gloeocapsa, survived for over a year and a half on the outside of the ISS! Researchers now have samples of these hardy survivors back on Earth for further study.