Legacy Space Worms Flying on Shuttle


The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, a $2 billion particle physics experiment designed to scrutinize high energy cosmic rays for signs of dark matter, antimatter and other phenomena impervious to traditional telescopes, may be the highest profile — and most expensive — experiment packed aboard space shuttle Endeavour, but it’s far from the only one.

Also launching into orbit on Monday were a collection of worms, some of which are descendants from the Caenorhabditis elegans worms (also known as C. elegans) which flew on shuttle Columbia’s final flight — and survived.

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Columbia was ripped apart as it glided through the atmosphere for landing on Feb. 1, 2003, due heat shield damage caused by a debris impact during launch 16 days earlier. Seven astronauts died in the accident, but in the wreckage, hundreds of worms, flying as part of a biology experiment, were found alive.

Descendants of the Columbia worms are serving as subjects for a new NASA experiment flying aboard Endeavour, which blasted off Monday for a 16-day mission. The flight is the second-to-last for the 30-year space shuttle program, which is ending due to high costs and to free up funds for new ships that can travel beyond the station’s 220-mile high orbit.

“C. elegans is a common, well-studied organism used in biomedical research as a model for human development, genetics, aging and disease,” says NASA. “The organism shares many essential biological characteristics found in human biology.”

And, apparently, an affinity for spaceflight.

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Image: Space worms, the next generation. Credit: NASA

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