Scientists plan to send worms to the stars

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Pablo Javier Piacente

Scientists contemplate the launching of tiny life forms into interstellar space: microscopic worms C. elegans could be sent out of the Solar System in small spacecraft that would reach a speed close to the speed of light.

Researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the United States, have postulated in a new study that the best astronauts for the first interstellar travel they would not be human: specialists believe that the most interesting alternative would be to send thousands of worms in wafer-shaped spaceships. The spacecraft would be propelled at incredible speeds and could reach Proxima Centauri in about 20 years, sending valuable information back to Earth via photonic communication.

A utopia close to reality?

Although humans have advanced considerably in recent decades in space exploration within the Solar System, missions to other star systems are still the exclusive preserve of science fiction. In addition to propulsion technologies or travel conditions, the greatest limitation is time and distance: probes such as those used in the Voyager mission, which have managed to leave the Solar System through the heliosphere, it would take more than 80,000 years to reach the nearest extrasolar system.

According to a press release, American astronomers have devised a solution to this problem, which integrates new forms of propulsion and the use of microscopic worms as interstellar travelers. In principle, two new studies published in arXiv and in Acta Astronautica developed a propulsion approach that eliminates the option of fuels in spacecraft, understanding that they will never be able to achieve that missions reach the speeds necessary to move outside the Solar System.

Instead, they propose use light to power small probes, with onboard instrumentation to detect, collect and transmit data back to Earth. They would achieve speeds of up to 30% of the speed of light, using as a propellant a laser array stationed on Earth, or possibly on the Moon. In this way, the propellant source would be external to the spacecraft and would remain on our planet or on our natural satellite.

Wafers and interstellar worms

The spaceships, which would “shoot out & rdquor; at relativistic speeds, they would look like a “wafer & rdquor; semiconductor, having an edge to protect itself from radiation and space dust bombardment as they pass through the interstellar medium. They would travel at approximately 160 million kilometers per hour, reaching the next star system, Proxima Centauri, in two decades. Logically, these speeds would make the incorporation of a human crew unfeasible.

Instead, scientists have thought that C. elegans worms They could be the right astronauts. With extensive experience in space travel, experiments aboard the International Space Station, and even a history of having survived the tragic disintegration of the shuttle Columbia, tiny nematodes would be the perfect alternative. A crucial point is that they can achieve a status of “suspended animation & rdquor;, in which they practically stop all metabolic function but are still alive.

In this way, thousands of these worms could be placed on wafer-shaped spacecraft, traveling in that “suspended” state. until reaching the desired destination. Then they could be “awakened & rdquor; and precisely monitored to detect any effect of interstellar travel in your biology, transmitting observations to Earth by photonic communication. The information sent through the light would be vital to progressively improve conditions until, at some point, interstellar travel can be carried out by human beings.


The First Interstellar Astronauts Will Not Be Human. Philip Lubin, Joel H. Rothman et al. ArXiv (2021).

Interstellar space biology via Project Starligh. Philip Lubin, Joel H. Rothman et al. Astronautics Act (2022). DOI: https: //

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