(KUTV) A BYU professor says he's made a surprising discovery about just how hard it is for bacteria to die, and he says it could have implications for exploring space.
Daniel Austin, professor of chemistry, received funding from NASA to try to figure out how fast bacteria can travel before they die on impact.
"At some point they're going to splat and break apart," Austin said. "We don't know where that limit is."
So far Austin and two students have been able to send bacteria flying at 670 miles per hour into a glass surface. But the bacteria haven't been hurt.
"We've been very surprised," Austin said. "As fast as we've been able to get them so far, they still survive."
Why should we care? According to Austin, his experiment could lead to significant insights about outer space and whether bacteria from one planet could end up on another.
"If there were life on Mars and bacteria somehow get embedded in a meteorite that gets knocked off and then makes its way to earth, that might be a mechanism by which they could travel between planets," he said, adding that bacteria could also travel by way of humans.
Austin is carrying out his crash test experiment in a machine he built himself. He takes a suspension of bacteria in water, puts them into the device, and accelerates them with a gas jet. The bacteria then hit a glass surface.
"Then we culture them and see if they're still alive," said Austin.
The professor says NASA cares about this study because of the need to keep planets protected and not taint the ability of scientists to determine if life is present there.
"We want to keep those environments in their pristine condition," Austin said.
The professor plans to present his findings at a conference in Texas in June. He also plans to continue the study with a goal of getting the bacteria to travel as fast as 2,000 miles per hour. He thinks that might finally kill them off.
"That anything can survive that kind of impact is amazing," he said.
To read Austin's paper on this subject, click here.