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Virus 2: The Real Story of the 'Mir' Threat

By Igor Popov

In a Hollywood blockbuster, the Russian orbital station "Mir," having fallen into the Pacific Ocean, threatens mankind with a terrible virus that it has brought in from the space.

It is interesting that in 2001 a similar chilling plot moved from science fiction to the news. Shortly before the Russian space pride found its last resort in the Pacific waters, both Russian and western media started to scare their readers with the frightening reports about "the Mir danger." The alarm was caused by nothing else but. . . a virus!

To be more precise--viruses. And some other tiny organisms that occupied the station while it carried out its space duty. The character of these creatures was as malicious as the galactic monsters of science fiction.

According to the specialists from the Russian Academic Institute of Micro-Biological Problems, which took part in the Mir space research, the first microorganisms--bacteria and fungi--were found right after the station was placed into the orbit 16 years ago. They were carried on board together with the space cargo. Although both the space shuttles and the cargo had to undergo a thorough anti-bacterial test, complete sterilization was impossible.

Throughout Mir's life in space, the number of microorganisms grew continuously, one generation replacing another every 20-30 minutes. If in 1990 there were registered 94 species, in 2001 they numbered 140. But the real problem was not the species increasing in number but their growing aggressiveness: each new generation seemed to be more ferocious than the last.

Although the people who worked on the station suffered no serious harm (at least, if we believe the Russian Space Committee's official statements), the uninvited guests still gave the cosmonauts a lot of trouble.

Penetrating into every single corner of the station, they showed an enormous appetite and demonstrated their capacity to eat up even highly durable materials. A vivid example of the bacteria's' "outrage" is illustrated by what happened to the window of a transportation spacecraft that docked to Mir when piloted by its last crew. Some time after docking, the cosmonauts' attention was drawn to the rapidly deteriorating window glass. It was covered by a strange film, spreading "as quickly as in the horror movies," and became absolutely non-transparent.

The test results raised the researchers' eyebrows. It turned out the quartz glass and the titan, which framed it, were damaged by a large colony of bacteria. As experts explained later, these microorganisms exuded a metabolism product--an acid so strong that it could easily corrode the window the creatures had settled on.

Besides this case, which rightfully belongs in the microbiology textbooks, the little angry bacteria more than once ate up the metallic casing and destroyed the equipment on board the station. Their next victim was the control panel of a communication device, in which the parasites devoured the whole insulation. When the astronauts Anatoly Solovyev and Pavel Vinogradov sent the device down to the earth, one could see that it was entirely green inside!

These dangerous activities of the Mir microorganisms worried specialists. In the spring of 2001, about a month before it was clear that Mir would come crashing down to Earth, a press representative of Russia's Microbiological Institute Dmitry Malashenkov, in his interview with the newspaper Gazeta.Ru. put it straightforwardly that he did not know how the bacteria would behave after Mir's re-entry. He also confirmed that they posed a danger to the integrity of the station's hull.

Not less alarming were the rumors about 94 kinds of Mir bacteria being pathogenic and able to cause human diseases. This information contradicted claims by Russian scientific authorities. Yet some foreign experts, among them the Italian microbiologist Mario Pizzura, overtly accused the Russians of concealing the outbreaks of infectious diseases among the Mir crews.

In the meantime, unlike the level of threat the bacteria posed to the humans, the reason behind their aggressiveness presently raises no doubt.

Space mutations. Nothing else could change the descendants of the terrestrial microorganisms into sinister "metal eaters." Staying inside the orbital station and on its exterior and being exposed to radioactive space rays and sun flashes, their genetic changes went out-of-control.

Thus, it appeared Mir was attacked by mutes. Just like in another thriller.

But even more intriguing were the revelations of Russian space crewmember Anatoly Serebrov, who confessed that it was not merely microorganisms, which underwent mutations. Several Russian newspapers referred to him saying he had also seen mutating worms. "When one of the station's devices failed and I set to dissembling it, I found there a yellow worm more than a meter long& I have not seen anything of the kind on the Earth," Serebrov said.

On March 23, 2001 the glorious Mir station came to its end. However, the concerns around its mutating creatures have not ended. Scientists fear that once in the ocean, the Mir's changed bacteria may cause (and may have already caused!) negative changes in the Earth biosphere.

These allegations gave rise to a series of sensational news pieces last year. The stories held that, having come into contact with the local terrestrial species, the "space mutes" would start eating plastic, metal and glass and emit poisonous exhalations.

In an effort to claim these apprehensions, skeptics have held that any harmful substances would be burned to a crisp when the Mir fell through the Earth's atmosphere. The "alarmists" still keep saying that, being extremely tenacious of life, the mutes could not be killed by the high temperatures.

Pouring oil on the flames was the comment by the Deputy Director of the Russian Academic Institute of Astronomy, Boris Shustov, who, sharing his opinion with a Gazeta.Ru correspondent, said the high velocity of the falling Mir did not let its temperatures reach the point that microorganisms would start to disintegrate. As an example, the astrophysicist cited the case of a meteorite that fell in India in the mid-1950s. When the locals came upon the site, they saw a huge piece of ice.This would indicate that whatever was inside Mir at re-entry could well be preserved, too, said the scientist.

His colleague from the same academic establishment, Anatoly Mikisha, added that one could hardly make precise temperature calculations concerning each specific part of the station. Mikisha also stressed that there are well-known kinds of bacteria, which can live even in the volcano craters. The temperatures on "Mir" must have been lower, he said.

Anyway, nobody has given a definite answer as to what eventually occurred to the weird inhabitants of the Russian orbital station once it came to rest on the Pacific seabed. The experts merely advised that one should better not try to find the Mir's remains and steer clear from the area where it might be located.

But who knows, maybe one of these days the issue of the Mir mutes will once again make headlines. And in the process make a Hollywood scenario reality.

Copyright 2002 by Igor Popov



Igor Popov is a freelance writer based in Moscow, Russia.