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Shuttle worms found alive

Published: April 30, 2003 at 7:41 PM
By IRENE BROWN, UPI Science News
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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., April 30 (UPI) -- It bears no significance to the ongoing probe into what caused Columbia to fall from the sky, but the discovery that one of its payloads -- containers of round worms -- survived the shuttle's breakup is heartening news, officials said Wednesday.

Petri dishes filled with the tiny nematodes were unpacked at the Kennedy Space Center debris reconstruction area this week, said NASA's Mike Leinbach, the shuttle launch director who has taken on the grim and challenging task of overseeing the thousands of pieces of recovered debris. The wreckage is being carefully sorted and studied for clues to the cause of the Feb. 1 accident, which killed seven astronauts.

The worms, which are about the size of the tip of a pen, were aboard Columbia as a life sciences experiment that was sponsored by NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.

The worms were being flown to test a new synthetic nutrient solution and were to have been analyzed the day the shuttle landed. Instead, the canisters fell from the sky inside a shuttle middeck locker, landing somewhere in eastern Texas, the primary debris recovery site.

The nutrient solution, which was sealed in the Petri dishes along with the worms, evidently proved more than adequate, as the creatures not only survived, but thrived, cycling through four or five generations in the three months since the accident.

"To the best of my knowledge, this is the only live experiment that has been recovered," said Kennedy Space Center spokesman Bruce Buckingham.

The worms, known as C. elegans, were part of the Biological Research in Canisters experiment, which was making its fourth space flight. The primary specimens were moss cells. The worms, which were placed in six canisters, each containing eight Petri dishes, were added to the dozens of Columbia experiments shortly before launch when excess space became available, said Buckingham.

The moss samples also have been recovered.

The experiments are scheduled to be released to their principal investigators.

"We never expected to get any data back after what happened," said Ohio State University researcher Fred Sack.

The discovery comes as NASA begins shutting down its primary debris recovery efforts in Texas and Louisiana. Truckloads of debris arriving at a special hangar at the Florida spaceport have slowed to one delivery a week. The last truck was only 20 percent full, said Leinbach, and only one more load is expected.

Debris recovery efforts will continue west of Texas, as wreckage found there is of primary importance to investigators probing the cause of the accident. Debris west of Texas would have fallen off the shuttle first and may perhaps hold clues as to what went wrong aboard Columbia.

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