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The Hunt for the Alien Viruses

Artwork for "The Hunt for The Alien Viruses". Cartoon of planet with alien on it.


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0617 - The Hunt for Alien Viruses Transcript
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Can viruses live in space? That’s what our listener Julian wants to know. It turns out, that’s a question that scientists are asking, too! Kathryn Bywaters is one of the scientists starting the search for viruses in space. She believes that finding viruses might be the easiest way to discover life on other planets. But first, we have to learn more about what a virus is, and how to find them. Discover why viruses are like the “message in a bottle” of alien life, and how you could become a real life alien virus hunter on Mars.

In this episode, we mention a previous episode that answered the question of where viruses come from in a different way. You can listen to that episode here (also available on our feed in Spanish):


Dr. Kathryn Bywater is an astrobiologist - but she could be one of the first astrovirologists the world has ever known. Astrovirology is a new field of science. It is the study of viruses in the universe.

Photo of Dr. Kathryn Bywater

Kathryn got her start when she was in an experiment, pretending she was an astronaut on Mars. (To learn what this means, check out our episode called "A Year On Mars.")

She told us, "When you're in these environments on Earth, it can feel like you're on another planet. It can feel like you're an extraterrestrial researcher poking around on Mars or somewhere else."

Kathryn spent four months on an Arctic Island that looks a lot like Mars. No plants live there, and definitely no people. But Kathryn found lots of microorganisms.

"And that really got me thinking, life can be so tenacious and live pretty much anywhere here on planet Earth," she said. "Maybe they could live on Mars, maybe there's moons that they could live on. So that really pushed me to try to understand if life could be potentially out there."

Kathryn has worked at SETI, and now at HoneyBee Robotics.


There are lots of ways we could have answered Julian's question about whether viruses can live in space. We were most interested in the fact that NASA had gathered a group of scientists to figure out how to search for them, including Kathryn. Here's what we read about it.

Here are a few articles that show other ways to look at viruses in space!

NASA Investigates How Dormant Viruses Behave during Spaceflight

Can Viruses Survive in Outer Space?

Trillions Upon Trillions of Viruses Fall From The Sky Each Day

Getting sick in space: How would NASA handle an astronaut disease outbreak?


Curious about the search for alien life in general? There's so much to learn! You're sure to find something that surprises you in these documentaries:

Learn about how NASA's rover Perseverance is looking for life in its samples.

And, it's just cool to watch A MARS CAM!!!!

Find out more about the most exciting moons in the solar system! (Shh don't tell our moon we said that.)


Email your drawings and photos to We can't wait to see them.

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