Many of us dream of traveling to the stars. And while the technology that will take humans beyond our Solar System is not yet developed, engineers are already working on shipping tiny probes there. Researchers are even suggesting today that it could be very rewarding to integrate a few rather special passengers … Only a few decades ago, sending human beings into space, it seemed impractical. Then there was Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. Only a few years ago, this dream still seemed inaccessible to ordinary people. And there was Virgin Galactic and SpaceX. Today, some are even starting to think about how life might soon leave its cradle. The solar system. “I think it is our destiny to continue to explore”, underlines in a press release from the University of California at Santa Barbara (United States), Joel Rothman, co-author of a publication on this subject in the journal Acta Astronautica . So, will life soon fly to the stars? “Why not,” the researchers are responding today. But it will probably be, at first, very small beings on board spacecraft, also very small. Because we cannot hide it. To reach the stars in chemical-powered ships, it would take a long time. The Voyager missions have already taken 40 years to reach only the limits of our Solar System. And it wouldn't take them less than 80,000 years to reach the nearest stars. Researchers at the University of California are thus working to develop miniature probes – StarChips, as engineers already call them – of no more than one gram, still equipped with the necessary instrumentation to detect, collect and transmit data to Earth. But above all, propelled at about 30% of the speed of light using a laser beam. These machines could reach relativistic speeds and travel to Poxima Centauri … in just twenty years! And they might be able to take some small, living radiation-resistant animals there. Tardigrades … Technical … and ethical questions Researchers estimate that thousands of these creatures could be put dormant on interstellar spacecraft and awakened once the goal is reached. With the possibility for scientists to learn more about the effects of interstellar travel on life. “We could study the extent to which tardigrades remember behavior learned on Earth after moving away from their home planet at a speed close to the speed of light and examine their metabolism, physiology, neurological function,” their reproduction and aging. Because most of the experiments that can be carried out on these animals in a laboratory can be carried out aboard StarChips as they cross the cosmos, ”says Joel Rothman. The objective remains of course to understand the potential effects of interstellar travel on humans. Even though this dream shouldn't come true right away. And that, by then, “we may have created more suitable life forms or more resilient human-machine hybrids.” The researchers do not lose sight of the ethical questions attached to this work of a rather particular kind. Some already consider that life could have been brought to Earth by comets. Or even, on purpose, by an extraterrestrial civilization. So considering sending life forms to other stars – if only tardigrades – naturally raises questions. And even more general questions for some. Do we only have “the right” to send into space microorganisms that have not asked for anything? Or send human beings later to destinations they may never return from? Ethical questions perhaps just as interesting as the scientific questions which accompany them … Interested in what you have just read?