Conveniently, the rock was attached to the exterior of the European Space Agency’s Foton M3 spacecraft and “fell” from the sky in an expected descent. The rock contained fossilized microbes and the molecular signatures of microbes intended to determine whether biological material could survive a meteoric journey to Earth through the vacuum of space and atmospheric reentry. The spacecraft orbited Earth for 12 days and landed in Kazakhstan on September 26.
“It’s possible simple organisms could arrive via meteorites.”
Some biological compounds on the rock survived the experience, according to the University of Aberdeen’s John Parnell, who led the project. This suggests that “it’s possible simple organisms could arrive via meteorites.” The test was part of the ESA’s STONE program, which studies the effects of atmospheric reentry using artificial meteorites.
“We wanted to see if a rock that was rich in carbon and water would suffer a lot of mass loss,” Parnell said. “That was certainly the case. About three-quarters of the mass of our sample disappeared.” However, since microbes can live deep inside rocks, Parnell believes such a meteorite could have ferried life from elsewhere in the solar system—most likely Mars—to Earth. However, Parnell explained that living microbes “probably wouldn’t have survived in a meteorite this size” because temperatures rose to about about 392˚ F (200˚ C).
STONE scientist Charles Cockell of the Open University makes clear the question on everyone’s mind: “Of course, at the moment we don’t know of life on another planet, but this experiment is an intriguing test of an interplanetary version of an old ecological question,” he said, referring to continent-hopping biota on Earth.
Senior scientist David Morrison of the NASA Astrobiology Institute adds that regardless of whether life has been transported in this manner, “we should be open to the possibility that there is microbial life on Mars that shares a common ancestor with Earth life. It may not be likely, but we cannot exclude the possibility that we are, in effect, all Martians.”
The increasing trend of looking off-Earth for life’s origin reflects the problems with current origin of life models.
The increasing trend of looking off-Earth for life’s origin reflects the problems with current origin of life models. Maybe it didn’t originate here, some theorize, but maybe it evolved elsewhere and ended up here somehow. Evolutionary opponents of this theory, called panspermia, point out that moving the origin of life off-world does nothing to answer the difficult questions of how life would have evolved from primordial goo.
Also interesting is Morrison’s attitude toward the possibility of Martian origins: noting that we must consider it because we cannot exclude its possibility (even in spite of finding no direct evidence for such a hypothesis). But we wonder how many individuals reject special creation because they have faith in the “possibility” of an evolutionary just-so story about the origin of life—here or elsewhere in the universe!
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