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Samples from the stratosphere said to suggest Perseid meteor shower was reminiscent of a “panspermic” origin of life on earth.
“Panspermia”—the notion that life on earth evolved from space microbes or extraterrestrial biochemicals—got a stratospheric boost last month when scientists from the University of Sheffield and astrobiologist Chandra Wickramasinghe sent a weather balloon aloft during the annual Perseid meteor shower. Sampling our stratosphere with sterile collection equipment, Professor Milton Wainwright reports finding biological material where no biological material has ever been found before.
The researchers think the material they found is biological in origin due to its appearance. They are what they believe to be several “biological entities,”2 including “a fragment of a diatom frustule and an inorganic particle-rich mass containing biological filaments.”3
Most people will assume that these biological particles must have just drifted up to the stratosphere from Earth, but it is generally accepted that a particle of the size found cannot be lifted from Earth to heights of, for example, 27km. The only known exception is by a violent volcanic eruption, none of which occurred within three years of the sampling trip.
In the absence of a mechanism by which large particles like these can be transported to the stratosphere we can only conclude that the biological entities originated from space. Our conclusion then is that life is continually arriving to Earth from space, life is not restricted to this planet and it almost certainly did not originate here.
If life does continue to arrive from space then we have to completely change our view of biology and evolution. New textbooks will have to be written!
Of course it will be argued that there must be an, as yet, unknown mechanism for transferring large particles from Earth to the high stratosphere, but we stand by our conclusions. The absolutely crucial experiment will come when we do what is called ‘isotope fractionation’. We will take some of the samples which we have isolated from the stratosphere and introduce them into a complex machine – a button will be pressed. If the ratio of certain isotopes gives one number then our organisms are from Earth, if it gives another, then they are from space. The tension will obviously be almost impossible to live with!
Professor Wainwright presented the findings, which are detailed in the Journal of Cosmology, at the San Diego conference on Instruments, Methods, and Missions for Astrobiology last month. He reports the sampling equipment was only open to the atmosphere at altitudes between 22 and 27 kilometers (about 13–17 miles). Stringent care was exercised to avoid contamination, and the balloon had an uneventful landing.
The samples included an apparent fragment of a diatom and other material of putative biological origin. The material was deemed too large, the researchers say, to have defied atmospheric physics to reach the stratosphere from earth. Therefore, they believe the apparent biological debris “may be plausibly attributed to an ingress from space.”4
Wickramasinghe is a long-time proponent of panspermia. He denies that molecules-to-man evolution could have occurred on earth but likewise denies intelligent design and special creation. He, like some other astrobiologists, therefore exports the problems he sees with evolution to outer space and imports “cometary panspermia” as the solution. Wickramasinghe says:
Biological entities of this nature have not previously been reported occurring in the stratosphere. The entities varied from a presumptive colony of ultra-small bacteria to two unusual individual organisms - part of a diatom frustule and a 200 micron-sized particle mass interlaced with biofilm and biological filaments.
The biological entities found are particles of relatively large size and mass. By our current understanding of the means by which such particles can be transferred from Earth to the stratosphere they could not - in the absence of a violent volcanic eruption occurring within a day of the sampling event - make such a journey.
If there is no mechanism by which these biological entities could be elevated from Earth to the stratosphere then it must have arrived from above the stratosphere and have been incoming to Earth.5
The astrobiologists plan to repeat the sampling in October when an additional influx of cosmic dust from Halley’s Comet is expected.
The authors do admit that it can be difficult to tell whether debris like this is biological in origin.6 Several times in the past, material found in a meteorite was claimed to be microbes from Mars on the basis of shape. In one of the more recent of these, the conclusions were also published in the Journal of Cosmology.7
Commenting on the scientific credibility of the journal, Answers in Genesis astronomer Dr. Danny Faulkner says:
I’m not very excited about this reported finding, and I expect the rest of the scientific community will have a similar reaction. The Journal of Cosmology is of recent origin (it started in 2009), and it doesn’t have much credibility among scientists. Many accuse the journal as being a mouthpiece for panspermia. The fact that this article was published there would seem to confirm that belief.
This non-mainstream journal is largely based on the presupposition that life evolved in many places in space and reached earth on rocks and dust from space.8 This contention plainly conflicts with the biblical account (in Genesis chapters 1–2, Exodus 20:11, and Colossians 1:15–18, for instance), which declares that God created the earth, all life in it, and all the universe in the six days of Creation Week. The Creation account provided by our Creator does not allow room for either molecules-to-man evolution or panspermia.
Molecular geneticist Dr. Georgia Purdom of Answers in Genesis had this to say:
Frankly, I’m shocked that scientists are making the claim that the material found on the weather balloon is biological in nature and must have originated from outer space based strictly on morphology. Much, much further testing needs to be done before any kind of support can be given to these claims. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary support, which the scientists involved in this finding currently do not have. Pictures from NASA’s Viking 1 showed what appeared to be a face on the surface of Mars. Based on morphology alone, someone might conclude that this was proof of life on Mars. However, higher resolution pictures later showed it was merely a rock formation. As with this current finding, more testing needs to be done before any claims as to the biological origin of this material can be made.
Some scientists believe that life must have come from outer space in order to account for complex microbial organisms appearing on earth 3.5 billion years ago (microbial fossils are found dating back to this time period). Since the earth in the evolutionary timeframe is 4.5 billion years old and a billion years is not enough time by random chance to develop such complex microbes, some scientists push the origin of life into the 15 billion year old universe to get the time necessary for such complexity to supposedly evolve.
Bacteria can live just about anywhere on earth and we are consistently discovering new species in extreme locations (i.e. ice, hydrothermal vents) all the time. A 2009 study reported isolating 12 strains of bacteria from air samples collected between 27 and 41 km (in the stratosphere) in the absence of a meteor shower.9
These bacteria were very similar to bacteria already known on earth. This makes the claims of life from outer space in this current study even more unbelievable. It is likely that God created microbes to inhabit this space and they have populated this area since Creation Week.
Even if the material is in fact biological in origin, its presence in the stratosphere does not prove it came from outer space. We know that there is plenty of microbial material on earth, and therefore atmospheric scientists may well determine what mechanisms can deliver bits of biological debris of the size of these particles to the stratosphere. And as Dr. Purdom points out, microbes in the stratosphere are not actually a new finding.
Furthermore, the scientists involved in this study have found some sort of debris at the time of the Perseid meteor shower, but that does not mean that the Perseids are the source of the material. Better-controlled studies showing a clear and consistent association of similar stratospheric biological particles with similar cosmic events are needed to even begin to support such a claim.
Life on earth and human beings made in God’s image are not the result of evolutionary accidents—not even extraterrestrial ones.
Finally, even if microbial life were to someday be indisputably found on Mars or in the middle of a meteorite or dribbled into our stratosphere from space rocks, that would not “prove” that life evolved anywhere. While there are biblical reasons we think it unlikely that God created life anywhere else, the Bible does not explicitly say that God did not create life elsewhere. Such life would simply be another demonstration of God’s power to create life where He chooses.
God’s Word does however make it quite clear that God is the author of all life and all that exists and that His creative work was concluded in a mere six days, as attested not only in His Genesis Creation account but also in Exodus 20:11, which was written by God Himself at the time He gave the Ten Commandments to Moses. There is no room in the Bible for molecules-to-man evolution. Life on earth and human beings made in God’s image are not the result of evolutionary accidents—not even extraterrestrial ones.
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Answers in Genesis is an apologetics ministry, dedicated to helping Christians defend their faith and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ effectively. We focus on providing answers to questions about the Bible—particularly the book of Genesis—regarding key issues such as creation, evolution, science, and the age of the earth.