Posted by: Kash Farooq | March 26, 2011

Meteorites, the Phobos-Grunt LIFE project and the Outer Space Treaty of 1967

A few weeks ago, a story broke that declared that evidence of alien life had been found inside a meteorite. Tracks, impressions and fossilized remains of bacteria had been found that could only be alien. It was impossible that the rock could have been contaminated by Earth bacteria. The news was published in a paper and everything – it was published in the Journal of Cosmology.

And the paper was written by a NASA astrobiologist: Richard Hoover.

Mineralized remains in the one of the meteorites studied by Richard Hoover. Credit: Journal of Cosmology

Mineralized remains in the one of the meteorites studied by Richard Hoover. Credit: Journal of Cosmology

Amazing news, eh? So why didn’t the world’s astrobiologists jump for joy?

Because Hoover has made the same claims before; many times. And the Journal of Cosmology also has form. This website only journal has, according to PZ Myers, been setup by “a small group of crank academics obsessed with the idea that life originated in outer space and simply rained down on Earth”.

This hypothesis is known as Panspermia. It is a legitimate hypothesis. Some astrobiologists do believe that this is a plausible explanation for how life started on Earth. The hypothesis states that it would be possible for life to be blasted off one planet by some sort of impact, hitch a ride on a meteorite through interplanetary space, and then land on another planet.

Hoover’s paper was quickly debunked by many, and NASA distanced themselves from the announcement. The general conclusion was that this was another example of very weak or misinterpreted evidence that isn’t doing the panspermia hypothesis any favours.

Phobos-Grunt and the LIFE project

Even so, a major experiment is being planned for later this year to test the claim that microorganisms could indeed survive space travel. The Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (which has the appropriate acronym ‘LIFE’) is an interplanetary mission being developed by the Carl Sagan founded Planetary Society. The experiment will send selected microorganisms on a three-year interplanetary round-trip to Mars on the Russian Fobos-Grunt spacecraft. The primary mission for this spacecraft is to land on Phobos – a moon of Mars – grab a sample and then bring it back to Earth. The LIFE project will just simply go along for the ride.

A detailed image of Phobos, taken by Mars Global Surveyor on June 1, 2003

A detailed image of Phobos, taken by Mars Global Surveyor on June 1, 2003

The LIFE project plans to include representatives of all three domains of Earth life: bacteria, eukaryota, and archaea. Each type will be sent in triplicate – there will be 10 types of organisms in 30 self-contained samples. The experiment will also send a soil colony of microbes. Before their trip, the genomes of the organisms will be fully sequenced so that on their return it will be possible to assess the effects of long term exposure to space.

Deinococcus radiodurans: An extremophile that is capable of living in environments with very high levels of ionizing radiation.

Deinococcus radiodurans: An extremophile that is capable of living in environments with very high levels of ionizing radiation.

And the specimens won’t be any old forms of life; the astrobiologists want to give the experiment the best chance of success. Extremophiles, organisms that can survive in extreme conditions on Earth, will be used. For example, an organism that is extremely resistant to radiation will be sent. Another – should we call them volunteers or victims? – another volunteer thrives in high temperatures.

Sounds like a good experiment doesn’t it? The results will either dampen or add further fuel to the panspermia hypothesis.

The experiment is, however, controversial.

It’s controversial enough that there is a protest group. It’s called the International Committee Against Mars Sample Return. It has criticised the LIFE project as a violation of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.

Sounds like something from that crappy Star Wars I film doesn’t it?

Well, the Outer Space Treaty is real. And it has sensible rules like you aren’t allowed to place nuclear weapons in orbit, or on the Moon, or any other celestial body for that matter. Or how about: exploration of outer space should be for the benefit of all countries. Another rule states that you can’t land on something, stick a flag in it, and claim it as your own.

However, the key part of the treaty that forms part of the protest is this: space travelling nations must avoid contaminating space and celestial bodies. The International Committee Against Mars Sample Return say that the LIFE experiment should not happen because Phobos could become contaminated by the Earthly organisms.

Or the spacecraft could lose control and crash into Mars and contaminate that instead.

It’s a risk that scientists think is worth taking. The Journal of Cosmology and Richard Hoover must be very excited. Or perhaps this experiment will finally shut them up?

 

 


I recorded a version of this post for episode 77 of the Pod Delusion – a podcast about interesting things. Listen/Subscribe at the Pod Delusion website or on iTunes.


Responses

  1. Excellent post (and blog) Kash. Comprehensive information on the topic and at the right level for non specialists like me. I downloaded the Pod Delusion 77 also. I’d like to use part of your material in a blog in spanish (with citation) if you don’t object.

    • Thanks! And no problem using my content on your website.

  2. Good post, and an interesting subject. Contamination of other planets was I was thinking about as well, though I wasn’t aware that of the Outer Space Treaty. (I had heard there was a treaty of some sort for nukes, but didn’t know the details or that it had anything to do with contaminating other worlds).

    The contamination issue is quite a big deal, and something I’ve been thinking about a lot. I’m desperate for a mission to Europa, but I’d like to know how they intend to do anything there (hopefully involving a machine landing, drilling and swimming) without contaminating anything.


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