The Seeds of Life
In July 2001, red rain fell in the southern Indian state of Kerala, staining clothes as if with blood. The official explanation was that the red rain was caused by dust blown in from Arabia. Dr Godfrey Louis from the Mahatma Gandhi University was not convinced. He thought there was something extra-special about the red rain.
He collected samples, and, under an electron microscope, he saw that the particle were not dust at all, they were alive. But, what was this mysterious life form? There was only one way to find out; take a look at the DNA. The results, however, showed that there was no DNA; it was life but not as we know it. All life on Earth depends, in one way or another, on DNA, the carrier of all genetic information. If the red rain cells had no DNA then it meant only one thing to Godfrey; they had come from outer space.
Prof. Chandra Wickramasinghe
He is aware that this is a big claim but, reports that all the experiments support the claim. A big claim is putting it mildly. These tiny cells, just 8 thousandths of a millimetre across, might actually be aliens. A close encounter is big news and, around the world, wires were buzzing with people desperate to find out more.
Godfrey contacted the one scientist in the UK who might take his claim seriously. Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe is a brilliant astrophysicist full of maverick ideas. He's been based at Cardiff University for the last thirty years.
In the late 1960s, Chandra was working with world famous astronomer, Sir Fred Hoyle. Together they came up with a startling claim, that the Universe was teeming with organic compounds, the building blocks of life. Sir Fred and Chandra then went even further, they were convinced that comets actually contain life itself and they had used clever astronomical techniques to prove it.
They weren't talking about large-scale life, rather tiny bacteria and visuses, hitching a lift through the cosmos in the same way that plant seeds can travel around the Earth to find a suitable place to flourish. Micro-organisms could journey through space on the back of a comet seeding other planets and this might be hoe life on Earth began. The name of their theory was Panspermia but, it was all too much for the establishment; their theory was ridiculed.
Chandra Wickramasinghe has been living in the outskirts of the scientific mainstream ever since, waiting for that one piece of killer evidence. Could the red rain really be the smoking gun he's been waiting for? Chandra travels to India to find out.
For the theory of panspermia to have any credibility, requires a massive leap in our understanding of the Universe. That leap of faith is that there is life beyond Earth. Until recently it's been assumed that outer space was too cruel an environment for life to exist, but home scientists have discovered bugs living in some of the harshest places imaginable.
Mono lake in California is a high salinity, high pH, high temperature cauldron where brine shrimps and bacteria thrive. A new micro organism found in the guano of penguins is able to grow at temperatures of -5°C. Life has even been found, in a place even more extreme than frozen penguin droppings, happily making home in the heart of a nuclear reactor.
If life is ever found beyond Earth, it will be a vital pillar to the theory of panspermia and the people most likely to succeed are NASA.
One of the most ambitious NASA projects is based in a non-descript shed in Texas. It's part of a plan to look fir life on a tiny moon of Jupiter, called Europa, Leading the team is alien hunter Bill Stone. Bill's goal is to create an autonomous robot submarine that will, hopefully, find alien life on Europa. Europa is a popular destination for NASA as high resolution photographs almost certainly show the presence of water and with water there is a high possibility for the presence of life.
Just before the red rain fell, there had been a large exposion heard which is believed to have been a comet or meteor hitting the Earth's atmosphere. Just the sort of object that could be transporting aliens.
Dr Godfrey Louis
Godfrey's research on the red rain is now in scientific literature but, many in the establishment remain highly sceptical. They have come up with their own bizarre, earth-bound explanations.
One theory is that a meteorite struck a flock of bats and it was their blood that came down as red rain. This would explain the lack of DNA because red blood cells don't have any. But, where are all the other bat bits? Another theory is that millions of lichen spores were swept up from trees into the atmosphere and then returned as the red rain. But, where's the DNA that lichen cells should have?
An invasion of aliens in India might seem far-fetched but, there is one man who should take it seriously. Close to the corridors of power in Washington DC, he has perhaps the most important job this side of Pluto, he is the Planetary Protection Officer for NASA; John D. Rummell. His job has been around for some time. Ever since they put a man on the moon in 1969, NASA has been nervous of what they might bring back to Earth. However, they are also aware of the dangers of taking terrestrial organisms into space, which may contaminate future findings.
While NASA may be travelling the solar system in search of life, most panspermians are waiting for the party to come here. 500 tons of meteorites fall to Earth every year, any of which could be an alien life carrier. One particularly rare type of meteorite is the Carbonaceous Chondrite, a sort of burned-out comet. Some believe this is the most comfortable form of transport for an alien visitor and Richard B. Hoover is convinced he's found the evidence of just such an inter-galactic joyride. It's called the Murchison Meteorite which fell into the Australian outback in 1969.
Richard B. Hoover
Putting slices of the meteorite debris under an electron microscope showed a lot of complex structures that look like micro-fossils of blue-green algae. Richard's claim that this is fossilised life is highly contentious and it still leaves open the question as to whether life forms on a meteorite could survive the dramatic impact of landing on Earth.
At the University of Kent they are trying to replicate what happens to the organism when they crash into the Earth. For this they need a big gun and some very small organisms. The firing of the gun happens in a vacuum to maximise the speed; which could be as high as 15,000 mph. The bugs are mounted on a projectile which is fired at a steel plate behind a film of water. The impact does kill most of the organisms but, the crucial point is that some do survive.
A tragic real-life event has added support to the idea that organism can survive. In 2003, the Columbia space shuttle blew up during re-entry and seven astronauts lost their lives. What is not well known is that some of the micro organisms on board the shuttle survived.
All scientists now agree that micro-organisms can survice extraordinary conditions be it radiation, extreme cold, extreme heat or extreme impacts. Most space scientists also believe that the solar system almost certainly contains other life forms and a few scientists are convinced that certain meteorites contain the remains of life.
Putting all the evidence together, Chandra believes this is how life began on Earth in the first place.
CREDITS: All of the above information came from the BBC "Horizon" series of documentaries.
|Astronomical Origins of Life: Steps Towards Panspermia - Fred Hoyle & Chandra Wickramasinge|
|Alien Life Forms (Sci Fi Explained) - Michael White|