The Ultimate Paternity Test: Are We Martian?

"Dad?" A scene from War of the Worlds.

This rather outlandish, sci-fi notion comes straight from the fertile minds of researchers from MIT, the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University who are proposing a biology experiment that could be sent on a future Mars surface mission. If their hypothesis is proven, we wouldn’t only have an answer for the age old question: Are we alone? but we’d also have an answer for the not-so-age-old question: Did life from Mars spawn life on Earth?

The idea goes like this: countless tons of material from Mars has landed on Earth. We know this to be true; meteorites have been discovered on Earth that originate from the Red Planet. These rocks were blasted from the Martian surface after eons of asteroid impacts, and the rocks then drifted to Earth.

If there was once life on Mars — a concept that isn’t that far-fetched, considering Mars used to boast liquid water in abundance on its surface — then perhaps some tiny organisms (not dislike the hardy cyanobacteria that is thought to have been one of the earliest forms of life to evolve on our planet) hitched a ride on these rocks. If some of these organisms survived the harsh conditions during transit from Mars to Earth and made it though the searing heat as the meteorite fell through our atmosphere, then perhaps (perhaps!) that is what sparked life on Earth.

You may have heard a few variations of this mechanism, it is of course the “panspermia” hypothesis. Panspermia assumes that life isn’t exclusive to just one rocky body like Earth, perhaps life has the ability to hop from one planet to the next, helped on its way by asteroid impacts. Not only that, but perhaps (perhaps!) tiny microorganisms could drift, encased in interstellar dust, akin to pollen drifting in the wind, seeding distant star systems.

Naturally, when considering the distance between the planets (let alone the light-years between the stars!), one might be a little skeptical of panspermia. But it certainly would help us understand how life first appeared on Earth. After all, it’s not as if the solar system has a natural quarantine system in place — if Mars had (or has) bacteria on its surface, perhaps they have been spread to Earth, like an interplanetary flu bug. Also, as experiments are showing us, microorganisms have an uncanny ability to survive in space for extended periods of time.

So, according to my esteemed Discovery News colleague Ray Villard, the MIT team led by Christopher Carr and Maria Zuber and Gary Ruvkun, a molecular biologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University, are proposing to build an instrument to send to Mars. But this instrument won’t be looking for signs of life, it will be testing the hypothetical Martian DNA and RNA. Should this interplanetary paternity test prove positive, proving a relationship between Earth Brand™ Life and Mars Brand™ Life, then this could be proof of some extraterrestrial cross-pollination.

Although this is complete conjecture at this time, as there is no proof that life has ever existed on Mars (despite what research in dodgy research journals tell us), it is certainly an interesting idea that would not only test the hypothesis of panspermia, but also give us a clue about the potential human colonization of Mars.

To quote Ray:

This could give us pause about sending humans to a germ-laden alien world. It would be an ironic twist on the H.G. Wells classic 1898 novel “The War of the Worlds,” where invading Martians succumb to the common cold from Earth microbes.

See, Wells’ Martian warriors should have done genome testing first.

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The Day Aliens Invaded… [UPDATE]

UPDATE (Mon. 9:50 a.m. PT): Shocker. NASA refutes Hoover’s claims. Apparently his paper failed peer review for publication in the International Journal of Astrobiology… in 2007! More here: “NASA Refutes Alien Discovery Claim — Discovery News

Original post: On Saturday, a NASA astrobiologist announced his “irrefutable proof” that aliens — the size of bacteria — exist. Using a sophisticated electron microscope, Richard Hoover looked deep into meteorite samples to see complex fossilized microscopic structures that looked suspiciously like bacteria found here on Earth.

Some of the suspect alien microorganisms even resemble cyanobacteria, a basic microorganism that helped make early-Earth hospitable to life by producing oxygen. Cyanobacteria can live in space for extended periods of time; tests on the International Space Station have shown the single-celled specks are hardy little buggers, surviving in a kind of “suspended animation,” sleeping for months (even years) in vacuous, frozen, high-radiation conditions. When brought back to Earth, the critters come back to life.

Needless to say, when Hoover announced this discovery of “alien” microbes, I wasn’t the only one who was thinking panspermia, the hypothetical mechanism where life — in the form of a microbe like cyanobacteria — hops from one planet to the next encased inside meteoroids.

Is this really proof of aliens? Is it evidence for panspermia? Does this mean life on Earth may have been seeded by alien microbes stowing away inside chunks of space rock? Does mankind need to invent an anti(alien)bacterial handwash?! (I’ve watched The Andromeda Strain.)

As mentioned in my Discovery News article on the subject, I’m skeptical about Hoover’s claims. This isn’t because I think Hoover’s work is rubbish (I have yet to finish digesting his lengthy paper), it’s just the way he decided to publish his work. The online Journal of Cosmology isn’t exactly the best place to submit your paper if you want your research to be taken seriously. And why the hell he gave FOX News the “exclusive,” I have no idea.

Sure, Hoover has discovered some odd-looking, alien-looking, bacteria-sized shapes in meteorite samples (he’s even done some interesting chemical analysis on the micro-“fossils”), but he’s going to have to do a far better job at convincing the scientific community that they are extraterrestrials.

Personally, I think these dinky “fossils” are a little too well preserved. Perhaps a far simpler explanation can be found? *cough* Contamination. *cough*

I’d love to know what NASA’s official line is, they seem to be staying remarkably quiet considering one of their employees has just announced the discovery of ET…

Read more: “Has Evidence for Alien Life Been Found?

Did the Cosmos Deliver a Googly? ‘Meteorite’ Lands on Cricket Pitch

While enjoying a cricket county match, two spectators were apparently treated to one of the rarest of cosmic events: a meteorite falling from the sky, landing right in front of them. The “dark” rock, measuring 5 inches wide, broke in two on impact. Amazingly, a piece hit one of the witnesses.

“One piece bounced up and hit me in the chest and the other ended up against the boundary board,” said Jan Marszel. “It came across at quite a speed – if it had hit me full on it could have been very interesting.”

It’s not clear from the Telegraph‘s minimally skeptical article when this happened (I’m assuming it was during the recent Middlesex vs. Sussex game in Uxbridge, northwest London, using the tidbits of information from the text) and the only expert opinion cited is that of Dr. Matthew Genge, a meteorite expert at Imperial College, who hasn’t handled the evidence yet.

“If this turns out to be a meteorite it’s very exciting and would be the first fall in the UK since 1992,” Genge points out.

(That last statement isn’t very accurate. I’m certain that there have been many meteorites falling onto the UK since 1992. If proven true, this would be the first witnessed fall in the UK since 1992.)

UPDATE (July 27, 10:22 am PT): With thanks to Philip Stobbart, who also commented on the Uxbridge object, some clarification of Genge’s quote has been provided, I stand corrected:

Ian O’Neill does a good job of debunking this, with one minor error. A ‘fall’ to a meteor expert is one of two categories of meteorites, falls and finds, referring to when they were seen – falling, or found later – not to meteorites actually physically falling. The papers made the same error, although they accepted the idea of this being the first fallen meteorite since 1992…

Original post continues:

Thank goodness the eyewitness account didn’t include a description about smoke bellowing from an incendiary-like pebble (i.e. the recent Israel spoof/weapon), but there are some huge question marks hanging over the validity of the Uxbridge object.

The first red flag is that one of the witnesses said: “…out of a blue sky, we saw this small dark object hurtling towards us.” I might be wrong, but spotting a 5-inch wide object flying through the air, at speed, ain’t easy. I would have thought the only time they were alerted of the ‘meteorite’ would have been when it hit the ground. Or when it hit Marszel in the thorax.

Secondly, was the ‘meteorite’ really 5 inches wide? After a quick search, I found a photograph of the offending object:

5 inches? Are you sure? I know us guys are known for overcompensating, but this is ridiculous. Granted, it’s probably just shoddy reporting, but that piece of rock is barely an inch wide.

Also, when a meteoroid blasts through the Earth’s atmosphere, a huge amount of heat is generated around it, creating a ‘fusion crust.’ This crust should be very obvious surrounding recently fallen meteorites. Looking at this picture, no fusion crust is visible. It could be that we are looking at the interior of the broken ‘meteorite,’ and the black fusion crust is on the other side, but there’s no indication in the photo that this is a bona fide space rock.

If I were to place a bet, I’d say that this is not a meteorite. However, it will be interesting to see what the experts think once they are able to study the sample.

Special thanks to Twitter buddy Madge Leebman for the tip!

Space Agency Confirms Indonesia ‘Meteorite’

So, according to The Jakarta Post, last week’s ‘meteorite’ (these skeptical ‘quotes’ are getting ridiculous) that smashed down in East Jakarta, through the roof of a house, was in fact a meteorite. But this time, a scientist from the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (Lapan) has confirmed the original report to be true.

“The heat exposure showed that the object came with high speed and heat,” said Thomas Djamaluddin, an astronomy researcher.

According to another publication, the meteorite “was as big as a coconut.”

However, no meteorite remnants have been recovered from the scene. While it’s possible that the meteorite vaporized on impact, I strongly doubt there would be much of a house left after such an energetic blast.

Djamaluddin does point out that perhaps the meteorite had a “fragile structure,” a potential reason why there’s no fragments left. But that begs the question: If the meteorite was that fragile, could it really slam through the roof, destroy the second floor, explode, excavate a crater in the first floor and cause damage to two neighboring properties?

I’m not totally discounting the idea that this might have been a meteorite impact, but the evidence remains as sketchy as last week. So I’m sticking with my original thought that this “blast” was more likely terrestrial and not extraterrestrial in origin. But on the outside chance this was a meteorite, the neighborhood had a very lucky escape in that the space rock was big enough to cause significant property damage, yet small enough to stay contained.

Sources: The Jakarta Post, Antara News

Indonesia ‘Meteorite’ Wiped Out a House… Or Not.

A week after Israel played host to the amazing burning ‘meteorite’, another report is coming in about a ‘meteorite’ strike in East Jakarta, Indonesia. (Note the use of the famous ‘skeptical quotes’.)

On Thursday, a falling object crashed through the roof of a house causing moderate damage. There was also light damage to two adjoining properties. Fortunately, there are no reported injuries.

According to a report in the Jakarta Globe, there was a “blast” that resulted from the impact and there was a deep crater in the floor of the house. After creating the impact crater in the floor, the ‘falling object’ bounced.

I suspect the object impacted at high velocity, hit the floor, bounced back and hit the ceiling, then fell back down,” said a researcher from the Indonesian National Aeronautics and Space Agency (Lapan). “It’s extremely difficult to recover the fragments, what with the rubble and broken glass, and it being so dark in here.”

The article also states that there was evidence for a residual heat footprint and melted items around the crater. Apparently, these facts all point to evidence that a meteorite, or some man-made space junk, was involved.

Although the details are sketchy, there are a few points that concern me about this meteorite report:

First, if this ‘meteorite’ was large enough to create a “deep” crater (there’s no information about the crater’s approximate size), that would suggest it was a hyper-velocity impact. Not only is this kind of impact very rare, I doubt there would be anything left of the building.

Unless “moderate damage” means “there is no house left,” I strongly doubt the crater was caused by a meteorite.

Secondly, according to the Lapan scientist, the space rock “bounced.” While this is possible — take the Virginia meteorite that crashed through the roof of a doctors office, bouncing off the floor of an examination room, for example — if its impact was energetic enough to excavate a sizable crater (and produce a “blast”), then I doubt much of the meteorite would be left to “bounce.” It would have disintegrated, got lodged deep in the bottom of the crater, or not produced a crater at all.

Thirdly, the article states: “the residual heat footprint and melted items pointed to a meteorite.” As I’ve said before, meteorites are usually cold when they make landfall (assuming they are small enough to be slowed by our atmosphere), so this residual heat did not come from the meteorite. If the meteorite was large enough to slam into the house at hyper-velocity speeds, or hit a gas canister, then perhaps there might be some “residual heat.” But in this case, I strongly doubt there would be any house left.

Fourthly, according to Evan Irawan Akbar, from the Bosscha Observatory in Lembang, this event has occurred shortly after the Lyrid meteor shower which ended on Monday. So he rules out any connection. Which is fortunate, as this meteor shower is caused by the Earth passing through a harmless dust tail created by the periodic Comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher.

But then he drops this clanger: “It could, however, be part of the Eta Aquariid meteor shower, which peaks on May 7 and 8.”

The Eta Aquariid meteor shower is caused by dust trail from Halley’s Comet… last time I checked, dust grains from comets have never been linked with house-killing chunks of rock. Comets are made from ice and dust, stuff that easily burns up when hitting our atmosphere. These are meteor showers, not meteorite showers.

The extent of the damaged caused is also a little strange. From the article: “It blasted a hole in the second floor of the house, sending furniture falling to the first floor, and tore big holes in the walls.” Doesn’t that sound like an explosion?

Apparently the police have ruled out speculation that this was a gas canister explosion and although there is “no conclusive proof the damage was caused by a meteorite, it was the most likely explanation.”

Alas, meteorite impacts aren’t likely explanations, terrestrial explanations are the most “likely.” The fact that an Indonesian counter-terrorism squad has been dispatched to the area to look for traces of explosives suggest the authorities aren’t placing all their bets on this being a meteorite impact either.

Thanks to @antonwilliam for the tip!

Source: Jakarta Globe

Israel ‘Meteorite’ Isn’t a Meteorite [UPDATE]

That's no space rock: The Israeli 'meteorite' that never was (Ilan Lilush, Tel Aviv Police).

That's no space rock: The Israeli 'meteorite' that never was (Ilan Lilush, Tel Aviv Police).

UPDATE (April 25): The unidentified combustible object has been identified as being “man made” rather than anything cosmic in origin.

“It is definitely not a meteor and not a different natural substance – somebody created it, and it did not appear from outer space,” said Ittai Gavrieli of the Geological Survey of Israel when reporting after analysis of the ‘meteorite.’

Also, it looks like my original assertion that this resembled an incendiary device wasn’t far off. This object contained high quantities of phosphorus, a chemical commonly used in incendiary weapons.

“The object had high concentrations of phosphorus, which is naturally ignited when it comes in contact with air and with inflammatory material,” Gavrieli added.

However, I still stand by my theory that the Moonpeople are behind it.

(Once again, thanks Avi for keeping me in the loop of these meteorite misadventures!)

[Original post below]

ORIGINAL POST: It has all the hallmarks of being a meteorite: It’s on fire! There’s smoke! Hell, even the BBC is reporting about it!

That’s right, isn’t it? When a chunk of rock flies through the Earth’s atmosphere it burns bright, sometimes exploding during re-entry, scattering the ground like a hellish incendiary device? Scary stuff if you’re standing underneath the cosmic fireball.

It seems that some surfers on the beach near the town of Bat Yam, near Tel Aviv, Israel had a lucky escape when an unidentified-smoldering object punched a hole through a surfboard and then sat, for some time, burning amongst the seashells. Lots of excitement ensued, and the whole event was captured on videophone. The Israeli police are investigating, saying the unidentified object “fell from the sky.”

However, looking at the video above, that’s no meteorite.

Sure, when a chunk of space rock enters the Earth’s atmosphere it produces light and flame due to atmospheric ram pressure heating the outer layers, producing a trail of ionized gas. But it’s also worth remembering that space rock is very cold (as it’s been deep frozen in space), so the brief heating during re-entry will not heat the cold rock up substantially when it makes landfall, definitely not enough to make it combust when it lands. Re-entry happens for a very short time, although the shell of the meteorite might heat up a little, the insides of the meteorite remain very cold. Even if the rock was heated up during those few fiery seconds of re-entry, it will decelerate very quickly, falling to the ground at terminal velocity. This would have the effect of cooling it down some more.

In fact, it’s been reported that frost has formed on meteorites as soon as they land. That’s radically different to what we’re seeing here.

Even if this could possibly be a meteorite, what’s burning? Last time I checked, space rock didn’t burn like a firework and produce smoke like a signal flare. And meteorites certainly don’t contain any nitroglycerin. That is unless the Moonpeople are throwing bombs at us again, but I’ll save that theory for another day.

Thanks Avi Joseph for pointing me to this video!

Now THAT is what I call a fireball!

Three frames from the South African CCTV footage.

Three frames from the South African CCTV footage.

Having seen some footage of the South African fireball last weekend, I thought it was quite impressive. However, a new video looking along a Johannesburg motorway has appeared online, and it’s superb.

I can’t find much information about this event, but it happened on November 21st and no fragments have been found so far.

Just in case you were in any doubt as to how much energy is released when a chunk of rock hits our atmosphere, this should give you a good impression:

I could almost feel the heat and hear the *KABLAAAM*.