Microbes and The Final Frontier

Chris Hadfield singing on the ISS

Will Pavia and Rhys Blakely Published at 12:01AM, May 18 2013

Space: the final frontier. Most hear the word and are immediately greeted by a myriad of images. Most of which are only fifty years old or younger. Sputnik’s primitive shape against the inky blackness of space, a Saturn V rocket’s gargantuan form ascending into the sky, Neil Armstrong planting an American flag on the moon, even Chris Hadfield singing a cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” from the comfort and zero gravity of the International Space Station: these and other images of man’s greatest scientific achievement, space flight, are nearly inseparable from humanities perception of the vastness of space. Nearly as indivisible from our perception of space are images from science fiction. Movies like Star Wars, Star Trek, and 2001: A Space Odyssey have so ingrained their lore and imagery in society that often people find it hard to separate what is fact from what is fiction. A truly astonishing feat considering the first satellite was launched into orbit only 57 years ago. Nearly a blink of an eye in the annuls of history and yet it has fundamentallyChasing some filthy nerfherder changed how we perceive the world and our place in the universe. That being said, what is the next thing to come from the great emptiness of the cosmos that will change our perception of not only ourselves but of our place in the great expanse of the universe. I would venture to say, that thing would be life.

Extra terrestrial life… the thought of it evokes visceral emotions such as curiosity, excitement, and fear. Curiosity and excitement because of the great “what ifs”. What if we aren’t alone in the universe? What if this explains the beginning of life on our planet? What if this signifies the ability to live elsewhere in the universe? Fear, however, comes from “what if” questions as well. What if they are intelligent? What if alien life is hostile? What if alien life is deadly to humanity because of disease? The “what if” questions from fear are often spawned by the blockbusters that we so frequently see on the silver screen. Great battles with advanced technology blasting away at each other in the style of an Old Western or invasion from the heavens are now part of our perception of what alien life entails. Some of you may even blow off these fears as unjustifiable qualms of basement dwelling nerds -rude!- but in fact some of the brightest minds humanity has to offer have these same fears. Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson have both made statements saying they fear the day we actually come in contact with a sentient being from another planet.

“If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans”- Stephen Hawking, 2008

Perhaps Mr. Hawking is right about sentient beings, but what about the fare more likely alien; the one with which we may have already come in contact? I am talking, of course, about Microbes….in…..space! -insert echo-

Microscopic organisms in space are not only the most likely life form we could find, but one for which NASA has been searching. There have been claims of microscopic alien life being discovered but not to the degree that would cause major shifts in human perception of interstellar life. In 1996, scientists claimed to have found the fossilized remains of microbes on a meteorite on the surface of Mars. The Alan Mills meteorite was met with both accolades, President Bill Clinton made a national address about the discovery, as well as skepticism. Richard Hoover, a NASA scientist, published a paper claiming to have found fossils of cyanobacteria on carbonaceous meteorites in 2011. Once again met with skepticism, only time will tell if the study becomes accepted by the scientific community as a whole. The famed Philae lander, which after a ten year journey landed on the comet 67P’s surface,  is sparking new discussions about micro organisms that may be hitching a ride through space. While the Philae craft was not equipped with the proper equipment necessary to detect life, after the proposal for such equipment was nearly laughed to death fifteen years ago, features of the comet such as abundant organic material that appears to be regenerated point to the likelihood of living micro organisms beneath the comet’s crust.

The Philae lander took this photo apon its descent onto the comet.

The Philae lander took this photo upon its descent onto the comet.

“What is all the fuss over microscopic organisms floating around in space?”, you may wonder. There are three big reasons these bacteria are making such waves in the scientific community and why they will affect the rest of us.

1. Life sustainability beyond Earth’s surface.

It is well known that Earth is under going changes and frankly these changes worry the scientific community. The human population is growing at an unsustainable rate and our affect on the planet is beginning to show. While this may sound like the realm of science fiction, many scientists are looking beyond our planet as possible options to sustain human life. Finding bacteria and other microorganisms alive and adrift in space spark the hope for future human expansion throughout the solar system.
Granted, the time line for these events are far beyond our life time, but the concern is there. As they say, “necessity is the mother of invention”. Our neighboring planet Mars as well as moons like Europa and Ganymede have all been theorized as possible options for human colonization. Even asteroids have been thought as possible way points for humanity, a sort of stepping stone to the outer reaches of our solar system. If anything, it is exciting to think that bacterial discoveries from heavenly bodies could be a catalyst for further manned space exploration.

2. Further discoveries could help shed a light on the process that sparked life on Earth.

Many scientists theorize that the provenance of life actually began during a period in the Earth’s youth when it was a target of hundreds of asteroids and meteorites. The finding of bacteria on a comet or a meteorite may help to explain the process if not the origins of early life. Biologists are chomping on the bit for a discovery of this sort as it present the opportunity for wholly new facets of biology to be studied. Nothing and no one exists in a vacuum, therefor the discovery of such interstellar microorganisms would be a tremendous scientific discovery that has unlimited potential for the advancement of human understanding.

3. Extraterrestrial life, no matter how small, would change humanity’s perception of itself.

Carl Sagan , 1934- 1996 photo courtesy of PBS

Carl Sagan , 1934- 1996
photo courtesy of PBS

Some may think that I am reaching a bit far here. How could an organism that can’t even be seen with the naked eye change how we view ourselves and our place in the cosmos. Simply put, it would mean that we are not alone in the universe. While statistics is on the side of this, actual physical proof would be enough to spark a discussion that could change human history. When you think about it, it isn’t stretching all that far. Five hundred years ago, it was an accepted fact that the Earth was the center of the Universe. Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo’s discoveries forced humanity to realize that we were not at the center of all things. Around the same time, Antoine Van Leeuwenhoek and discovered that life as we knew it was not confined to what we could see with the naked eye. Humanity was once again forced to realize that life was far more complicated than we once understood it to be. From the theories of Charles Darwin, to those of Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan, and Stephen Hawking, science has proven again and again that humanity is much smaller and insignificant than we once thought ourselves to be. We went from being the center of the cosmos, to inhabitants of what would be likened to a grain of sand in the Sahara, if not smaller.

A discovery of extra terrestrial life would once again force humanity to question its origins while coming to terms with the fact that we are no longer living on the sole harbinger of life.

In conclusion, space will always capture the imaginations of both scientists and the general public. Its breathtaking beauty will continue to captivate and astonish while provoking scientists to question what else could be out there waiting for us to simply stumble across its path. Life in the macrocosm is something that will continue to spark curiosity and fear, even though interstellar beings are likely only to be found on a saucer beneath a microscope than one flying through the sky.

Daniel Ballew

Written by Daniel Ballew
Daniel is a Marketing Associate for Hardy Diagnostics. He earned his bachelor’s degree in History and a certificate in World Religions at California Polytechnic San Luis Obispo in San Luis Obispo, California where he studied mythology and the development of Christianity.