Wednesday, 6 April, 2011
So the methane organisms discovered in that hostile little lake in California weren't such a big deal after all. No harm, no foul—they were at the very least interesting. Interesting, but nothing like this: Dr. Richard Hoover, as astrobiologist with NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, claims he's found alien life.
Real alien life. Not weird Earthbound extremophiles or hints of the building blocks of life that are really just errant specks of dust on the lens of a telescope. Life, and not of this Earth.
If Dr. Hoover's paper detailing the find holds up to scrutiny, we can finally, truly say it: We are not alone.
In fact, if Dr. Hoover's paper holds up to the incredibly thorough peer review currently taking place around it, life may in fact be pretty boring and downright common in the grand scheme of the universe.
So what, exactly, did Dr. Hoover find? It's pretty mind-blowing, actually: Contained within nine extremely rare meteorites called CI1 carbonaceous chondrites he discovered what he believes are the fossils of common bacteria that's both similar and nothing like what exists on our planet. In addition to being extremely rare, these meteorites are also some of the oldest in our solar system.
"The exciting thing is that they are in many cases recognizable and can be associated very closely with the generic species here on earth," said Hoover in an interview with Yahoo News. Some of the fossils, however, are quite odd. "There are some that are just very strange and don't look like anything that I've been able to identify, and I've shown them to many other experts that have also come up stump."
More specifically, Hoover claims to have discovered traces of filaments and remnants of algae-like organisms called cyanobacteria. Another find was similar to a bacterium called Titanospirillum velox. They were very Earth-like and unremarkable save for one important difference: They lacked nitrogen.
This caveat is important, as the lack of nitrogen indicates the samples are "the remains of extraterrestrial life forms that grew on the parent bodies of the meteorites when liquid water was present, long before the meteorites entered the Earth's atmosphere," he said.
Hoover is being incredibly open about his paper. As stated above, peer scrutiny has already begun, to the tune of 100 experts who have started dissecting his work in advance of its official publication. A broader, more general invitation was issued to a further 5,000 scientists as well, making this one of the most vetted scientific papers ever. This vetting is a good thing, as Hoover has made claims like this before with other meteorites that ultimately did not pan out.
Should the paper hold up, however, the game is well and truly changed. We are not just "not alone," we are common.
Update: Counterclaims calling the journal a joke and the science suspect have already begun.
Update 2: Bad Astronomy, a blog I read often due to its insightful author and spot-on commentary, debunks this news even more. Sigh.