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Was Life Seeded From Space?

WAS life seeded from space? In a bold new mission, scientists are about to take one small step towards finding out. Martin Hickes reports.

SCIENTISTS are about to take the next step towards answering the controversial question of whether life was 'seeded' from space.

Astro-scientists have long harboured ideas that life might have evolved on earth, not through a natural organic process, but having been 'transplanted' from elsewhere in the universe. 

As far-fetched as the theory sounds, space experts have long pondered whether comets and meteors are capable of carrying the building blocks of life.

Upon impact with the earth, or as the earth passes through the tail of a comet during its orbit, many have speculated that life  - or at least the proto-chemistry of life – might have initially hitched an interstellar ride.

While the notion of 'transpermia' as the technique is known, has its doubters, a new probe is about to be launched to one of Mars's asteroids to test the theory.

A key stumbling block for proponents of the universal seeding theory has been whether tiny microbes could actually survive in the harsh environment of space.

At temperatures close to absolute zero, and being bombarded with interstellar radiation, many have thought even the most basic forms of life  - if they did exist elsewhere – could not survive any trans-planetary taxi ride.

That's the question the US Planetary Society's Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment (LIFE) hopes to solve as it prepares to leave for the Red Planet in the next few days.

“It’s a wonderful experiment,” says Bill Nye, Planetary Society CEO. “This is the next logical step in answering the fundamental questions: “Where did we come from?” and “Are we alone?”

The Society is sending a collection of living organisms on a three-year trip to the Martian moon Phobos and back to Earth.

The Phobos LIFE biomodule is hitching a ride on the Russian Phobos Sample Return Mission.

Nye adds: “For example, if a rock on Earth contained life and were blasted off Earth, could it survive until it reached Mars? Or, if life existed on Mars, could it have been transported to Earth? The Planetary Society experiment will test the ability of life to survive the interplanetary voyage by flying organisms for several years through interplanetary space in a simulated meteor.

Inside the patented Phobos LIFE “biomodule,” along with a larger soil sample container, are thirty tiny tubes, each just three millimeters across. They contain millions of non-pathogenic organisms from all three domains of life: bacteria, archaea, and eukaryota. The eukaryota include hundreds of plant seeds, and scores of tiny organisms called Tardigrades.

Seen under a microscope, hey are the most complex organisms making the round trip, which will last approximately three years.

David Warmflash is the Phobos LIFE Science Principal Investigator. 

"We know that many of the species aboard Phobos LIFE are incredibly hardy," says Warmflash. "Many can be described as 'extremeophiles.' 

“Some are quite complex, yet they can survive or even thrive in environments that are toxic for other complex organisms, such as humans. We can't wait to get them back in our labs to see how they've been affected by this especially challenging exposure."

Phobos LIFE will be the first test of organisms’ long-term survivability outside the Earth’s protective magnetosphere. 

Almost all other such tests of space survival skills have lasted a few days or weeks. The handful of longer experiments were conducted in Earth orbit, well within our planet's strong magnetic field. 

The magnetosphere deflects the majority of cosmic and solar radiation that makes interplanetary space so hazardous to complex life forms.

Scientists estimate that about one 'real' Mars meteoroid reaches Earth each month. More than thirty have been positively identified. 

The biomodule itself is an impressive engineering achievement. Weighing just 88 grams, and easily held in the palm of the hand, it can withstand a 4000 g impact (4,000 times the force of gravity) without any leaks in even the first level of seals. 

Phobos LIFE is mounted inside the sample return capsule, which will make its fiery descent to Earth without a parachute.

The spacecraft is carefully designed to land only on Phobos, and collect samples of the moon's surface, before the sample return capsule begins its long return voyage.

The Planetary Society's Bruce Betts is the Phobos LIFE Experiment Manager. "After years of preparation by our international team, it is exciting to be on the verge of launch,” says Betts. “It's so gratifying to see the worldwide enthusiasm for this very low cost yet highly ambitious effort."

"In addition to the interesting science of the transpermia experiments, LIFE has a symbolic significance as the first directed sending of Earth life into interplanetary space," says Louis Friedman, the overall Principal Investigator for the experiment.


* Liftoff from Kazakhstan on a Zenit 2 rocket may happen as soon as November 8, when the launch window opens.