Scientists have discovered what they believe is proof that life exists outside our own planet. A team of astrobiologists in the United Kingdom revealed findings Monday (March 11) from within three meteorite fragments believed to have been part of a fireball that streaked across the Sri Lankan province of Polonnaruwa in December that indicate the presence of ancient fossils of extraterrestrial origin. If so, the discovery is not only momentous in that it confirms that Earth is not alone in the universe with regard to harboring life and that the theory of panspermia, the idea that life is prevalent throughout the universe via interstellar "seeding," could be something more than just a sensical idea based on mathematical odds and wishful thinking.
According to a report in the "Physics arXiv Blog" of the MIT Technology Review, scientists at the Cardiff University in Wales believe they have found the fossils of ancient biological entities. They say that tests on the Polonnaruwa fragments (there are three) show evidence of fossilized biological structures and that those same structures, along with environment in which they were found, indicate they are not terrestrial.
Through testing, Jamie Wallis and the Cardiff team concluded that the Sri Lankan fireball, which lit up the sky in December, was most likely the last hurrah of a comet. Meteorite analysis of the fragments' physical properties points in that direction.
But closer inspection via electron microscope revealed a more startling discovery, according to Wallis, et. al. Structures within the stones themselves exhibited aspects of being biological. One microscopic image revealed a carbon-rich microfossil about 100 micrometers across -- what looked like something akin to a group of largely extinct marine dinoflagellate algae. Space algae, if you will.
Another image revealed what looked like extremely long flagella.
It is the latter image where scientists feel the evidence is strong that the fossils are of an extraterrestrial nature. The flagella, two micrometers in diameter and 100 micrometers long, are unique and Wallis and company believe they were formed in a low-gravity (read: possibly in space) environment.
The team has ruled out terrestrial contaminants and note that the fact that the microfossils were found inside the meteorite fragment also supports non-contamination.
Says Wallis, et. al.: “This provides clear and convincing evidence that these obviously ancient remains of extinct marine algae found embedded in the Polonnaruwa meteorite are indigenous to the stones and not the result of post-arrival microbial contaminants."
According to the blog, Wallis' team is already experiencing pushback from skeptics and members of the academic and scientific communities. Some note that the fragments could have been formed by lightning strikes, but the team say no lightning was reported when the fireball landed and physical evidence does not indicate that the fragments were hit by lightning. They also maintain that such a strike would have destroyed the biological content.
There is also the idea that the microfossils might still be of terrestrial origin. Various theories suggest that pieces of the Earth have been torn away by massive comet and asteroid impacts in the past. Such ejecta might have carried biological material with it and, millions or billions of years later, returned to Earth.
Unfortunately for the Cardiff team, one of the originators of the Panspermia Theory, Chandra Wickramasinghe, happens to be part of the Polonnaruwa study, which might lead some to suspect an agenda or at least the presentation of findings that might be skewed toward a predetermined conclusion. According to Phys.org, Wickramasinghe has a reputation for being driven to find support for his theory.
And scientists have been in this territory before, so being wary is standard procedure.
Back in 1996, NASA stunned the world with news that an Antarctic Martian meteorite might harbor the world's first evidence of extraterrestrial life. Astrobiologist David McKay and his research team posited, via Science magazine, that microfossils in the stone appeared to be biogenic in nature and terrestrially uncontaminated. However, the findings were disputed and NASA gradually backed away from definitively supporting McKay's findings as anything more than inconclusive. McKay and his methods, not to mention his conclusions, have long been disputed and have become part of government cover-up conspiracy theory lore. McKay continues to insist that his findings were not compromised and his conclusions sound.
As for Wallis and his team, their evidence of space algae has yet to be validated and/or corroborated by scientific review.
The findings are published in the current edition of the Journal of Cosmology.