Evidence for the abundance of life in the universe could lie under our oceans or be covered in a great sheet of ice in Antarctica.
Whether or not we are alone in the universe is one of the most persistent questions of humanity and science. But an even more interesting question is whether we are alone on Earth, as a new study published last month in the International Journal of Astrobiology addresses.
Written by Professor Tomonori Totani of the University of Tokyo, the paper raises the possibility that submicron-sized extraterrestrial fossils or minerals may be floating in space or even buried deep within our planet’s oceans or ice caps as a result. from asteroid impacts on other planets.
The author thinks that coming up with ways to find these particles on Earth could help identify alien biosignatures that established methods—such as looking for radio signals for so-called technosignatures or analyzing exoplanet atmospheres—missed.
According to Totani’s rough estimates, 100,000 of these grains may fall to Earth each year. Identifying a biosignature for even one of these grains could transform the way we understand life in our universe.
“I was wondering if there is a different approach for more direct sampling of extrasolar biological materials, then I had this idea. It is more direct than remote astronomical observations, because the grains may include microbial fossils, which will never be obtained by remote observations,” explained the Japanese astronomy professor.
This idea that evidence of aliens may be flying through space and landing on unsuspecting planets, like Earth, is called panspermia. This theory is not incredibly popular with researchers, which may be partly because they believe that the alien biomaterial could not survive either the radiation from open space or the heat of re-entry into a planet’s atmosphere.
But for the purpose of simply identifying that extraterrestrial life exists, Totani thinks that living aliens are not a prerequisite.
“My impression is that panspermia within the solar system may be possible because we know that meteorites from Mars are found on our planet. However, it is not necessary to explain the origin of life on Earth.
As for how researchers would go about identifying these tiny dust particles, that’s where things get tricky. In his paper, Totani proposes two different approaches: collecting dust in space before it reaches Earth or exploring places on Earth where these particles might have been preserved, such as Antarctic ice or under the seafloor.
While the second option may be easier in terms of accessibility, differentiating alien biosignatures from native Earth ones won’t be an easy task. Similarly, trapping these particles in space will require infrastructure on a larger scale than currently exists.
Be that as it may, the researchers could be caught between a rock and a hard place.
“In principle, they can be useful for distinguishing entirely different compositions and isotopic ratios of Earth grains, or entirely different microfossils of life on Earth,” Totani said. “But ultimately a better way is to collect those grains using detectors placed in space.”
“As it stands now, this approach is still just a ‘rough theoretical idea,’ the professor concluded.
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