Concept of a space probe

Alien Microbe Hitchhikers On Returning Space Probes Could Be Quarantined Forever

Scientists like Dr. John Rummel worry about alien contamination, both to target destinations such as Jupiter’s Europa and to the Earth, for the day when space probes begin to return samples from throughout the solar system. And they are prepared to place a possible hitchhiking alien microbe in quarantine forever to ensure that the inhabitants of Earth are never subjected to the potential dangers of some lethal extraterrestrial pathogen.

If H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds taught us anything, it is that even the most primitive things, like microbes, can bring down the most advanced, such as conquering aliens from Mars, given the opportunity. But what if the situation was reversed, where the aliens were microbes that reached the Earth from their home elsewhere in the solar system, transported to Earth via one of humanity’s space probes? As The Sun reported this week, it is just that threat of possible alien contamination and safeguarding against it that Dr. Rummel spoke about recently at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston.

Dr. Rummel, who is a senior scientist at the Seti Institute in Mountain View, California, noted that the process of containing a possible pathogen would be a rigorous process.

“If we bring samples back from either Europa or Mars, we will contain them until hazard testing demonstrates that there is no danger and no life, or continue the containment indefinitely while we study the material.”

NASA will soon be sending space probes and landers to places like Mars, Europa, and Saturn’s Enceladus that will be capable of making return trips to Earth. Rummel and his colleagues believe there might be a possibility of alien bacteria or viruses being brought back from these other worlds on returning craft. It is feared that such pathogens could very well survive the extremes of space flight and solar radiation and could, once on Earth, attack human immune systems that have no natural defenses against them.

“It is assumed that such life would be hardy – to survive the trip to Earth; not easy – and precautions taken would provide a very high degree of containment,” Rummel said.

“Microbial life, as a whole, is pretty immune to cold, dry conditions,” he explained. “Introduced to the intense radiation around Europa, exposed microbes should die off in hours to days to weeks, but organisms protected inside the spacecraft would still be alive as long as the silicon chips are functioning.”

Jupiter and moon Europa
A close-up of Europa with its parent planet Jupiter in the background. [Image by janez volmajer/NASA/Shutterstock]

Of course, the organisms would still have to survive solar radiation on the trip to Earth. But afterward, besides the potential for the heat of reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere to eliminate the pathogens, there would be nothing between the alien microbes and the Earth itself.

At the same time, Rummel said that the utmost care was being taken to create systems for the outgoing space probes to prevent terrestrial contamination of alien environments. Scientifically speaking, terrestrial microbes released onto Mars or Europa would make it impossible for astrobiologists to prove that alien life actually existed.

“Earth organisms in the Europan ocean could hide the origin of Europan life from science, forever,” Dr. Rummel said.

Scientists posited that Europa might harbor life after NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope detected water plumes erupting from its surface last year, according to the Daily Express. It is also believed that there exists a briny ocean under its icy exterior.

Saturn's moon Enceladus
Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, is believed to be the solar system’s best chance of harboring alien life. [Image by CVADRAT/Shutterstock]

As Scientific American pointed out in 2016, astrobiologists think that Saturn’s Enceladus might offer the best potential for alien life in the Solar System.

As for Mars, although there still exists no definitive proof that living organisms have ever existed on the Red Planet, scientists hold out for the possibility that alien life, such as microbial organisms protected by hematite (as reported by the Inquisitr) might exist.

[Featured Image by tsuneomp/Shutterstock]

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