Panspermia is the hypothesis that life might be prevalent throughout the galaxy due to the “seeding” of living organisms via object collisions and/or meteorite deposits. It is the hypothesis that contends that life on Earth may have its origin on some other planet. And, as one physicist notes, the idea of panspermia may get tested with the first interstellar probes to be launched to explore the nearest exoplanet.
Jeff Kuhn, a physicist at the University of Hawaii, believes that Breakthrough Starshot, a project to which he is an adviser, may offer an opportunity to actually test the feasibility of interstellar panspermia. He thinks that an experiment could be conducted by placing spores of extremely resilient bacteria on board the first interstellar probes.
“I think it would be fun, on one of these disposable chips,” Kuhn said, “to put a little colony of Bacillus, send it for 20 years, turn it on, give it some nutrients and see if it’s still alive, just to experimentally decide whether or not panspermia works over interstellar distances.”
The bacteria of which Kuhn spoke, the species Bacillus subtilis, has been found to be able to survive at least six years after exposure to outer space.
Kuhn spoke during a Breakthrough Discuss conference in Stanford, California, on April 21. His suggestion was met with a response from a fellow physicist from the audience.
Philip Lubin, a physics professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and instrumental in the development of Breakthrough Starshot’s laser-propulsion system, explained that NASA, which is helping fund the professor’s group’s projects, actually has a bacteria project to be included on the first interstellar probe to the nearest star.
“A part of our program — at least on the NASA side, because we haven’t cleared this with Breakthrough yet — is actually to put organisms to sleep, in stasis mode,” Lubin said. “And there are certain organisms known as C. elegans [a type of roundworm species often used in biological studies], which we’re going to embed human DNA into and send them out and then awaken them on arrival.”
“However, I expect that will be a highly controversial thing to do,” Lubin added.
The idea that Earth could be the jump-off for panspermia is not a new one, and the fear of contaminating other worlds is considered when planning each intra-Solar System mission (and, now, the extra-solar missions as well). When astrobiologists talk of the discovery of extraterrestrial life, they often worry about “contamination” by microbial organisms that might somehow survive the rigors of spaceflight and the radiation prevalent in outer space.
With the discovery of close-knit planetary systems like TRAPPIST-1, seven Earth-sized exoplanets were found to orbit around a red dwarf star. Three of those planets, all of which orbit closer than Mercury does to the Sun, have been found to exist in TRAPPIST-1’s habitable zone. Last month, as was reported by the Inquisitr, it was posited by Manasvi Lingam and Avi Loeb of Harvard University that panspermia between the three habitable zone exoplanets was 1,000 times more likely than it occurring between Mars and Earth (an idea, given the number of Mars meteorites that have been found on Earth, that has been suggested through the years).
The Breakthrough Starshot project is part of Breakthrough Initiatives, which was launched by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and such luminaries as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. Breakthrough is designed to explore and search for extraterrestrial life by various means. One concept works along the same lines as the SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) Institute, where telescopes and other detection methods are used to search for life. Another, like Starshot, employs the use of yet-to-be-constructed (and launched) interstellar probes (plans call for mini probes with the aforementioned laser propulsion system to get them to the Alpha Centauri star system) that will search for alien life on exoplanets like Alpha Proxima b.
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