Space Invaders

Red spores from the Red Planet?

A microbial communist invasion?

A Peter Gabriel publicity stunt?

In 2001 it rained red in Kerala, India. What could possibly turn the rain red? Well, if you think like I do, then you probably thought to yourself “aliens!” Then realize that seems kind of silly and ask what could really cause the rain to turn red.

Red Rain Cells

However, Indian (as in from India, not a Native American) scientist Godfrey Louis believes the red rain could actually be aliens. He collected samples from the 2001 rain and analyzed them. His first thought was that sand or dust turned the rainred, but he found no sand or dust in the samples. What he did find is much more interesting:

Instead, the rain water was filled with red cells that look remarkably like conventional bugs [bacteria or spores] on Earth. What was strange was that Louis found no evidence of DNA in these cells which would rule out most kinds of known biological cells (red blood cells are one possibility but ought to be destroyed quickly by rain water).

In a paper he published at the time, he came to this conclusion (PDF):

The present study of red rain phenomenon of Kerala shows that the particles, which caused the red colouration of the red rain, are not possibly of terrestrial origin. It appears that these particles may have originated from the atmospheric disintegration of cometatory meteor fragments, which are presumably containing dense collections of red rain particles. These particles have much similarity with biological cells though they are devoid of DNA. Are these cell like particles a kind of alternate life from space? If the red rain particles are biological cells and are of cometary origin, then this phenomena can be a case of cometary panspermia (Hoyle & Wickramasinghe, 1999) were comets can breed microorganisms in their radiogenically heated interiors and can act as vehicles for spreading life in the universe. Future collaborative studies are expected to provide more answers.

Kind of a stretch if you ask me, but still very interesting. They do seem to resemble cells or something. The biggest criticism seems to be that he didn’t actually rule out a terrestrial origin for the red rain. It could be spores or bacteria from (or even above) Earth.

Louis just published another paper on Arxiv. The paper claims that the cells reproduce at temperatures greater than 121 C, the point where most life ceases to exist. While this is an interesting result, it does not prove they have extraterrestrial origin. The other major criticism is that the paper was not published in a peer reviewed journal, and the results still need to be independently verified.

Let’s assume for a second that the red rain is actually spores or bacteria from space. This would be the first evidence of a theory called panspermia. Panspermia’s definition, according Wikipedia, is “the hypothesis that life exists throughout the Universe, distributed by meteoroids, asteroids, and planetoids.” The spread of life isn’t limited to only solar systems or galaxies, but to the entire universe. How does this happen?

Do you remember a while ago when scientists found a rock in Antarctica from Mars? Silly rock, Mars is millions of miles away, what are you doing in Antarctica? You were ejected from Mars by an asteroid impact? Well isn’t that cool!

Well, one of the (maybe) coolest things about this rock it that there is a chance that it has bacteria fossils in it. That is a really big maybe, we still have no idea, but the important thing is that this rock was ejected from Mars and landed on Earth. The opposite can happen too; rocks from Earth can be found on Mars. The idea behind panspermia says that if one of these rocks had a hearty bacteria living on (or in) it that can survive the extreme conditions of space (and they do exist) and the extreme condition of atmospheric reentry (or are sheltered inside a big enough rock) that life can jump from one planet/moon/that’snomoonthatsaspacestation to another.

I recently read a very interesting post by Caleb Scharf on his blog Life, Unbounded, and I am going to kind of explain it in my own words, because it is a really cool concept.

Space is a really tough place to live. We couldn’t live there without a lot of fancy equipment, and even then it’s a challenge. Most life on Earth would have a hard time living in space. But we do have some strains of bacteria that would not have a hard time surviving in space. If a meteoroid were to smash into Earth and launch a rock with a bunch of these guys living in it into space, there is a chance they would survive. This rock now moves through space and eventually lands on another body, let’s say Mars or Europa. They survive the landing and multiply. Then BAM! Another meteoroid hits that body and the process repeats itself. Over the generations of floating through space, the species of bacteria would through natural selection slowly evolve into a even more hearty strand of bacteria. After a few billion years the offspring of the first generation of bacteria can spread all over the galaxy, and given enough time, the Universe.

The point of this post is that that first planet was probably not Earth, meaning there is a chance life did not originate on Earth. It probably formed on a comet (comets contain organic materials such as amino acids). If this version of panspermia is correct we would find life everywhere; Mars, asteroids, moons. We are only a few decades away from having the technology to search for microbial life on other worlds.

How freaking cool would it be to find life everywhere we looked?!?!

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