The Odd And Increasingly Popular Theory Of Panspermia

By Debra Kelly on Saturday, October 17, 2015
South America from space
“Take all that money we spend on weapons and defenses each year and instead spend it feeding and clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would pay for many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace.” —Bill Hicks, “Revelations”

In A Nutshell

The panspermia theory of life states that everything on our planet developed from life that originated somewhere out in space. For a long time, it’s been something of a fringe theory on how everything got started, but with the discovery of some microorganisms that have demonstrated an ability to survive the conditions they would have been subjected to, it’s passing from the realm of the far-fetched to the realm of the possible. With the advent of new telescopes and a color chart that will help us look for alien life on hundreds of nearby planets, it’s a mystery we may be within reach of solving.

The Whole Bushel

There are plenty of theories on just how life started. It’s a weird thing, after all, and the more you look at it, the weirder it seems to get. The theory of panspermia states that we’re all alien, part of a biological system that was scattered throughout the galaxy like dandelion seeds caught on the wind.

The core of the theory states that life happened at some point, way out in the stars. Most likely it was microbial, and knowing what we know about how often our planet is pelted with rocks and other debris from space, it’s not that far-fetched to think that sometime in the distant past, something might have landed carrying space dust and kick-started life as we know it.

It’s an interesting theory, and perhaps more interesting is that scientists may have come up with a way to prove or disprove it.

In theory, if life on Earth came from a sort of cosmic cloud of seeds, other planets around us should have signs of life, too. That doesn’t mean humans, necessarily, but some sort of life, evolved in a way that would be appropriate for their conditions. With about 2,000 exoplanets already identified in our galactic vicinity, there are plenty of places to look. And we might be able to do exactly that in the near future, with the help of a high-definition telescope and a color chart. More than just an ordinary color chart, the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany has been assembling a chart of what colors might indicate the presence of microorganisms on other planets. By looking at, say, what our atmosphere does to the color of an algae-filled pool, they’re able to figure out what similar pools might look like on other planets.

And that might allow us to detect previously undetectable life-forms on other planets in the very near future. One of the biggest difficulties we’ve had is the idea that we’d need to recognize something that evolved with a completely different chemistry than ours. Looking on a microbial level might let us do just that.

That takes us back to the idea that life on our planet was seeded from the stars. If we find traces on other planets, it’s likely, but there’s still a problem.

In order to survive the harshness of space, only the toughest microorganisms would have made it. They’re the ones that can survive with next to no food, hibernate for long periods of time (perhaps even eons) and live through mind-boggling freezing temperatures. But that also brings up the question: If they’re that tough, wouldn’t they be everywhere, and wouldn’t we have found them already?

Perhaps we have found them and we just didn’t know what we were looking at.

In the meantime, researchers looking right here at home think that they’ve found proof that it’s at least possible. A team led by the University of Kent presented findings to the European Planetary Science Congress on a specific kind of oceanic algae. After subjecting the algae to the sort of forces that would be expected to come from a meteorite strike, they found that a small percentage of the microorganisms survived the impact.

The implications are pretty staggering, lending new credence to what was once just another far-out theory about the origins of life on Earth.

Show Me The Proof

Space.com: Did Earth Life Come from Space? Tough Algae Suggests Panspermia Possibility
Smithsonian: This Alien Color Catalog May Help Us Spot Life on Other Planets; Life May Have Spread Through the Galaxy Like a Plague
Scientific American: The Panspermia Paradox