British scientists claim they have proof of alien life after a balloon they launched into space returned with organisms that did not come from Earth. The supposed discovery does not end the debate over life in space as researchers need to thoroughly analyze the findings.
The scientists from the University of Sheffield launched a balloon 27 kilometers, around 17 miles, into the stratosphere, the second layer of Earth’s atmosphere, during the Perseid meteor shower, which peaked on Aug. 12. The balloon came back with organisms from the stratosphere, and lead researcher Milton Wainwright said this life could not have come from Earth as there is no viable mechanism that could have transferred these particles from the surface of the planet to the stratosphere.
Wainwright said in a statement, “Most people will assume that these biological particles must have just drifted up to the stratosphere from Earth, but it is generally accepted that a particle of the size found cannot be lifted from Earth to heights of, for example, 27km.” Wainwright said a massive volcano eruption could send large particles into the atmosphere but no eruption great enough had occurred in the three years before the balloon launch.
While other scientist may hedge their claims, citing the need for further research and analysis of the collected data, as was the case with the Higgs boson, Wainwright is confident in this discovery. “Wwe can only conclude that the biological entities originated from space," he said. "Our conclusion then is that life is continually arriving to Earth from space, life is not restricted to this planet and it almost certainly did not originate here.”
The balloon was designed with “microscope studs” that collected samples when it reached a height of 22 km (13.7 miles). Wainwright ensures the skeptical that there were plenty of preventative measures in place to avoid any contamination. The team hopes to duplicate their results as they will send up another balloon during the Orionids meteor shower, associated with Halley’s Comet, in October.
While this is sensational news, there should be some skepticism. Previous claims about life found on a meteorite, made in a study published in the Journal of Cosmology, the same journal this latest research was published in, was considered by Phil Plait, writing in Slate, to be “Way, way, way ridiculously oh-holy-wow-how-could-anyone-publish-this wrong.”
That research was led by N.C. Wickramasinghe, a researcher Wainwright had worked with in the past and worked with on this project. According to Slate, Wickramasinghe is an ardent supporter of panspermia, the theory that life originated in space and came to Earth via meteorites, which could affect his research. “Wickramasinghe jumps on everything, with little or no evidence, and says it’s from outer space, so I think there's a case to be made for a bias on his part,” wrote Plait. Wainwright is also interested in this theory as his University of Sheffield homepage states his research includes, “attempts to demonstrate the validity of the theory of neopanspermia, i.e. the view that microbes are currently arriving to Earth from space.”
For science, getting published is important but getting published in an esteemed journal is even better. Research published in journals like Nature, Science, the Astrophysical Journal or the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, PNAS, have already faced a rigorous submission process and are considered important and credible. Slate notes the Journal of Cosmology has previously published research that had questionable methods and faulty claims, which could cast doubt on any research, or claims of alien life, published by the journal.
Wainwright said there will be another test, “isotope fractionation,” that will determine the origin of the collected particles. “We will take some of the samples which we have isolated from the stratosphere and introduce them into a complex machine – a button will be pressed. If the ratio of certain isotopes gives one number then our organisms are from Earth, if it gives another, then they are from space,” said Wainwright describing the experiment.