Wednesday 1 December 2010

NASA Astrobiology Announcement - Wild Rumour And Conjecture

NASA issued a press release today.  Possibly something big.

There's going to be a public statement on Thursday afternoon (UK time) which will: "impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.".

Now let's be very clear about two things:
  1. Astrobiology is a very young science.
  2. Astrobiologists have been a bit busy in the last couple of years.
This could be just another "Big Science Announcement" (BSA) designed to attract some publicity - and nothing wrong with that, science is cool and we should gossip about it a bit more - but it could possibly be something more.

NASA are being rather taciturn over the actual contents of the announcement, as is their right with any BSA.  However, this much is known -- the announcement involves a very special group of people.  The listed "participants" are all people with a very high level interest in astrobiology.  Interestingly, they all seem to fall in to two of three particular camps:

  • People who have suggested that we search for a "shadow biology" on Earth, to test how likely spontaneous life generation (biogenesis) is, and also to look for signs of panspermia.
  • People who have worked on the wonderfully successful Mars missions in the last couple of decades, from which geological data is the main thing we have.
  • People who have worked on desert varnish.
 Desert varnish is the clincher for me. It's odd stuff.  It's kind of a sheen that certain rocks get in very dry environments, hence the name.  It looks like it's been painted on, but in fact it's entirely natural, it just isn't biological.  It looks like lichen, it seems to grow like it, but it's not got DNA or anything like that, it's more like a mineral growth than life.

And see that first bullet point?  One of the participants in this BSA, Felisa Wolfe-Simon, published a rather influential paper last year which suggested that astrobiology should be looking for the Earth's "shadow biosphere".  The idea is that if life can develop, and if it's likely to happen, then it should have happened here on Earth more than once.  We might just not have spotted it...

Seriously, look how obsessed we are with DNA and proteins and the whole "organic" thing.  We might not spot a different kind of life if it was sat under our noses, is what Wolfe-Simon's paper suggests, and what's more, let's start looking.  And like I said, the paper was rather influential, which means people started looking.

And now some of the people who looked are standing up with her and NASA and they have something big to say.

Oh...did I mention that NASA found desert varnish on Mars years back?

So we have people looking for new life, plus something that looks a lot like life but isn't, and also exists on Mars.

Long story short?  Blogger makes wild suggestion that (possibly Silicon based) life has been found on Earth and may well also exist on Mars.

This will rock if I'm right....

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