Ian O’Neill, Space Producer for Discovery News, has joined other skeptics in pointing out flaws in recent reports that claim to prove the “panspermia” theory of life’s origins on Earth. In January, a team of scientists from the University of Buckingham, Cardiff University, and the Medical Research Institute in Colombo, Sri Lanka, had claimed they successfully identified “firmly established and unimpeachable” examples of fossilized organisms inside comet fragments in a meteorite. Major news outlets immediately sensationalized the announced findings. O’Neill challenges many aspects of the January report an article posted by Discovery News on March 12.
It all started when a meteor came down to Earth on Dec. 29, 2012, according to witnesses. After burning through the atmosphere for several seconds, it broke up over Sri Lanka and scattered over the land. A frenzied search for fragments ensued. A team of cosmologists took those fragments they deemed genuine and began their tests.
What the team found seemed remarkable. They found several fossilized diatoms — a type of algae — as well as a few other seemingly organic structures. These biological structures were deep inside the rocks they had taken in for study, seeming to indicate they could not have come from external contamination. Therefore, apparently fossilized life has been discovered in meteorite fragments in Sri Lanka.
This discovery might have confirmed years of postulations and hypotheses regarding panspermia. Panspermia is the concept that Earth could have been populated by bacterium-carrying comets and asteroids. Skeptics including O’Neill have pointed out serious flaws in many aspects of the January study however.
O’Neill cites issues such as the absence of outside experts for consultation, and the unbelievable nature of stories that surrounded the fall of the meteorite itself. O’Neill writes about how people were burned on contact with the fallen meteorite fragments and how the fragments caused the production of fumes that hospitalized a woman. Fallen meteorites are actually cold to the touch by virtue of spending eons in the frozen reaches of space. They are only momentarily scorched by their atmospheric entry. Fumes from meteorite falls are unheard-of, unless a fallen body struck something that could cause said fumes.
The authors of the January study failed to establish with certainty that the rocks they were studying were even from the meteor that was sighted, according to O’Neill. The rocks were dug up from a marshy rice paddy, with no method established to determine the rocks were actually from the meteorite. The team staked the validity of the fragment on its similarity to the Maribo CM chondrite, a meteorite that fell in Denmark Jan. 17, 2009. They failed to prove that the same rocks could be from an earlier meteorite or even that such rocks could not be produced on Earth.
O’Neill too cites flaws about correlations assumed between the fall of the meteorite and red rain that followed in the days immediately afterward.
The paper’s abstract states, “There is also evidence of structures morphologically similar to red rain cells that may have contributed to the episode of red rain that followed within days of the meteorite fall.”
Red rain was first reported in 2001 in India. Though preceded by a meteor sighting, the red rain was found to be caused by algae native to the area of India in which it fell. Had it come from the meteorite, scientists concluded the red rain would have migrated with air currents instead of remaining localized.
Panspermia is a popular concept among many in scientific communities. Even while no solid proof exists yet proving Earthborn life to have originated extraterrestrially, many scientists consider circumstantial evidence for the concept to be strong or at least tenable. O’Neill himself cites enthusiasm for the hypothesis despite his specific criticisms of the January report. Whether life arose from our own planet or from meteors, even scientists appear drawn enthusiastically to the notion of being children of the stars.