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Life Raining Down from Space?

25 Sep 2013, 13:02 UTC
Life Raining Down from Space?
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Not likely.

The “diatom” in question. Source: Wainwright et al.
Last week the University of Sheffield in England issued a press release claiming that a group of scientists from the university believe they’ve found life in Earth’s stratosphere that arrived from space. The associated paper is published in the Journal of Cosmology.
That would be a significant find, wouldn’t it? Yes, if only it held up. The researchers, led by Milton Wainwright, sampled the stratosphere from a balloon and found a particle that appears to be a fragment of a diatom. This is not that unusual, since there have been reports of microbes and even spiders found in the stratosphere. The usual explanation is that some atmospheric conditions lifted them up to high altitudes, although an extraterrestrial origin has been claimed in some cases.
I guess I’m one of the “unthinking critics” mentioned in the paper, and here’s why: At best, the claim is extremely premature. As the lead author says in the press release, the isotopic fractionation rate still has to be determined, which would help settle whether the sample is of terrestrial origin. Also, the researchers don’t appear to have done a detailed study of the alleged diatom.

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