The Science of The X-Files: Can Extraterrestrial Life Survive a Trip to Earth on a Meteorite?

Monday, 11 January 2016 - 3:45PM
Space
Astrobiology
Alien Life
Monday, 11 January 2016 - 3:45PM
The Science of The X-Files: Can Extraterrestrial Life Survive a Trip to Earth on a Meteorite?
It's January, X-Files fans, which means we have less than a month to wait before our favorite alien conspiracy show returns for a six-episode miniseries. The pilot (which we saw at NYCC), airs on January 24th, but until then, we're going to give you daily articles about the fascinating science behind the X-Files, courtesy of science advisor Anne Simon and her book "The Real Science Behind the X-Files: Microbes, Meteorites, and Mutants."

In the X-Files episode "Tunguska," Mulder and Scully discover a meteorite has unleashed the alien Black Oil virus on the populace. In the first season episode, "Ice," a Thing-esque alien life form is found preserved in a frozen tundra but was originally delivered to Earth on-you guessed it- a meteorite. But could alien life ever actually reach Earth this way?

Opening quote
"In 'Tunguska' and the earlier episode 'Ice,' meteors are the delivery systems for alien hitchhikers that are able to invade a human host. This brings up several interesting questions," Simon writes. "What are the chances that an alien microbe could survive a trip through space on a vehicle that lacks such basic amenities as an atmosphere, temperature control, sunscreen, refreshments, and brakes?"
Closing quote


While at first blush, bacteria surviving in space may seem like a "fantasy worthy of Mulder's imagination," scientists have been theorizing that alien bacteria hitches rides on meteorites for years. In fact, many astrobiologists believe that life may have been "seeded" on Earth through unintended contamination from meteorites, comets, and asteroids, a theory known as panspermia. Extremely hardy microscopic life forms such as extremophles can survive all sorts of environments, including the anoxic, dessicated Moon and radioactive waste, so it's theoretically possible that these bacteria could survive the grueling trip to Earth.

Opening quote
"Believers in panspermia are not just science fiction junkies. Francis Crick (Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of the structure of DNA) supports the theory of panspermia as does noted English astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle. Even Dana Scully, in "Biogenesis," the last episode of the sixth season, concedes that panspermia is a plausible hypothesis."
Closing quote

Although panspermia is, of course, just a theory, evidence has been mounting since The X-Files went off the air in 2002. Most recently, scientists from the Central European Institute of Technology proved that this phenomenon is physically possible, and a further study from the Harvard Center of Astrophysics claims that panspermia would follow a distinctive pattern that we may able to detect (or not detect) in the not-so-distant future:

Opening quote
"In our theory clusters of life form, grow, and overlap like bubbles in a pot of boiling water," lead author Henry Lin said in August.
Closing quote

According to this new model, the locations of life would follow a pattern which could potentially be detected by burgeoning human technologies. Life would spread outwards in all directions, taking root when it reached a habitable environment. This would lead to overlapping clusters of life, or oases spread all over the galaxy, resembling the "outbreak of an epidemic":

Opening quote
"Life could spread from host star to host star in a pattern similar to the outbreak of an epidemic. In a sense, the Milky Way galaxy would become infected with pockets of life," said co-author Avi Loeb.
Closing quote

That sounds like an X-Files episode in itself, no?

Also in this series:

The Science of the X-Files: The Black Oil Virus and Pathogens That Make You Commit Suicide

The Science of the X-Files: That Time Scientists Claimed They Found Extraterrestrial Life in Meteorites

The Science of the X-Files: Leonard Betts and the Science of Head Regeneration

The Science of the X-Files: How Baby Peacock from "Home" Could Actually Exist

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