CCNet 122/2000 - 27 November 2000

"In like manner as a tree sheds its seed into the neighbouring
fields and produces other trees; so the great vegetable, the world, or
this planetary system, produces within itself certain seeds which, being
scattered into the surrounding chaos, vegetate into new worlds. A
comet, for instance, is the seed of a world; and after it has been fully
ripened, by passing from sun to sun, and star to star, it is, at last,
tossed into the uniformed elements which everywhere surround this
universe, and immediately sprouts up into a new system."
-- David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 1779

"Still, a compelling case can be made for panspermia. A recent
discovery indicates that microbes can remain dormant for millions of
years -- enough time to travel from planet to planet. An experiment
suggests that microbes inside a meteor would not be incinerated
during entry into the Earth's atmosphere. While NASA's astrobiology effort
has certainly not come down on the side of panspermia, it has identified
panspermia as worthy of serious investigation, along with more
conventional ideas about the origin of life on Earth."
     -- NASA Ames Research Centre, 22 November 2000

    CNN, 24 November 2000

    NASA Ames Research Center, 22 November 2000

    Cardiff Centre for Astrobiology, 24 November 2000

    Cardiff Centre for Astrobiology, 24 November 2000


    Chandra Wickramasinghe

From CNN, 24 November 2000

By Richard Stenger Writer

(CNN) -- An international team of scientists claims it has recovered a
microorganism in the upper reaches of the atmosphere that originated from
outer space.

The living bacteria, plucked from an altitude of 10 miles (16 km) by a
scientific balloon, could have been deposited in terrestrial airspace by a
passing comet, according to the researchers.

Noted scientist Chandra Wickramasinghe, a participant in the study, said the
microbe is unlike any known strain on Earth.

The astrobiology team recovered the microorganism samples from different
heights for about a year, but "want to keep the details under wraps until
they are absolutely convinced that these are extraterrestrial," said
Wickramasinghe, a professor at Cardiff University in Wales.

NASA's Ames Research Center posted a cautious reaction to the report on its
Astrobiology Web site. NASA said the finding is likely to meet considerable
skepticism in the scientific community.

"Aerobiologists might argue that 10 miles is not too high for Earth life to
reside, a possibility that Wickramasinghe appears to accept," the statement

However, NASA said, a compelling case can be made for the transport of
microorganisms through space aboard comets and meteors.

"A recent discovery indicates that microbes can remain dormant for millions
of years -- enough time to travel from planet to planet," NASA said.

Disputing critics who suggest that the balloon was contaminated on the
ground, Wickramasinghe said the experiment took place with strict controls.
He does acknowledge the possibility that terrestrial bacteria could be
kicked up into the stratosphere. Living fungal spores have been
discovered at altitudes of 7 miles (11 km).

But observations from this and a related study suggest the presence of
living bacteria far too high in the atmosphere to have originated from the
surface of the planet, according to Wickramasinghe.

"What is present in the upper atmosphere, critics will say it came from the
ground. That is a serious possibility at 15 kilometers, but at 40 or 85
kilometers, you can forget about it," he said Friday.

Wickramasinghe and colleague Sir Fred Hoyle published a draft report on the
Cardiff University Web site Friday about evidence that they say strengthens
the hypothesis that unusual microbes float through the upper reaches of the

Looking at spectral data from the 1999 Leonid meteorite shower, they
detected a bacterial "fingerprint" as the tiny space rocks streaked across
the sky. In other words, the micrometeorites burned through the atmospheric
edge in a manner that suggests they sizzled microbes existing in the same

"The bacteria heated at temperatures high enough to radiate and shine in
this (spectral) signature," Wickramasinghe said.

Along with Hoyle, Wickramasinghe pioneered "panspermia," the theory that
outer space seeded Earth with its first life forms about 4 billion years

Wickramasinghe holds that primitive life could still be arriving from space.
"If we find microbes at great heights that are not contaminants from the
ground, we have to wonder where they came from. One hundred tons of comet
and meteor organic debris is deposited in the atmosphere
every day."

Javant Narlikar of India lead the atmospheric bacteria sample study, which
the Indian Space Research Organization coordinated.

The location of the microbe is what most impressed Wickramasinghe, not the
composition. It seems like a novel strain of a common bacteria genus on
Earth, he said.

Copyright 2000, CNN


From NASA Ames Research Center, 22 November 2000

According to a report published in the London Daily Mail and picked up by
United Press International, noted scientist Chandra Wickramasinghe claims to
have found a microorganism not of this Earth.

The microbe was collected by a weather balloon at a height of 10 miles.
According to Wickramasinghe, the microorganism is unlike any other on Earth.
He believes that it may have been dropped by a passing comet. Over twenty
years ago, Wickramasinghe and colleague Fred Hoyle proposed the concept of
panspermia, the idea that microorganisms may travel aboard comets and
meteors, seeding other planets with life.

Doubtless many will react to Wickramasinghe's announcement with disbelief.
Skeptics will suspect that the balloon was contaminated at ground level,
though Wickramasinghe disputes this.

Microbiologists may be quick to point out that a large portion of the
Earth's microscopic species remain to be discovered, and in recent years a
number of astonishing species "unlike any other" have been uncovered right
here on Earth.

Aerobiologists might argue that 10 miles is not too high for Earth life to
reside, a possibility that Wickramasinghe appears to accept. Living fungal
spores have previously been reported at altitudes over 36,000 feet (roughly
seven miles). Indeed, if the organism is found to earthly in origin, the
discovery will be an exciting example of the extreme conditions that life
can endure.

Still, a compelling case can be made for panspermia. A recent discovery
indicates that microbes can remain dormant for millions of years -- enough
time to travel from planet to planet. An experiment suggests that microbes
inside a meteor would not be incinerated during entry into the Earth's

While NASA's astrobiology effort has certainly not come down on the side of
panspermia, it has identified panspermia as worthy of serious investigation,
along with more conventional ideas about the origin of life on Earth.

This is by no means the first time that scientists have claimed to find
microorgansims from outer space. In 1996, a team of NASA scientists reported
finding microscopic fossils in a meteorite from Mars. Four years later, the
jury is still out The NASA team stands firmly behind its findings, while
many other astrobiologists -- including some from NASA -- remain

Debate and scrutiny aren't always pleasant, but they're always essential to
science. Stay tuned to Astrobiology at NASA as this debate unfolds.


From Cardiff Centre for Astrobiology, 24 November 2000

An infrared spectrum of a persistent Leonid meteor train in the November
1999 Leonids shower published by Ray W. Russell at his colleagues (Special
edition of Earth Moon and Planets, on Leonids) shows an infrared signature
that is indistinguishable from that of a bacterium. Wickramasinghe and Hoyle
(Preprint) have argued that this arises from cometary bacteria entering the
mesophere that have been transiently heated to temperatures of 130 degrees
Celsius by the energy of the fire ball. The fireball is estimated to have a
mass of above 100 kg. The bacteria from which the signature is detected
forms part of the 100 tonnes per day daily input into the Earth of cometary
organic material.
The 1999 Leonid meteor is pictured below:


From Cardiff Centre for Astrobiology

Chandra Wickramasinghe and Fred Hoyle
Cardiff Centre for Astrobiology
School of Mathematics, Senghennydd Road
PO Box 926, Cardiff CF2 4YH, UK

A recently observed broad 3.4m m spectral "fingerprint" in a persistent
Leonid meteor train at a height of 83km is likely to be due to emission of
surrounding mesospheric bacteria heated by the passage of an incandescent




School of Mathematics, Cardiff University,
PO Box 926, Senghennydd Road, Cardiff CF2 4YH, UK

Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics
Post Bag 4, Ganeshkhind, Pune 411 077, India


Experiments currently under way could settle once and for all the
beleaguered question of the existence or otherwise of microbial life on
comets. A program of research planned by Indian scientists under the
auspices of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) seems set to
preempt results that may be expected from NASA's Stardust Mission to Comet

1. Introduction

A direct way to test the theory of panspermia is to examine a sample of
cometary material under the microscope and search for cometary
microorganisms (Hoyle and Wickramasinghe, 1981). Such thoughts are being
currently voiced in the context of the launch of NASA's Stardust Mission
(launch date February 6, 1999) as well as in relation to other space
missions being discussed for the new millennium.

There seems to be a growing sense of optimism about possibly resolving a
longstanding scientific question: Do comets carry the seeds of life in the
Universe? If by "seeds" one means prebiotic chemicals, an affirmative answer
is already at hand from the wealth of remote sensing data that is available
for Comet Halley (Kissel and Krueger, 1987; Wickramasinghe, 1993). To get
further affirmation of this restricted position from a comet sample return
would seem an extravagant use of resources to say the least. Until a couple
of years ago a more literal interpretation of the word "seeds" to include
viable microorganisms was fraught with prejudice. All the early arguments
and evidence that two of the present authors had presented for cometary
microorganisms (e.g. Hoyle and Wickramasinghe, 1981) had been consistently
ignored. This situation changed quite dramatically in 1996 when a claim of
microfossils in a Martian meteorite (ALH84001) came to be discussed (McKay
et al, 1996). Almost instantly investigations of panspermia came to be
elevated to the status of legitimate scientific inquiry. Unfortunately,
however, this long overdue change of attitude may have come too late to have
had an influence in the planning of experiments connected with the Stardust

2. Stardust Mission

The main object of the Stardust Mission is to capture a sample of dust from
the well-preserved Comet Wild-2 on January 2, 2004 and to return this
material safely to Earth on January 15, 2006. The comet dust is to be
captured in a "particle catcher" filled with aerogel, the lowest density
material known to exist. The hope is that the aerogel would act as a soft
landing cushion to slow particles from an initial relative speed of 6.1 km/s
to rest fairly gently without significantly modifying original chemical

At the time of planning the package of experiments that was to go on
Stardust the concept of microbes on comets was still considered heretical
and so "way out" as not to merit serious investigation. No experiment was
explicitly planned to search for viable microoganisms, as far as we are
aware. It is not clear that the integrity and viability of a bacterial
spore, for example, would be preserved after a crash into the gel. In these
circumstances one may still hope for the intervention of serendipity.
Discoveries in the year 2006 might have a greater bearing on the question of
cometary life than Stardust's planners expected.

3. Early Balloon Experiments

Historically the earliest experiments to search for microbes in the upper
atmosphere using balloons were conducted in the early 1960's with the aim of
determining the microbial content (if any) of the near space environment,
presumably as a preparation for manned space flights. Although
microbiological techniques at this time were primitive compared to what is
available today there were already some dramatic indications of
extraterrestrial microbes in air samples collected at altitudes of 30 km and
above (Bruch, 1967; Lysenko, 1979). Positive detection of microorganisms at
130,000ft (39km) and a population density that increased with height pointed
to a possible extraterrestrial source. However, the smallness of samples
collected as well as uncertainties in experimental procedures did not lend
much confidence to believe what was "found". In consequence this early
program of work was not pursued beyond an initial stage.

4. Plans for Indian Balloon Experiment

A series of balloon experiments using the most modern microbiological
techniques is being planned by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)
and the Inter-Universities Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune
(IUCAA), with collaborative UK links in Cardiff. This program is explicitly
directed to testing cometary panspermia at a minute fraction of the cost of
the Stardust Mission. It has been known for several decades that cometary
dust is present at our very doorstep, and all that is needed is to collect
such dust non-destructively and without biological contamination. The sample
collections are to be made using a balloon-borne cryogenic pump comprised of
many sterilised chambers fitted with valves and cooled to liquid neon
temperatures. When the valves are open at predetermined heights ambient air
is sucked into the cryogenically cooled chambers. Such air samples, that
would include cometary aerosols, are to be recovered and will be subject to
careful chemical and microbial examination under contaminant free

The Principal Investigator of the project and overall co-ordinator is
Professor J.V. Narlikar, Director of the Inter-University Centre for
Astronomy and Astrophysics in Pune. He will be assisted in this task by
Professor S. Ramadurai of the Tata Institute of Fundamantal Research in
Mumbai. Other scientists in the team on the Indian side are as listed below:

Professor P. Rajaratnam, ISRO, Bangalore will direct operations relating to
the Cryosampler experiment

Professor P.C. Agrawal of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR)
Mumbai, and Professor SV. Damle of the National Centre for Radio
Astrophysics (NCRA), Pune will be responsible for the logistics of the
Balloon Facility support and supervision,

Professor Shyam Lal of the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) Ahmedabad will
direct the vacuum baking of probes

Professor P.M. Bhargava, Anveshna Consulting Services, Hyderabad will direct
the sterilization programme and act as overall co-ordinator of the
microbiological investigations.

In the U.K. the collaborating scientists are Professors Sir Fred Hoyle,
David Lloyd, N.C. Wickramasinghe (co-Principal Investigator) and Dr. Max K.

Sterilisation techniques that are to be used in both sample retrieval and
experimental preparation will be expected to achieve levels of microbial
sterility that can essentially eliminate even the presence of single
contaminant microorganism. At the same time the use of fluorescent dyes
sensitive to membrane potential would permit the detection of single viable
cells in the collected samples. Professor David Lloyd of Cardiff University
has used this latter technique successfully in a number of other
applications, and it is hoped that satisfactory results could be obtained in
the present instance as well. Professor Lloyd will act as Project Director
of Biological Sciences in the UK. Because isotope ratios (C, O, and H) will
differ between extraterrestrial and terrestrial bacterial material, isotope
analyses are to be carried out with a view to identifying extraterrestrial

5. Cost of Project and Additional Support Required

Several of the operational components of the project are already in place in
various Indian Research Institutes. For instance a prototype cryogenic
sampler has been recently used by the ISRO-PRL Group in their investigation
of greenhouse gases in the stratosphere (Shyam Lal et al 1996), and cosmic
ray physicists at the Tata Institute have used balloon-launching facilities
over several decades. It is expected that the Indian Government will bear
the major cost of the project, which is estimated at about 150,000. A
contribution of 25,000 is being sought from UK sources to facilitate the
purchase of experimental components that require foreign exchange, which is
precious to the Indian Government. The Cardiff based part of the program
also needs funds to about the same extent (25,000), towards which a grant
of US$8000 has been awarded. Further grants to fund the remainder will be
sought from PPARC and NERC.

6. Estimates of Microbial Counts in Collected Samples

There have been various estimates of the total input of cometary debris to
the Earth, which is mainly in the form of microscopic dust. A plausible
daily average flux is given to be F=500 metric tonnes (Chyba et al, 1990) or
about 5x103 g/s. Of this let us suppose that a fraction x is in the form of
cometary bacteria. Under steady state conditions the downward flux of such
bacterial particles must balance the rate of infall from space. This gives
an equilibrium number density N (per unit volume)

N 1000 x/mvS litre-1 (1)

Where m is the average mass of a cometary microorganism, v is the average
speed of fall through the stratosphere at say a height of 30km and S is the
surface area of the Earth ~ 5x1018 cm2 . Earlier estimates of N assumed an
average bacterial radius of 5x10-5 cm (mass ~ 10-12 g) and a corresponding
value of v ~ 0.1cm/s (Narlikar et al, 1998). There is now growing evidence
to suggest that microorganisms in a non-vegetative, nutrient-starved
condition have significantly smaller sizes (see pictures in Pflug, 1984;
Pflug and Heinz, 1998; Hoyle et al, 1985). A value of radius a 10-5 cm
would appear to be an appropriate average value, from which we get a mass m
of ~ 10-14 g and a corresponding terminal velocity at 30km of v=0.01cm/s
(Kasten, 1968). Together with F = 5x103 g/s we thus obtain from (1) a volume

N 10,000 x litre-1 (2)

(This number could be still higher if nanobacteria of average radii ~ 10-6
cm are considered to be an important component of the cometary microbial
flora (Folk and Lynch, 1998). Increases of N by factors of over 1000 would
be possible in this case.)

Although it is impossible to arrive at a fully reliable estimate for x , a
value close to 0.01 could be justified. If one argues that the flux of
organic dust in the outer coma of Comet Halley (as measured by space probes
in 1986) is predominantly bacterial for particle masses of the order 10-14
g, the data of McDonnell et al (1986) could be interpreted to give a mass
fraction of such particles of nearly 1%. Thus (2) yields N~ 1000 litre-1 .
For an anticipated air sample equivalent to 50-100 litres at NTP the
bacterial count according to these estimates could be as high as ~ 100,000.
As noted earlier this would be well above the detection thresholds of the
experiments being planned.

The above considerations are valid for the average population density of
bacterial particles. The number N could be significantly higher on occasions
when the Earth crosses major cometary meteor streams such as the Leonids.
Over several days of such crossings the value of N could be enhanced by
factors of the order of thousands or tens of thousands. If balloon flights
and sample collections are scheduled for days coinciding with such
enhancement, the statistical significance of the collected data could also
be correspondingly enhanced.

7. Concluding Remarks

Whilst it is now possible to deal effectively with most problems relating to
equipment and sample purity that had proved difficult in the past, an
outstanding problem to be resolved concerns the separation of
extraterrestrial and terrestrial bacteria in the stratospheric collections.
Several independent criteria could be used to show that stratosphere
contains a mixture of two such distinct components. The microbial density
profile with altitude when it is accurately determined could lead to an
initial diagnostic showing a combination of infalling and outflowing
components. This could show up for instance in a U-shaped density curve with
a definite minimum occurring at some altitude.

Decisive evidence of an extraterrestrial bacterial component must, however,
come from laboratory experiments. Microscopic studies may show distinctive
morphologies that are either unknown or rare in a terrestrial environment.
Biochemical studies including determinations of the D/L ratios of amino acid
enantiomers could lead to further diagnostic and distinctive criteria being
discovered. Isotopic analyses could also lead to decisive results in
relation to the distribution of the C12 /C13 isotope ratio in terrestrial
and extraterrestrial organisms.

A positive detection of cometary microorganisms and a vindication of
panspermia theory would obviously have far reaching scientific consequences.
The existence of extraterrestrial life and its relationship to terrestrial
life, once established, would surely prove a fitting finale to an eventful
century of science. It would inevitably open the doorway to new scientific
vistas, which it would be the privilege of future generations to explore.

Bruch, C.W.: 1967. Airborne Microbes Symposium of the Society for
Microbiology. No. 17 (P.H. Gregory and J.L. Monteith, eds) p. 345, Cambridge
University Press
Chyba, C.F., Thomas, P.T., Brookshaw, L. and Sagan, C.: 1990. Science, 249,
Folk, R.L. and Lynch, F.L.: 1998. Proceedings of SPIE Conference on
Instruments, Methods and Missions for Astrobiology, 3441, 112
Hoyle, F. and Wickramasinghe, N .C.: 1981. In Comets and the Origin of Life
(C. Ponnamperuma, ed), D. Reidel Publishing Co.
Hoyle, F., Wickramasinghe, N .C. and Pflug, H.D: 1985. Astrophys Sp Sci,
113, 209
Hoyle, F. and Wickramasinghe, N .C.: 1990. The Theory of Cosmic Grains,
Kluwer, 1990
Kasten, F.J.: 1968. Appl. Meteorology, 7, 944
Kissel, J. and Krueger, F.R.: 1987. Nature, 326, 760
Mc Donnell, J.A.M. et al.: 1986. ESA-SP, 250 (2), 25
McKay, D.S. et al.: 1996. Science, 273, 924
Lysenko, S.V.: 1979. Mikrobiologia, 48, 1066
Narlikar, J.V. et al.: 1998. Proceedings of SPIE Conference on Instruments,
Methods and Missions for Astrobiology, 3441, 301
Pflug, H.D.: 1984. in Fundamental Studies and the Future of Science (C.
Wickramasinghe, ed), University College Cardiff Press
Pflug, H.D. and Heinz, B.: 1998. Proceedings of SPIE Conference on
Instruments, Methods and Missions for Astrobiology, 3441, 188
Shyam Lal et al.: 1996. Ind. J. Rad.Sp.Phys., 26, 1
Wickramasinghe, N .C.: 1993. In Infrared Astronomy (A. Mampaso, M. Prieto
and F. Sanchez, eds), p.303, Cambridge University


From Chandra Wickramasinghe

Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe began their work that eventually led
to a new theory of Panspermia in 1974. In this year Chandra Wickramasinghe
had discovered that interstellar dust might have a substantial component of
organic polymers (Nature, 252,462,1974). Gradually the idea of biogenic
material in space came to be developed, and in 1979-1982 the first strong
evidence that almost all the interstellar dust may be made up of
freeze-dried bacterial material was discovered (ApSS,66,77, 1979; ApSS, 83,


* Life on Earth which first appeared about 4000 million years ago, at
a time when the planet was being severely bombarded by comets and
asteroids, could not have started on Earth
* Life in the form of bacteria and viruses were brought to Earth by
comets, which were the sites where they multiplied (in warm watery
interiors), and which acted as vehicles of transport
* Microorganisms continue to arrive at the Earth even today, being
included in the 100 tons or so of cometary debris that enters the
Earth on a daily basis
* The continued arrival of cometary bacteria and viruses contributes
to the evolution of species through geological time
* Interactions of present day life forms on Earth (including) humans
with cometary bacteria and viruses could lead to epidemic disease
* Astronomical evidence is fully consistent with the occurrence of
microorganisms on a cosmic scale......

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