A professor is researching a new method for detecting extraterrestrial life. And he is using rocks on Earth to do it.
University of Wisconsin-Madison geoscience professor Clark Johnson is working with a team of scientists to “find ‘biosignatures,’ or traces of ancient life, in rocks on Earth to prepare for the future if rock samples from other planets, including Mars, become available for testing.” According to the Daily Cardinal, Johnson’s interest in searching for extraterrestrial life was piqued after reading an article about a meteorite that was thought to contain evidence of life from Mars.
There have been multiple meteorites recovered on Earth that scientists have claimed contain evidence of extraterrestrial life. A well-known example is a meteorite that was discovered in Antarctica named ALH 84001 that made headlines in 1996 when scientists claimed the meteorite contained bacteria from Mars. A more recent example is a meteorite that was discovered in Sri Lanka on which scientists claim is fossilized extraterrestrial algae. In both of these cases, the extraterrestrial claims are contested, leaving scientists divided.
Johnson wants to develop a better way to test meteorites to determine conclusively if a sample is extraterrestrial or not. And studying rocks here on Earth is how he plans to accomplish that. He explains, “Since we can freely walk around on the earth rather than rely only on working remotely on another planet, we basically use early life on Earth to inform us about what we might look for in another planet.”
Astrobiologists routinely look to early life on Earth, as well as life currently living in extreme environments on Earth, to better understand life in general, and in what conditions it can exist.
The team’s research is reportedly funded by a $7 million grant from NASA.