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The Claim: NASA Scientist Finds Alien Fossils in Meteorites

The Journal of Cosmology is at it again. Hot on the heels of their recent issue supporting a one-way human mission to Mars, the journal has published a paper by a NASA researcher who says he’s found evidence of bacteria-esque microfossils in meteorites recovered from France and Tanzania. A long, winding filament inside the Orgueil...

The Journal of Cosmology is at it again.

Hot on the heels of their recent issue supporting a one-way human mission to Mars, the journal has published a paper by a NASA researcher who says he’s found evidence of bacteria-esque microfossils in meteorites recovered from France and Tanzania.


A long, winding filament inside the Orgueil meteorite.

—SEM image courtesy Journal of Cosmology

Predicting that this kind of an announcement would cause an uproar, the JOC’s editor-in-chief, Rudy Schild of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, says that he’s invited 100 experts and 5,000 general scientists from across the community to review the paper and offer critical analysis. Any responses the journal collects will be published online in the coming days alongside the paper.

I’ll be upfront and say that I am no scientist. I took classes in science, and I do my best to think about the world scientifically. But I make my living as a writer, and I can’t claim to be an expert in anything other than grammar and vocabulary.

What I can say is that it’s second nature for scientists and journalists to be skeptical, especially when someone is making a huge claim—proof of alien life—in an upstart journal.

To start, let’s examine the facts.

Richard B. Hoover—of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama—is an astrobiologist. He has a long history studying extremeophiles, bacteria and other microorganisms that can thrive in environments most life as we know it would find hostile, such as high salt, high acidity, high heat, and deep freezes.

The JOC, which first came online in 2009, is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal with editors from many respectable organizations: NASA, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Caltech, University of Oxford, etc.

So far, so good.

Now for Hoover’s paper itself, calmly titled “Fossils of Cyanobacteria in CI1 Carbonaceous Meteorites.”

According to the study, scientists looked at three of the nine known samples of CI1 carbonaceous chondrites that have fallen to Earth.

Meteorites are categorized based on their chemical oppositions and internal mineral structures, which can tell researchers from what kinds of parent bodies these space rocks may have broken off.

Carbonaceous chondrites are known for having relatively high percentages of water and volatile organic compounds.

Members of the CI group are considered the most primitive of meteorites, because their chemical signatures are closest to the primordial mix that formed the planets, asteroids, and comets.

For their study, Hoover and colleagues took freshly cracked samples of the Ivuna and Orgueil meteorites and examined them under scanning electron microscopes.


Tapered filaments inside the Orgueil meteorite.

—SEM image courtesy Journal of Cosmology

The team then compared their data to live bacteria from Alaskan ice, fossilized cyanobacteria (aka blue-green algae) from Russia, and Cambrian-era critters called trilobites from Utah, among others.

They conclude that worm-shape filaments found in the meteorites bear a striking resemblance to cyanobacteria. They also say they are almost positive that the life-like structures they see are native to the space rocks and are not from Earthly contaminants.

Other chemical tests show that the filaments are externally rich in carbon and internally filled with minerals bearing magnesium and sulfur.

According to the paper, this means “the organisms died on the parent body while aqueous fluids were present and the internal cells were replaced by epsomite and other water soluble evaporite minerals dissolved in the liquids circulating through the parent body.”


The filament body of a living cyanobacterium from the White River in Washington State.

—SEM image courtesy Journal of Cosmology

Interesting. But here are a few more facts to consider.

Bad Astronomer Phil Plait, while staying very impartial about Hoover and his paper, notes that the JOC “has published articles in the past that can charitably be called ‘shaky'”—with the disclosure that a journal editor stooped to name calling over Plait’s previous debunking of the existence of the theoretical planet Tyche.

Adam Frank, an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester, blogs for NPR about how he was one of the scientists called on by the JOC to comment on Hoover’s paper.

“The Journal of Cosmology is not a publication that I, or any of my colleagues, knew anything about … ,” he writes. “More importantly it was not one of the ‘go to’ journals any of us would think to publish new, spectacular results (that would be something like Nature or The Astrophysical Journal).”

What’s more, the Journal of Cosmology is about to fold. On February 14 Wired blogger David Dobbs posted a copy of a rather spiky press release from the JOC that explains how “thieves and crooks” have driven them to halt publication.

In a later, more detailed post, Dobbs elaborates on the counter-culture nature of the JOC and its editorial board, in particular the eccentricities of editor-in-chief Schild.

As it happens, Schild followed up with Dobbs, emailing a statement saying that, as of March 6, the JOC has received all of 12 replies to their 1,500 requests for comment, which the editors take as a sign that the scientific community is “stunned silent.”

Journal editor Lana Tao also sent an open letter, posted by Dobbs, explaining why Hoover’s paper appeared in the JOC and not in Science or Nature.

Right now it all feels like shades of Allan Hills, the infamous meteorite from Mars that had a NASA scientist saying he’d found alien fossils in 1996—in a paper that was, btw, published by Science.

I agree with Phil and David that the nature of the journal involved shouldn’t *necessarily* mean a given paper is flawed.

But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, as the saying goes, and all any of us can do in the weeks to months to maybe years ahead is wait for other scientists to review the evidence, examine the filaments for themselves, and come to a consensus on whether there be fossils in them there meteorites.

Until then, I think I’ll keep my metaphorical eyebrows raised.

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