The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has been increasingly active lately. As India grows in financial and industrial prowess, so does its space agency. Late last year the nation sent a probe crashing into the moon. Now the ISRO is claiming an even wilder space discovery that might challenge people's preconceptions about extraterrestrial life.
India claims to have found three different species of bacteria living in the Earth's very thin upper atmosphere, at heights of 40 km above the Earth's surface (approximately 24.8 miles). Many scientists are hailing the bacteria as extraterrestrial as they exist in a foreign climate so far from Earth. Regardless of their designation, if their presence is verified, they would mark a new era in the study of life in extreme environments.
The bacteria colonies would have to deal with conditions deadly to terrestrial bacteria in order to survive at such heights. The UV rays at that height, outside much of the atmospheric protective layer, would be intense enough alone to kill the bacteria. In addition, they would have to deal with extreme temperatures, sparse air particles, and lack of organic matter.
A lively debate is occurring as well over the origins of the bacteria. Some scientists are arguing they originated on Earth, being tossed into the air by volcanic eruptions or other events. Others are arguing that they could have arrived from space.
The first species has been named Bacillus Isronensis, in honor of the ISRO, while the second species has been named Bacillus Aryabhata, in honor of the ancient Indian astronomer Aryabhata. The third is named Janibacter Hoylei in honor of astrophysicist Fred Hoyle.
The bacteria were discovered by scientific instruments aboard an ISRO high-altitude balloon, launched from the National Balloon Facility in Hyderabad. The 459-kg scientific payload began collecting atmospheric samples at 20 km and traveled up to 41 km, around where the bacteria were found. Analysis of the samples occurred at the Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad and the National Center for Cell Science (NCCS), Pune.
The announcement was not the first claim of extraterrestrial life from a space organization. Earlier this year, NASA announced finding signs of life on Mars when the Phoenix lander discovered that the Martian atmosphere contained significant levels of methane. On Earth, the primary source of methane is living organisms.
With discoveries like this new one, it’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility that bacteria could survive on a place like Mars, even if its chemistry was too extreme for most life on Earth.