March 8, 2011

NASA Disputes Researcher’s Alien Microbe Claims

Claims from a NASA scientist that alien microbes were discovered in meteorites collected decades ago are being disputed by scientists at the US space agency, who say that there is no empirical evidence that the objects contained bacteria from outer space.

As first reported by Fox News on Friday, Dr. Richard B. Hoover of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama alleges that he has discovered fossil evidence of bacterial life in a rare class of meteorites known as CI1 carbonaceous chondrites. Hoover believed that the discovery of the microbes was proof that "life is more broadly distributed than restricted strictly to the planet Earth."

On Monday, however, his NASA colleagues argued against his findings, which were published online in the Journal of Cosmology on Friday.

"That is a claim that Mr. Hoover has been making for some years," Carl Pilcher, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI), told AFP reporter Kerry Sheridan. "I am not aware of any support from other meteorite researchers for this rather extraordinary claim that this evidence of microbes was present in the meteorite before the meteorite arrived on Earth and was not the result of contamination after the meteorite arrived on Earth."

"The simplest explanation is that there are microbes in the meteorites; they are Earth microbes. In other words, they are contamination," Pilcher said, adding that since the meteorites studied by Hoover are fell to the Earth's surface between 100 and 200 years ago and had been previously handled by humans, "you would expect to find microbes" within them.

According to AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein, however, Hoover noted within his research paper that chemical analysis had rule contamination unlikely.

In addition to the question of contamination, however, Borenstein's methods and expertise, as well as several other factors surrounding the research, have been called into question by his colleagues.

In a statement released Monday, Paul Hertz, chief scientist at the NASA Science Mission Directorate (SAD) in Washington, said that Hoover's paper had not been peer-reviewed or "thoroughly examined by other qualified experts," and that the research in question had previously been submitted to the International Journal of Astrobiology in 2007 but had not completed the peer review process at that time.

Borenstein also notes that "scientists inside and outside the space agency"¦ say that Hoover works in solar physics and doesn't have expertise in astrobiology," thus further damning his research.

Those claims have been dismissed by the journal's editor in chief, Rudy Schild, who according to the AP posted a statement online calling Hoover "a highly respected scientist and astrobiologist with a prestigious record of accomplishment" during his career at the American space agency.

Borenstein also reports that another NASA astrobiologist, David Morrison, said that Hoover's work had fallen, in the AP reporter's words, "far short of good science" and also criticized the journal in which this research had been published.

"If Hoover wants to be taken seriously by the community of astrobiologists, he needs to publish this in a real journal and to respond to the criticisms from other scientists," Morrison told the AP via e-mail. "That is the way science advances."


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