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SPIE Professional July 2010

Germs, SETI, and life in the cosmos

A panel at SPIE Optics+Photonics marks the 50th anniversary of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

By Beth Kelley

When Europeans first visited the Americas, they brought germs with them that decimated native populations. Imagine the possible repercussions if humans ever introduced a foreign microbe in space, say Mars.

According to a new study by Bonnie J. Berry, David G. Jenkins, and Andrew C. Schuerger from University of Central Florida, and published in the April 2010 issue of Applied and Environmental Microbiology, it is very possible we may do so, or may have already done so. The UCF team determined that certain bacteria, such as Escherichia coli, could survive conditions on Mars, although they would probably have some difficulty multiplying.

NASA scientists and engineers put every tiny component sent to Mars through rigorous sterilization, trying to ensure everything is free of germs and bacteria. Still, according to the study, even current practices allow the possibility of one or two bacteria escaping.

But could a microbe survive the vacuum of space? In a word, yes!

Richard Hoover, SPIE Fellow, panelist Many recent studies have demonstrated that several species of bacteria can endure in the harsh conditions of outer space for prolonged periods. SPIE Fellow and past SPIE President Richard Hoover (left), astrobiology group lead at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, has also found bacteria and microbes on meteors that have survived the trip through our atmosphere and fallen to Earth.

Hello, out there!

The inadvertent introduction of micro-organisms from both directions is just one topic at the Life in the Cosmos panel, held at SPIE Optics+Photonics at 8 pm Tuesday, 3 August. This year’s panel also marks the 50th anniversary of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, and its attempts to communicate with extra-terrestrial life.

One lingering question many scientists have is: Why, after 50 years, have we still not heard back from anyone?

Paul Davies, panelist Life in the CosmosPaul C. W. Davies (right), director of the BEYOND Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, chair of the SETI Post-Detection Task Group, and co-director of the Cosmology Initiative at Arizona State University, suggested in the April issue of The Economist that SETI’s failure to make contact with extra terrestrial civilizations may not indicate a lack of intelligent life beyond Earth’s borders. Rather , we may be searching too narrow a spectrum of possible signs. Instead of monitoring radio channels, why not monitor for pollution or Dyson spheres?

Terrestrial Discussion

Interested in joining the conversation?

Charles H. Townes, 2010 gold medal winner and panelistLife in the Cosmos panelists Hoover, Davies, and Nobel Prize winner and 2010 SPIE Gold Medal winner Charles H. Townes will discuss work done by astrobiologists, microbiologists, biochemists, and paleontologists into the origin of pre-biotic and chiral biomolecules and the spatial, temporal, and environmental limitations of life on Earth.

Panel members will discuss how to understand where and how to search for the signatures of life elsewhere in the universe and the need to investigate the possibility that a previously undiscovered Shadow Biosphere may exist on Earth today.

The panelists will review recent discoveries and provide their own insights about life in the cosmos, followed by a question-and-answer session with the audience.

SPIE Optics + PhotonicsEducation in action

SPIE Optics+Photonics places emphasis on the applications of light-based technology, particularly in education to aid the next generation of scientists and engineers.

• The Optics Education and Outreach Conference, held Sunday 1 August, has been expanded to a full-day event. It features educators, scientists, and researchers creating better, applied, hands-on learning opportunities for all students and in all settings, including informal ones like science centers and nature walks as well as K-12 education and college programs. Conference chair is G. Groot Gregory.

• An Optics Outreach Olympics will display some of the tools SPIE Student Chapters have used in their outreach programs. Students, community members, and local teachers are invited to attend the 7 pm event Sunday 1 August.

Event coverage

FacebookWant to keep up on what’s happening at SPIE Optics+Photonics? Follow SPIE on Twitter (#SPIEOP), and Facebook. You can also follow the SPIE Student group on Twitter and Facebook.

A photo gallery and news updates from each day of the event will also be available at spie.org/op.

Beth Kelley 
Beth Kelley is a contributing writer and editor to SPIE. 

Have a question or comment about this article? Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.

DOI: 10.1117/2.4201007.20

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