Will colonizing meteorites and asteroids with bacteria one day save life as we know it?

Panspermia is meant to maintain Earth’s evolutionary path
Alex Ballingall
It came from planet Earth_wide
iStock, Getty Images; Photo Illustration by Taylor Shute

The world is doomed. Even if we avoid annihilation by climate change or nuclear holocaust, the inevitable expansion of the sun will surely do us in. Or will it?

Michael Mautner, professor of chemistry and astroecology at Virginia Commonwealth University, has a plan to save life as we know it. Called directed panspermia, it’s meant to maintain Earth’s evolutionary path, although it might be described as spraying bacteria into space.

Mautner became interested in the idea when he was studying at New York’s Rockefeller University in the early 1970s. It was there, in the midst of the Cold War’s nuclear standoff, that he felt “our survival really became a question.” He’s been advocating directed panspermia ever since. In 1995, he founded the Panspermia Society for Life in Space, and for most of his professional life, he has studied whether microbes can survive on asteroids and meteorites in space. This, he says, is necessary for directed panspermia to work.

Recently, NASA’s Richard Hoover claimed to have found evidence of fossilized microbes in such space rocks. If true, this could bolster the case for directed panspermia.

Mautner’s plan involves sending a “huge fleet” of tiny capsules containing hundreds of thousands of microbes into distant space clouds where dozens of new stars and solar systems will eventually form. Each pod could be propelled by solar sails that use radiation pressure from the sun to travel at 36,000 km per hour. When the pods reach their targets, Mautner says they will be captured in floating space dust and stored in asteroids and meteorites. There, they will be held at temperatures barely above absolute zero, effectively freezing them for millions of years until the asteroids and meteorites crash onto new planets, bringing with them the earthly life they carry. Mautner believes the technology will exist within the next few decades—perhaps by the end of the century—to carry out directed panspermia.

Cyanobacteria would be a good microbe for this purpose, says Mautner. They use photosynthesis—much like plants—to take energy from the sun and emit oxygen into the atmosphere. Because more complex lifeforms on Earth thrived on oxygen and are believed to have evolved from such organisms, Mautner thinks cyanobacteria could help recreate the conditions that allowed life to flourish here.

Mautner’s critics say spreading earthly life is as ethically contentious as it is ambitious; it could disrupt or destroy pre-existing life. Ian O’Neill, a Ph.D. in solar physics and science journalist for Discovery News, likens the idea to spreading an infectious disease, while space blogger Brig Klyce calls it “pissing in the ocean.”

Paul Gilster of the Tau Zero Foundation for human space travel says Mautner’s idea is technically possible, but thinks microbes shouldn’t be sent to space unless we’re certain there are no other life forms out there that could be affected. “I wonder how anybody would feel if we learned that from distant star systems our solar system was being bombarded with tiny biological forms.”

But Mautner sees it as an extension of Darwinism into space: in the face of the inevitable extinction of our planet, we need to do all we can to preserve our evolutionary chain. “We have an obligation to this whole big family of life to ensure that it will continue,” he says. Jump-starting life elsewhere is a means to that end.