Though we’re all secretly hoping that something living in the cold vacuum of space will confirm we’re not alone, sometimes, media stokes those flames of excitement a little too much.
Earlier this week, Russian state news agency TASS reported that scientists had found “living bacteria from outer space on the surface of the Russian segment of the International Space Station (ISS).” Cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov told the outlet that some cosmonauts had swabbed the exterior of the ISS during spacewalks and sent the samples back to Earth. The analysis of those samples, however, is a bit ambiguous.
“It turns out that somehow these swabs reveal bacteria that were absent during the launch of the ISS module,” Shkaplerov told TASS. “That is, they have come from outer space and settled along the external surface. They are being studied so far and it seems that they pose no danger.”
Unsurprisingly, some outlets used Shkaplerov’s comments as proof that we’ve found aliens, which, sadly, isn’t the case. As National Geographic and others have pointed out, it’s much more likely that the bacteria came from us filthy humans.
Even in this latest report, TASS notes that in a previous mission, Russian scientists brought bacteria aboard the ISS via some tablet PCs. So it’s quite possible that these newly discovered bacteria aren’t actually from some random part of space — they’re probably bacteria that have hitched a ride on humans. Of course, NASA understands this risk of contamination, which is why they sterilize all their probes.
Bacteria can be hardy little things, even in space. Scientists have sent Bacillus pumilus SAFR-032 and Bacillus subtilis 168 into space for experimental purposes, and both have survived. It’s possible that these bacteria found on the ISS — though we don’t know what strain — survived the long journey from Earth and decided to make the ISS their new home.
As badly as we all want it to finally be aliens, I’m sorry. It’s just not. Here’s a video of a chameleon popping bubbles to compensate.