Scientists who are always on the lookout for some small sign that we are not alone in the universe have recently a couple of very small discoveries, that have them dreaming of big things. Biologists have found a new type of deep-sea anemone, at nearly the same time astronomers learned that stardust contains small pockets of water, two discoveries which suggest that extraterrestrial life in harsh conditions is very possible.
First, a research robot that is part of the National Science Foundation's ANDRILL Antarctic drilling program, went on a routine mission down an 885-foot deep hole drilled into the Ross Ice Shelf and discovered a new species of anemone that lives off ice. And not just a new lifeform, but a whole new way of living:
SCINI [the robot] detected signs of the all-new ecosystem, one containing the opaque-white, ethereal anemones, now named Edwardsiella andrillae. They're just 2.5-to-3 centimeters in size when contracted, and about four times longer when relaxed. Each of them have around 20-to-24 tentacles.
Researchers say they discovered tens of thousands of the anemones clinging to the ice.
According to the NSF, the discovery was first made back in 2010. While other anemones are known to live on or in the seafloor, these are unique in that the live on frigid ice and hang upside down — and are part of a whole new ecosystem:
In addition to the anemones, the scientists saw fish who routinely swam upside down, the ice shelf serving as the floor of their submarine world, as well as polychaete worms, amphipods and a bizarre little creature they dubbed "the eggroll", a four-inch-long, one-inch-diameter, neutrally-buoyant cylinder, that seemed to swim using appendages at both ends of its body, which was observed bumping along the field of sea anemones under the ice and hanging on to them at times.
The discovery is especially significant in the context of the recent discovery of water spouting from Europa. The anemones, which thrive in ice, could represent the type of life Europa, an ice covered ball with a liquid ocean underneath, could support.
A second, unrelated discovery shows that when charged wind from the sun hits stardust, a tiny pocket of water is formed within the interplanetary dust. Stardust has already been shown to contain certain organic compounds, which means that each grain of stardust potentially has the basic ingredients of life. Because such dust is likely prevalent all across the universe, it increases the likelihood of extraterrestrial life existing somewhere. Dr. Hope Ishii, part of the team of researchers who made the discovery, said it has "potentially huge" implications. She told NewScientist.com:
It is a particularly thrilling possibility that this influx of dust on the surfaces of solar system bodies has acted as a continuous rainfall of little reaction vessels containing both the water and organics needed for the eventual origin of life.
We hope this means more funding for science, and that we will one day meet alien anemone that will take us to Europa with them for vacation.