The eXoplanetary Research Institute (XRI)

Visual Techniques for Biological Classification

By Jane Eastwood, XRI Lead Exobiologist

Well, I've broken essential equipment in remote locations before - although this is what, four? five? orders of magnitude more expensive and eleven? good heavens - eleven. Eleven orders of magnitude more remote. Still, I know what to do here - we re-purpose the remaining equipment into something that can collect something resembling good data.

We should be able to determine some basic information - that is, when we send a new lab to the planet, right around the time our NDA expires, we'll be able to run a handful of impressively prescient experiments.

We'll look for signs of growth, death and reproduction - signs that life on this planet follows a path much like our own. The microscope survived the explosion, so we'll be able to see if things are cellular - and make some Van Leeuwenhoek level observations about how things work on a microscopic level. We were depending on isotope analysis for chemical components, so we haven't packed any stains or reagents - the presence of oils and proteins and pH levels will remain a mystery. So will any research into how genetic data is passed on - we don't even know if these species use DNA.

Maybe I can rig up a light-excluding tent out of debris around the landing site and find out if some of the organisms are photosynthetic - or if they have any kind of reaction to light. I don't think I'll be able to transport it far, so most of my destructive testing will have to be close to the lander. I'm sure I'll think of more stuff to test - and general observations about what species look like and where they'll grow will be invaluable.

Of course, there's a lot of science - science that seems very basic on Earth - that we won't be able to do. We won't be able to prove that anything eats anything else without very lucky photos - photos of actual nibbling in progress. We lost the middle range - between snapshot and microscope, so we're going to miss anything small and mobile altogether - which is a real pity, because insect-sized things on Earth comprise about 70% of known species.

There's a metaphor where the tools used for experiments are like a net. It's wise to acknowledge that if you're catching things in the ocean, you're missing both the zooplankton that are too small for nets to catch, and the giant squid that sleeps under the waves and tears your net asunder. We've just switched to a much less reliable net.

So we will be like unto the scientists of old; laying down a solid basis for future studies. We'll know where things are, and what other species they're found with, and we'll know what gross morphological characters separate them. And in the end, we still get to explore a new planet. There's really nothing as awesome as that.

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