The Australian PhD student helping NASA find alien life

27 Oct 2016

Author: Matthew Hall



University of Sydney PhD student Seamus Thomson, has been handpicked by NASA to look for alien life, on Mars and Saturn’s oceanic moon Enceladus. The 24-year-old is using his biomedical engineering skills, to help identify alien life and ensure other planets are not contaminated by material from Earth.
  1. Category
  2. AUSci
  3. AuYoung
  4. RSS on
  5. Class Styles - Category
  6. GDayUSA2017
  7. science-style
  8. Science
Creative CommonsWe’d love you to share this content

Seamus Thomson, a student at the University of Sydney, was driving his car when he received a call from the Victorian Space Science Education Centre (VSSEC) in Melbourne. The caller had good news and bad news. 

First, an apology: Thomson was ‘only’ the runner-up in the VSSEC-NASA Australian Space Prize – an annual competition for Australian university students that offers the winner an internship with NASA in the US. For Thomson, it seemed to be a case of ‘better luck next time’. 

The caller’s good news? NASA judges were so impressed by Thomson’s competition entry they wanted him to come to the NASA Ames Research Center near San Jose in California, to work on two projects – a proposed mission to look for life on the ocean world of Enceladus – Saturn’s sixth-largest moon, and the Icebreaker Life mission to Mars – both scheduled for 2021. 

“I felt like I’d won the lottery,” says Thomson. 

The search for alien life

Thomson, currently based in San Jose, explains the NASA projects further.

“During the Enceladus mission we will screen samples for signs of life,” explains Thomson, who is working on sensors that will be fitted to the Enceladus-bound spacecraft. The sensors are designed to detect biomolecules while the spacecraft flies through jets of icy liquid and matter.

“Those signs of life could be a molecule, a cell, a protein or a whole bunch of other things. We want the sensors to hone in on one of these signatures and say, ‘yes, this is unique to life’ or ‘no, it isn’t’.”

Thomson’s role on the Mars project is focused on the ‘planetary protection’ aspect of the mission, a challenge that Captain Kirk never considered during Star Trek missions. Unlike Hollywood movies or TV programs, NASA missions don’t simply land a spacecraft on a planet and explore without care for its environment. In real life, NASA places great importance on not contaminating extraterrestrial destinations. Thomson’s biomedical skills will be used to sterilise the mission’s landing vehicle and its drilling tools to prevent contamination. 

The reason is twofold: protecting planets and moons from stray Earth matter that could harm the alien environment, and safeguarding the integrity of research missions. A ‘hitchhiker’ from Earth – no matter how microscopic – could be mistaken for a sign of life on another planet.

“Whatever we send into space, we want to make sure there are minimal amounts of Earth-based organics on it,” says Thomson. “We don’t want sensors to pick up dead organic matter from Earth and say we have detected life, when really it was on the sensors the whole time – or it was a part of the ship. We also don’t want to contaminate the planet we are landing on.”

Seamus Thomson

Seamus Thomson at NASA's Ames Research Center in California. Credit: supplied. 

Australian education reaps rewards 

Part of the thrill – and the plot twist – is that Thomson is not a space engineer. That, however, is the exact reason why NASA is interested in Thomson’s work. 

Thomson is currently pursuing a PhD, researching orthopedics and osseointegration (the material connection between live bone and an artificial implant) – having earlier graduated from the University of Sydney with double bachelor degrees in Mechanical Biomedical Engineering and Medical Science with a major in Pharmacology. His PhD supervisors at The University of Sydney are Professor Hala Zreiqat and world-renowned surgeon Dr Munjed al Muderis. Both support his work at NASA. 

Thomson believes his solid and diverse undergraduate interests triggered NASA’s invitation. 

While his academic pathway didn’t immediately point toward a career in space research, Thomson, like many children, has always been intrigued by NASA’s Apollo moon missions.

“As a child, I watched Apollo documentaries with my family on the couch,” he recalls. “Getting to the moon really was an amazing achievement with the limited technology available at the time. You had all these amazing minds coming together and creating something monumental for humanity. Working on something like that always seemed out of reach to me – but I was fascinated by it.”

Instead of space, Thomson seemed destined for a career as a doctor, believing it presented a chance for him to help people and work in a field where innovation and technology were valued. NASA saw Thomson’s biomedical background a little differently – recognising its value for its work discovering life in outer space. 

Space and the future of medicine

Thomson says his time at NASA has opened his eyes to the broader applications of responsible research.

“It’s really good to know that NASA and other space agencies are thinking long-term for planets and moons,” he says. “They are taking preliminary preventative approaches. Before I went to NASA I had no idea of planetary protection. I thought as long as you can land on a planet and escape it’s all good, but there’s a lot of different environmental considerations to take into account.

“I didn’t think there was much overlap between biomedical engineering and life-detecting bio-sensors, but the more I work on the NASA projects the more I see the similarities. When you put an orthopedic implant inside a human body you don’t want to bring in any foreign bacteria that can cause harm to a patient. The same applies to space.” 

As for his long-term future, Thomson sees an opportunity to combine his Australian academic achievements with international projects in space exploration. Space medicine and exploring the use of orthopedic applications in space are two directions of interest. Whatever the path, it will be a long way from watching moon-mission documentaries on his couch in Sydney.