Claim: Meteorite discovered with signs of life in it

This looks to be a huge story, the first evidence of extraterrestrial life, if it holds up. I would remind readers that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence“. This needs to be confirmed by others in the science community before it can be taken seriously.

This is from a recent meteorite find in December 2012. A large fire ball was seen by a large number of people in Sri Lanka on December 29th 2012, during that episode a large meteorite disintegrated and fell to Earth in the village of Araganwila which is few miles away from the city of Polonnaruwa.

Look at what the electron microscope shows of a sample purported to be from the meteorite:

Polonnaruwa_meteor_SEM_fig3

It looks convincing, and the paper says: “Contamination is excluded by the circumstance that the elemental abundances within the structures match closely with those of the surrounding matrix.“, but I remain skeptical of the claim.

At first I thought this was somebody mistaking a Tektite (Earthly origin ejecta from impact that makes it into space briefly) but this meteorite found in Sri Lanka does not appear to fit that category, being a chondrite. Further, this is a (supposedly) peer reviewed paper in the Journal of Cosmology, just published, but looking at the Journal of Cosmology, I have some doubts about its veracity.

I asked our resident solar expert Dr. Leif Svalgaard what he thought of it:

Credible? Yes and No. Several good scientists that I know personally have published in the Journal. There is also a good deal of junk. The kind of stuff that gets trotted out at WUWT by our resident [commenters] asking us to ‘open our minds’. So, there is both. It is difficult for a layman to sort the wheat from the abundant chaff.

Wickramasinghe is a credible scientist, student and long-time collaborator of Fred Hoyle. I assume you know Hoyle’s theory of continuous creation of matter at just the right rate to make the Universe expand as we observe it in order to keep the density constant. Hoyle coined the ‘derogatory’ [from his point of view] term The Big Bang. Hoyle’s greatest achievement was to co-author the epoch-making paper that explained in quantitative detail how all elements heavier than Lithium are formed in our universe [in supernovae explosions].

So, the jury is still out on the journal, though the scientist gets a +1.

According to the  paper:

…the parent body of the Polonnaruwa meteorite would have had most of its interior porous volume filled with water, volatile organics and possibly viable living cells. A remarkable coincidence that should be noted is that within several days of the meteorite fall, an extensive region around the site of the fall experienced an episode of red rain. The red rain analysed at the MRI in Colombo has been shown to contain red biological cells that show viability as well as motility. Preliminary studies from EDX analysis show that these cells are similar to the cells found in the red rain of Kerala that fell in 2001, cells that have not yet been identified with any known terrestrial organism (Louis and Kumar, 2006; Gangappa et al, 2010). Abnormally high abundances of As and Ag in the Sri Lankan red rain cells have been provisionally reported, thus favouring a non-terrestrial habitat, possibly connected with a cometary/asteroidal body, the fragmentation of which led to the Polonnaruwa meteorite fall (Samaranayake and Wickramasinghe, 2012).

The paper is (h/t to Willis Eschenbach):

FOSSIL DIATOMS IN A NEW CARBONACEOUS METEORITE

N. C. Wickramasinghe*1, J. Wallis2, D.H. Wallis1 and Anil Samaranayake+3

1Buckingham Centre for Astrobiology, University of Buckingham, Buckingham, UK

2School of Mathematics, Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK

3Medical Research Institute, Colombo, Sri Lanka

ABSTRACT

We report the discovery for the first time of diatom frustules in a carbonaceous meteorite that fell in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka on 29 December 2012. Contamination is excluded by the circumstance that the elemental abundances within the structures match closely with those of the surrounding matrix. There is also evidence of structures morphologically similar to red rain cells that may have contributed to the episode of red rain that followed within days of the meteorite fall. The new data on “fossil” diatoms provide strong evidence to support the theory of cometary panspermia.

The full paper is here:

Polonnaruwa-meteorite (PDF)

Source from the University of Buckingham website: http://www.buckingham.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Polonnaruwa-meteorite.pdf

Here is a news story on the paper, including an interview with Wickramasinghe

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Not that I would propound the theory, but it is possible that meteor impacts on the Earth drives pieces of terrestrial rocks [limestone with fossils?] into space [we have observed how that process works on Mars by collecting meteorites on Earth that definitely came from Mars] where they are scooped up by a passing comet or other meteorite parent.
REPLY: That’s why I thought “tektite” at first – Anthony

cloa5132013

Totally pretentious to say a journal is good or bad (its the argum expertium fallacy) and any article is of limited value in itself until duplicated.

Michael says:
January 14, 2013 at 7:16 pm
Totally pretentious to say a journal is good or bad (its the argum expertium fallacy)
Experts can [and do] judge a journal that way, and there are good journals and bad journals, the latter perhaps with sloppy, poor, lax, or no peer-review process.

Paul Adomshick

Once they went into the red rain of non-terrestrial origin hooey, they lost all credibility. Big. Fat. Fail.

Harold Ambler

My first thought, too, was that this was a piece of life “coming home.” Regardless, it’s interesting.

Doug

I would pull this post in a flash. It will be used to ridicule all the good science on this blog.

Paul Adomshick says:
January 14, 2013 at 7:24 pm
Once they went into the red rain of non-terrestrial origin hooey, they lost all credibility.
Wickramasinghe was also pushing the idea that biological viruses causing SARS was of extraterrestrial origin. Something for the ‘open-minded’ to soak up…

Jeremy

I read Hoyle’s Intelligent Universe as a Physics Major in the 1980’s and was convinced he is on the whole right.
The specifics of Hoyle’s theories may be found to be faulty but I share his conviction very deeply that life (DNA) is so incredibly adaptable that it MUST be present in space and it MUST get from one place to another given enough time. Similarly, I believe we will find life below the moho in the earth’s mantle.
I think that our generation suffers the same syndromes as previous generations that did not believe Copernicus when he realized we were not central to the solar system. Our generation remains convinced and all our text books preach that Earth (Gaia) is somehow special – a “goldilocks planet” and that it is one of the infinitely few places that has just the right conditions for life.
I am convinced that we will find that this is not the case and that DNA or other life forms not yet discovered have long inhabited many of what we thought were inhospitable places in the universe and another paradigm will fall – man will once again no longer be special or find ourselves in a “special place”.
If I had not got a “job” then this is the kind of research is precisely what I would have pursued.

John in NZ

Sounds a lot like a “piltdown man” type hoax. As in genuine scientists being fooled by a well placed fake sample. Time will tell.

Jim B

On the likely hood scale I give it about a 2 out of 10. Looks like a common fossilised diatom a very terrestrial one. I’m hoping alien life won’t look exactly like terrestrial.

Jeremy says:
January 14, 2013 at 7:32 pm
The specifics of Hoyle’s theories may be found to be faulty but I share his conviction very deeply that life (DNA) is so incredibly adaptable that it MUST be present in space and it MUST get from one place to another given enough time.
It is not a given that all life has to based on DNA. I do agree that DNA [namely us] will colonize the whole Galaxy in a few hundred million years [if we survive ourselves for the next couple of hundred years]. Which may provoke Fermi’s question “Where is everybody”.

markx

Most fascinating!
But I’m surprised the structure of an ‘extra terrestrial diatom’ would so much replicate that of a modern terrestrial example.
Michael says: January 14, 2013 at 7:16 pm
“….. of limited value in itself until duplicated….”

Reports of microfossil discoveries in meteorites have a long and tangled history stretching over half a century. Early claims of microfossils in carbonaceous chondrites by Claus and Nagy (1961) were quickly dismissed as arising from contaminants because there were indeed some instances in which contaminants (eg pollen grains) were mistakenly attributed to microfossils (Anders, 1962; Anders and Fitch, 1962).
H.D. Pflug’s more careful studies in the 1980’s provided much stronger evidence of microfossils (Pflug, 1984; Hoyle and Wickramasinghe, 1982).
Richard Hoover at NASA Marshall Space Flight Centre has continued to discover structures in carbonaceous meteorites that he identified as fossils of cyanobacteria (Hoover, 2005,2011).

(from the Wickramasinghe paper) http://wattsupwiththat.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/polonnaruwa-meteorite.pdf

Chris B

At least it’s not the jawbone of an Orangutan.

tokyoboy

Jim B says:……. I’m hoping alien life won’t look exactly like terrestrial.
I’ll second that.

Paul Westhaver

Oh God….
Watts. Not good. Science here only, SVP.
I don’t believe any of this hyperbolic alien-hyping shite.

etudiant

Hoyle was the champion of the idea of life being distributed through the universe with the earth seeded by meteors.
So this find would be direct confirmation of his theory.
His long time collaborator Wickramasinghe must be thrilled to finally have found corroborative evidence.
The photo looks interesting and presumably if additional specimens are found on further study, it would be provocative. It looks so normal, so similar to other Earth based organisms that one wonders if it was really from elsewhere.

jimmi_the_dalek

The meteorite falls in Sri Lanka on the 29th of December, they collect a sample, fly the sample to Cardiff, run it through the electron microscope, write a paper, submit it, have it referred and published all in 12days! Very fast…. too fast to have been checked properly.

hast0n

Yeah, no… The red rain baloney was a dead giveaway. As Doug suggests, I’d delete this post.

We should hold judgment until other teams can get a look, and hopefully at other samples, contamination still being a real possibility. Is there any more information on the meteorite? There are many varieties.

mpainter

What expertise have the co-authors in meteorites, diatoms, or paleontology? And “red rain” with “cells” in it? falling within a few days of the meteorite? It all sounds too mysterious.

eqibno

Did you say CARBONaceous?
We’re DOOMED! It’s worse than we thought. Aliens are sequestering carbon here…THAT may be causing global warming… /sarc off

Paul Westhaver

Drake equation has been superseded by the Westhaver Equation…
1= A^a x B^b x C^c …. N^n; where 1 is the number of planets where there is evidence of life,
and A, B, C, ….N are the number of coefficients raised to whatever power necessary to include any and all variables such that the product of all variables raised to their respective powers yields a probability of life on 1 planet in the universe.
The probability of # of planets with life in the universe is 1:infinity. Because THAT is what the evidence shows.

RobertInAz

Random thoughts:
– Could it have been ejected from Earth 500-1000 million years ago?
– Some theories have Venus suffering a massive collision that reversed its rotation and slowed it to almost nothing,
– If from outside the solar system – how long might it have been in transit?

This claim, like those of warmist types, is bogus and is wrong
Cite “Louis, Kumar 2006,” and no one goes along
Wikramasinghe notes his “remarkable coincidence”
But fails to note the meteor came after “red rain” events
He doesn’t mention papers that belie his silly claim
And skips that one that shows him wrong has actually got his name!
The paper’s bogus science is just what this group deplores
We’ve known for ten years plus that these red rains are algae spores.
===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

Roger Dewhurst

Look at the geology of the area. Reliant on my very distant recollections, diatoms do not fit the area. Open to correction of course.

I agree with Dr. Svalgaard on Fermi’s paradox and the inevitability of human descendants populating all regions of our galaxy that we can engineer to habitability, given, as Dr. Svalgaard stipulates, that we assume humanity carries on long enough to accomplish it.
As to the meteorite, I lost confidence while watching the video and the scientist said it was “decisive proof” of living organisms from outer space. Perhaps it is a humility problem, but it makes me figure something is wrong. Chain of custody is unknown so far. Still, it is easy to fool oneself even if no one pulled a fast-one.

I call bullish*t sorry. I’ve read the David Brin story too http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heart_of_the_Comet , but liquid water only exists when there is significant atmospheric pressure, otherwise it alternates between ice and vapour, without a liquid stage.
As for the rock coming from a distant star system, what are the odds? Only a handful of meteors make it here from other planets in our own system, the chances of a rock from a planet orbiting another star making it here are incomprehensibly remote.

Willis Eschenbach

Me, I find the paper curious, but doubtful. I suspect a more mundane explanation of some kind.
However, I don’t agree with those saying it should not be posted. In my experience, there’s no faster way to separate wheat from chaff than to expose it to the unblinking eye of the populi on the web …
w.

Jimmy Haigh

Any biostratigraphers out there who can identify the bug? I’ve sent a note to a palynologist mate of mine to see what he thinks.

Byron

Hmmmm ? I`m in two minds over this (as usual ) the theory that there is microbial life out there and some evidence of it`s existence has survived a trip to earth via meteor is within the realms of possibility (at Our current level of understanding at any rate ) , It`s the evidence itself that I`m sceptical about . I`ll suspend judgement until after the poking it with sticks ( metaphorically speaking ) stage is passed

Keep a skeptical eye and remember Mother Nature plays with loaded dice. Diatoms are interesting little things. In the paper Wickramasinghe et al. show more images. They do appear to be diatoms, not unlike some of the ones I would draw in my note book in micropaleontology lab. These fragments are very small. I fondly remember Hoyle as a boy (in the 50’s) reading several of his books. It is obvious that in the natural world our collective level of ignorance is still astonishingly high. All that said my first thought like other was tektite. This red rain stuff is new to me so I will need to upgrade.
Just a reminder when ever you think you know something about early life do a reality check. Think Burgess.

MarcH

Another “biological”? Fragment in lower right of the photo. Presumably the authors ran this past an experienced biologist.

[snip]

Gary Pearse

This is highly unlikely. Diatomite is a rock type or formation (100s of thousands of tonnes) made up almost entirely of the remains of diatomes. These little critters are gregarious as hell. I have never seen a rock sample with only on lonely diatome in it. It would be like finding a shale sample with one pollen grain. They should have chosen a different species.

WTF?
I’m bothered by a few things about this paper. Not just that the “fossilized diatom” in an extraterrestrial meteorite of “interstellar cometary” origin happens to be identical to a specific Earthly diatom. Not just that such an easily identified fossil was even found in pristine condition. Not just the “red rain cells”. But the Journal of Cosmology claims that “All articles are peer reviewed.”
So: The meteorite fell December 29, 2012. In 15 days they managed to recover a substantial fragment, isolate it from contamination, take it apart in uncontaminated conditions, scan the whole thing microscopically, find the perfect fossil, write the paper, sumbit it to JoC, GET IT THROUGH PEER REVIEW, and publish.
But wait! There’s more. They managed not one, but TWO peer reviewed papers! And a set of Ginsu knives guaranteed to cleave diamonds and still cut tomato
Sorry. Just read the second paper.
ON THE COMETARY ORIGIN OF THE POLONNARUWA METEORITE, N. C. Wickramasinghe, J. Wallis, D.H. Wallis, M.K. Wallis, S. Al-Mufti, J.T. Wickramasinghe, Anil Samaranayake and K. Wickramarathne, pp 9572-9578
http://journalofcosmology.com/JOC21/Polonn2.pdf
“We conclude by reporting that an extract from the interior of a Polonnaruwa meteorite
sample, studied under a light microscope at the Medical Research Institute in Colombo, was
found to contain living diatoms (See Fig.4).” [page 5 of the PDF]
The picture of the “living diatom” can be found in the PDF, or you can see it here: http://journalofcosmology.com/JOC21/meteordiatom.png
Sorry; my BS meter just pegged out.

scarletmacaw

Paul Westhaver says:
January 14, 2013 at 7:48 pm
Oh God….
Watts. Not good. Science here only, SVP.
I don’t believe any of this hyperbolic alien-hyping shite.

Science only? Isn’t presenting and debunking pseudoscience one of the main reasons this site exists?

Gary Pearse

While I’m at it, can someone explain how, after reaching white heat and exploding we can have such wonderful little bacteria fossils, and the like? I know when collecting fossils you have to take care in the process to prevent damage and you even wrap them up in something soft to transport them. No paleontologist I ever knew would think it okay to fire them out of a cannon.

Bear

(Mods: First attempt to post this seems to have evaporated in a puff of fading photons with no confirmation. If this is a repeat, delete it.)
WTF?
I’m bothered by a few things about this paper. Not just that the “fossilized diatom” in an extraterrestrial meteorite of “interstellar cometary” origin happens to be identical to a specific Earthly diatom. Not just that such an easily identified fossil was even found in pristine condition. Not just the “red rain cells”. But the Journal of Cosmology claims that “All articles are peer reviewed.”
So: The meteorite fell December 29, 2012. In 15 days they managed to recover a substantial fragment, isolate it from contamination, take it apart in uncontaminated conditions, scan the whole thing microscopically, find the perfect fossil, write the paper, sumbit it to JoC, GET IT THROUGH PEER REVIEW, and publish.
But wait! There’s more. They managed not one, but TWO peer reviewed papers! And a set of Ginsu knives guaranteed to cleave diamonds and still cut tomato
Sorry. Just read the second paper.
ON THE COMETARY ORIGIN OF THE POLONNARUWA METEORITE, N. C. Wickramasinghe, J. Wallis, D.H. Wallis, M.K. Wallis, S. Al-Mufti, J.T. Wickramasinghe, Anil Samaranayake and K. Wickramarathne, pp 9572-9578
http://journalofcosmology.com/JOC21/Polonn2.pdf
“We conclude by reporting that an extract from the interior of a Polonnaruwa meteorite
sample, studied under a light microscope at the Medical Research Institute in Colombo, was
found to contain living diatoms (See Fig.4).” [page 5 of the PDF]
The picture of the “living diatom” can be found in the PDF, or you can see it here: http://journalofcosmology.com/JOC21/meteordiatom.png
Sorry; my BS meter just pegged out.

This papers provides a bit of an analogue…Preferential soft-tissue preservation in the Hot Creek carbonate spring deposit, British Columbia, Canada
The relict Holocene Hot Creek carbonate spring deposit in southeast British Columbia is characterized by excellent preservation of soft-tissue organisms (e.g. cyanobacteria), but poor preservation of organisms with hard-tissue (e.g. wood, diatoms). The deposit is formed mainly of calcified cyanobacteria, with fewer mineralized macrophytes (plants), bryophytes (mosses), wood, and diatoms
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0037073810000618

Rud Istvan

This site should stick to climatology.
For example, Svalgard’s hopefully misquoted assertion about non-supernovae nucleosynthesis proceeding through lithium. All standard nuclear physics says it proceeds through iron, which also accords with relative stellar abundance in the universe. (Although to be open minded and complete, there may also be weak force transmutations proceeding through LENR reactions as discussed in my book The Arts of Truth). Wrong.
Red rains have been definitively shown ( including from Sri Lanka) to comprise spores of the lichen like fungi genus Trentepilon. Most definitely terrestrial. Wrong.
And then there is the problem pointed out above that the meteor burst was after, not before, the red rain. Wrong.
Finally, contamination of the entire field in the micrograph is possible, which could explain similar elemental abundances. No information about the sampling method from the chondrite, or the location of the sample ( was it from a lab cleaved interior solid section?) was given. The climate analogy is to the temperature record problems from UHI effects so ably documented by WUWT. Same issue, different context, unaddressed. Wrong.
The same critical thinking skills that serve this site so well on climate change simply need to be extended. But that takes time and domain knowledge. Either take the time to acquire the knowledge, or don’t bring up such extraneous debatable matter. Dilutes the focus and the message of an important site on a very important topic, AGW.

Climate Ace

I am skeptical about this paper. All other cogent arguments aside, what are the chances of ‘diatoms’?

[snip – lets not start a fight]

Looks remarkably similar to this diatom… Seminavis atlantica Garcia.
See photos from…Seminavis atlantica Garcia, a new psammic diatom (Bacillariophyceae) from southern Brazilian sandy beaches.
http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1519-69842007000400026

Gary Pearse says:
January 14, 2013 at 8:32 pm
While I’m at it, can someone explain how, after reaching white heat and exploding we can have such wonderful little bacteria fossils, and the like?
Meteors are extremely cold and travel so fast through the atmosphere that they have no time to heat up. Newly fallen meteorites are often icy cold.

[snip]

D. Cohen

Lief S. asks Fermi’s classic question, if extra-terrestrial life, where is everyone? This is what every physics or engineering based scientist goes, based on the well-known tendency of living organisms to increase their numbers exponentially. However, based on how systems of multiply interacting living organisms behave here on earth, this thinking comes from entirely too simple a model of what would be going on if the rest of the universe were filled with intelligent life.
Consider an earthly jungle, full of relatively uninteresting plant life. A naive individual walks in and looks for large animals (analogous to intelligent life out their among the stars). He will have to look long and hard to find any, even though everyone knows jungles are full of large and often dangerous critters. Why? Because these critters serve as each others prey and predators — which also happens to explain why their numbers do not exponentially increase. They as well hidden as they can be consistent with taking reasonable risks to ensure their survival. This is because the prey species are hiding from their predators and the predators are hiding so they have a good chance of surprising their prey. And here we are on earth, fat and happy, blasting away with all the energy at our command advertising our existence to the rest of universe because here on earth nothing scares us any more.
Based on this model for what is going on there among the stars, I am not surprised that SETI and similar projects have found no other evidence of intelligent life. Any civilizations which have lasted a reasonable length of time astronomically speaking have undoubted learned the wisdom of concealment, just like large animals in the jungle.
Here on earth life lives on other life, and out there I suspect intelligent civilizations exploit others if they can — “eat” them if you will. That’s certainly what has happened here on our own planet, when two different human civilizations or cultures met.
Something to think about

Rud Istvan says:
January 14, 2013 at 8:38 pm
For example, Svalgard’s hopefully misquoted assertion about non-supernovae nucleosynthesis proceeding through lithium. All standard nuclear physics says it proceeds through iron
The pseudo-experts are beginning to their their heads.
“The r-process is a nucleosynthesis process, occurring in core-collapse supernovae (see also supernova nucleosynthesis) and to a slight extent in nuclear weapon explosions, which is responsible for the creation of approximately half of the neutron-rich atomic nuclei that are heavier than iron.”
“The s-process or slow-neutron-capture-process is a nucleosynthesis process that occurs at relatively low neutron density and intermediate temperature conditions in stars. Under these conditions the rate of neutron capture by atomic nuclei is slow relative to the rate of radioactive beta-minus decay. In the S-process, a stable isotope captures a neutron, but the radioactive isotope that results decays to its stable daughter before the next neutron is captured. This process produces stable isotopes by moving along the valley of beta-decay stable isobars in the chart of isotopes. The S-process produces approximately half of the isotopes of the elements heavier than iron, and therefore plays an important role in the galactic chemical evolution. The S-process differs from the more rapid R-process of neutron capture by its slow rate of neutron captures.”
“In contrast to the R-process which is believed to occur over time scales of seconds in explosive environments, the S-process is believed to occur over time scales of thousands of years, passing decades between neutron captures”
When the star explodes as a supernova or throws off most of it atmosphere while a red super-giant, the results of the r- and s-process enriches the interstellar medium
The building up of heaver element does not proceed through lithium, but explains elements heavier than lithium [should have been Boron to be exactly right – but no matter].

D. Cohen says:
January 14, 2013 at 8:47 pm
Here on earth life lives on other life, and out there I suspect intelligent civilizations exploit others if they can — “eat” them if you will.
A planet with life has an atmosphere that is not in chemical equilibrium with the surface. The spectrum of such a planet gives it away. If there were many intelligent civilizations in the Galaxy they would discover us by our atmospheric spectrum and be here to eat us already. It is not about us discovering them [although we are presently looking for planets with atmospheres out of equilibrium], but about them discovering us. We are the food blundering about in the jungle [or in the Arctic – polar bears consider us food].

Mark

This is mildly interesting but almost certainly will be proved to not be signs of extra-terrestrial life. I suggest that we rational, science-centric skeptics keep our distance. I don’t think at this point of verification it deserves posting here on WUWT.

Gary Pearse sais, at January 14, 2013 at 8:32 pm :
“While I’m at it, can someone explain how, after reaching white heat and
exploding we can have such wonderful little bacteria fossils, and the like?
I know when collecting fossils you have to take care in the process to
prevent damage and you even wrap them up in something soft to transport
them. No paleontologist I ever knew would think it okay to fire them out of
a cannon.”
Meteorites often land with their interiors cool. Their surfaces were
white-hot for only a few seconds.
As for a meteor that crumbles due to aerodynamic drag? That tends
to make a big kaboom. But any fragments big enough to pick up
probably had their surfaces white-hot for only a small fraction of a second.
As for care needed to preserve fossils that small? I think, put the rock in
a padded envelope, and use an express/overnight shipping company.
What doesn’t break a rock won’t break most of any microscopic fossils
within it.
What I am more concerned with: Chain of custody, including traceability
of all human contact with the analyzed piece of rock, starting when it
landed. I doubt there is an unmodified video anywhere showing the
landing, and every second of what the piece of rock goes through, until
and including when it gets shipped to where it gets analyzed – including
receipt with a tracking number.