Officials at NASA just announced that we’re only 10 to 20 years from discovering alien life. Seriously.
The search for extraterrestrial life has just become a lot more optimistic: scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) have declared that we will likely discover alien life within the next two decades.
“I believe we are going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth in the next decade and definitive evidence in the next 10 to 20 years,” Ellen Stofan, chief scientist at NASA, told a public panel Tuesday in Washington.
“We know where to look, we know how to look, and in most cases we have the technology,” she added.
The agency’s interim director of heliophysics, Jeffery Newmark, echoed Stofan’s optimism, stating “It’s definitely not an ‘if,’ it’s a when.”
Those of us excited at the prospect of witnessing an interstellar scientific and cultural exchange with a highly advanced and technologically sophisticated alien civilization in the next 20 years will unfortunately have to wait.
“We are not talking about little green men,” Stofan said. “We are talking about little microbes.”
During the hour long presentation, NASA principals divulged a number a recently made discoveries which suggest that we are closer than we ever have been to figuring out how and where to locate life in our solar system, and beyond.
Jim Green, the agency’s director of planetary science, cited a recent study which analyzed the atmosphere above Mars’ polar ice caps as an example of the breakthroughs in research leading us closer to the discovery of extraterrestrial life. The Mars study suggests that the Red Planet once had 50% of its northern hemisphere covered in oceans up to a mile deep–and that it had that water for up to 1.2 billion years, a much longer estimate than previously thought.
“We think that long period of time is necessary for life to get more complex,” said Stofan.
She added that putting human field geologists and astrobiologists on the surface of Mars will greatly improve the chances of discovering fossils indicating past life on the planet.
Green also discussed another recent study that analyzed measurements of aurora on Ganymede, proving that Jupiter’s moon has an immense liquid ocean lying beneath its icy crust. This discovery puts Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon, in a class with Enceladus and Europa as another moon in the solar system with a confirmed subterranean ocean.
These findings suggest that previously held ideas about “habital zones” might have been greatly limited. The habital zone is the special Goldie Locks spot in which the body is not too hot or too cold for liquid water to exist on its surface.
“We now recognize that habitable zones are not just around stars, they can be around giant planets too,” said Green. “We are finding out the solar system is really a soggy place.”
He also touched on NASA’s plans for a mission to Europa.
“I don’t know what we are going to find there,” he said.
Newmark discussed how the agency is currently learning about the role played by Earth’s magnetic field in protecting the planet’s water and atmosphere from being blown away by solar wind, thus allowing the planet to develop life.
“Mars does not have a significant magnetic field, so it lets the wind strip away the water and atmosphere,” he said.
The agency’s director of astrophysics, Paul Hertz, discussed future telescopes that are already being developed which will help scientists scan the atmospheres of large rocky planets orbiting distant stars in hopes of finding chemical markers of life.
“We are not just studying water and habitability in our solar system, but also looking for it in planets around other stars,” Hertz said.
John Grunsfeld, associate administrator at NASA, said that what excites him about the search for life beyond our planet is discovering what alien life will look like.
“Once we get beyond Mars, which formed from the same stuff as Earth, the likelihood that life is similar to what we find on this planet is very low,” said Grunsfeld.
Grunsfeld stated that he estimates life beyond Earth will be discovered by the next generation of scientists and space explorers. Green, however, is more optimistic than that.
“The science community is making enormous progress,” Green said. “And I’ve told my team I’m planning to be the director of planetary science when we discover life in the solar system.”