Chief scientist at NASA makes the bold statement that alien life will be found soon and here’s why.
Earlier this week while on a panel, NASA’s chief scientist, Ellen Stofan announced, “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. We know where to look, we know how to look, and in most cases we have the technology.”
While this bold announcement is making waves around the world, it is most likely to be some sort of evidence of microbial life rather than any of our wilder dreams of first contact with an E.T.. Still, to many this is just a publicity stunt for a brash prediction.
However, Stofan isn’t on her own in predicting this; the scientists studying worlds both in our own solar system and those of distant stars are of a similar mindset, predicting that we are about to find quite a bit about the existence of extraterrestrial life by mid-century. This will likely be due to new telescopes coming online within five to ten years from now, giving us new capabilities in the hunt for life.
It’s been years since scientists came up with the assumption of a ‘habitable zone‘ which is the area around a star close enough that water won’t freeze and not too close as to force it to boil away. It has been thought that liquid water is a necessary medium for life to develop. In our own solar system, the only other planet within the habitable zone, Mars has eluded our attempts to find evidence of life past or present there. Without the evidence for life on Mars, many had given up hope for finding extraterrestrial life under the Sun.
One bit of recent excitement however, has been evidence of liquid water oceans in at least three locations outside of the habitable zone, including Europa and Ganymede (moons of Jupiter) and Enceladus, (a moon of Saturn).
Scientists believe that all three moons mentioned contain vast liquid oceans of water below their icy surfaces. The water stays liquid by various ways such as tidal heating, even though they are so far away from the Sun’s warm rays.
The best part is that space probes and telescopes have given data that suggest the moons may have other key elements for life. “We think Europa has the ingredients for life,” said Robert Pappalardo, a scientist working on NASA’s upcoming Europa mission. “Not just liquid water, but probably the right elements and chemical energy that might permit life, too.”
As there must be some sort of energy source for life to live off of, scientists have hypothesized that hydrothermal vents could be a likely clue. In the depths of the ocean floors on Earth, such vents exist which have entire ecosystems thriving around them, living off of chemicals dissolved in the hot water. Just last month, evidence seems to point to the existence of these types of vents on Enceladus.
These heavenly bodies in our cosmic neighborhood will require probes to actually make the discovery in all likelihood. Currently, there is only one project underway for sending one to Europa in 2025, but as it will be an orbiter, unless it passes through a plume of water with microbes, (and the right equipment), it probably will not be the deliverer of our profound question of “Are we alone?”
For the longest time, (our entire known history,) there hasn’t been concrete evidence of any planets outside of our solar system. This has changed as our technology improved and we have learned a good deal about other planets orbiting distant stars. In fact, we have found over 1,800 of these exoplanets using telescopes, leading scientists to believe that the majority of stars in our own galaxy have at least one.
What’s more is that some of the planets we are finding are in the habitable zones of their parent stars. If evolution occurs in the way it has on Earth, it is likely that there are other beings on these worlds where we are not even a dot in their starry night skies. Among the billions of planets that are likely to exist in our Milky Way, it is almost a sure bet.
The key to attaining evidence for life on an exoplanet will require finding a potentially habitable one and analyzing the atmosphere for biosignatures, such as dimethyl sulfide gas. On Earth, at least, that is a gas that is only produced by life forms.
Since beginning the discovery of exoplanets, they have mostly been too big, too gaseous or too hot to support life as we know it. As our techniques and technology develop, we have been discovering more of them which are smaller and rockier, much more like our homeworld, Earth. In 2017, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite will launch, allowing us to find many more. Two more telescopes will come into play: the James Webb Space Telescope, in 2018, and the European Extremely Large Telescope will be built in Chile in 2024. These new astronomer tools will allow much more detailed analysis of these distant worlds’ atmospheres.
Even with an apparent biosignature, it is sure to be open to interpretation (conveniently able to be denied). Finding actual microbes on one of the moons in our solar system would be a much more concrete form of evidence. Yet, with ever increasing technological prowess and confidence in our mathematical hypotheses, given enough time and funding, Stofan’s prediction may turn out to be true. Let us all hope for the best!