If there were alien life in the universe, where would it be? Several recent NASA discoveries indicate that alien life on other planets in our solar system is a lot more plausible than we previously thought.
To get an idea of the chances of NASA finding little green men or microbes, The Daily Caller News Foundation sat down with Dr. Penelope Boston, director of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, and Dr. Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
Mars ranked among Boston’s top choices for alien life.
“Mars is really big, and when we send missions we can only interrogate a small portion of it,” Boston told TheDCNF. “We’ve been working incrementally to kinda creep up on life and do it in a holistic way. The Viking missions of the 1970s were an attempt to look for life holistically, but our state-of-the-art at the time simply wasn’t up to the task. It also became clear to us just how difficult a task looking for life was. We’re looking for extremely small and extremely cryptic forms of life.”
The Red Planet may contain habitats which can potentially support life, NASA-sponsored geologists at the University of Aberdeen announced early last month. The geologists found that hydrogen, a critical component necessary to support life, can be produced by earthquakes on Earth. They concluded that the same kind of “Marsquakes” could produce hydrogen on Mars, removing a major barrier to life.
NASA is also considering plans to put a large space station in orbit above Mars by 2028, according to plans outlined in August by major aerospace contractor Lockheed Martin. Astronauts would live aboard the “Mars Base Camp” for a year to collect information in preparation for the first manned landing. Lockheed Martin’s plan will construct a 132-ton space station around Mars capable of hosting six astronauts for a year. In comparison, the International Space Station weighs about 440 tons.
“We’re very conscious of the fact that we’re trying to do this in the most cost-effective way to get the answers to these questions in a sensible and systematic fashion,” Boston continued. “It’s a lot easier for us as field scientists to investigate places on Earth, which we can just walk to. Even if we never send humans to Mars, we can probably do a pretty good job in the search for life there.”
Jupiter’s moon Europa is one of the most likely places in our solar system to find alien life, according to scientists.
“For me, the body in the solar system most likely to have life is pretty much a dead heat between Europa and Mars,” Boston stated. “In some ways, I think that the subsurfaces of these icy moons with liquid interiors are more conducive to life than the areas we’ve been looking on Mars. The interiors of these moons seem like big petri plates. I think the potential for life being kindled there is very high.”
Europa probably has watery and salty oceans similar to those of Earth’s below the ice, likely kept warm by complex gravitational interactions and the planet’s core. Life could exist in the ice-covered ocean — perhaps in an environment similar to the deep-ocean hydrothermal vents where life on Earth may have emerged.
“It may be that the fastest way to find extraterrestrial biology is to send a spacecraft to tightly orbit Jupiter’s moon, Europa,” Shostak told TheDCNF. “It is known to have an underground ocean with twice as much water as all the oceans of Earth, and that ocean has been there for more than 4 billion years. It’s difficult to imagine that it hasn’t produced some sort of microbial life in all that time, and now that we know that Europa spurts some of its hidden ocean into space, we could simply grab some of that material and bring it back to Earth for analysis.”
The space agency used the Hubble Space Telescope to find evidence for water ice plumes jetting off Europa, leading NASA to suspect that the moon has an icy shell on top of an ocean of liquid water, though it has not yet confirmed it. NASA has also found evidence of clay-like minerals associated with organic matter on the icy crust of Europa.
The discovery of Europa’s ocean “raises the odds of us getting a material sample,” Boston noted. “If you look at the technologic task of getting through 40 to 100 kilometers of ice to get to the ocean under, that’s a technology that’s simply beyond us right now. This is very useful to us because we can do spectroscopy on it before we have samples of it.”
NASA is already constructing a probe to the moon, dubbed The Europa Clipper, which would investigate the icy moon’s potential habitability for human colonization and alien life.
Saturn’s moon Enceladus is fairly similar to Europa and is another excellent spot for NASA to look for alien life.
“There are differences between Europa and Enceladus,” Boston said. “Europa is a much larger body than Enceladus. I’d have to say that if you have more real estate, you have more terrain in which those pre-biotic chemical experiments which we assume led to life on Earth can be happening. The moon is sufficiently small that it cannot have been spewing out liquid for its entire history, meaning that the breach is a much more recent phenomenon. If the breach is new, any life in the interior would be profoundly affected by this. If life was kindled there, it could be under considerable stress at this point.”
Enceladus likely has a subsurface ocean which may reach near-boiling temperatures, providing plenty of energy for life.
“Internal heating from the rocky core and tidal heating… are very tantalizing for Europa. Whether Enceladus is large enough to have those factors is rather questionable,” Boston continued. “Even if life is not there, we could learn a lot about pre-biotic chemistry.”
4: Proxima b
Astronomers gleefully announced the discovery of a potential “second Earth” in August after finding a slight “wobble” of gravity tugging on the star Proxima Centauri, the star closest to Earth second to the sun. This indirect method of detection means scientists don’t currently know if the planet, called “Proxima b,” has an atmosphere or possesses a magnetosphere, but there’s already a lot of speculation about the possibility of life on the planet.
Proxima b is similar to Earth in “size category and location,” Boston noted. “However, there are a lot of differences in its likely potential habitat value. Within the astrobiology community, we’re thinking very broadly about [the] variations in the kind of life we have.” Proxima b is a “real big question mark,” he added. “It is a tantalizing future set of developments, but we certainly don’t have the answers at this point.”
Since Proxima Centauri is seven times smaller than the sun, the planet is likely in the “Goldilocks Zone,” the region around a star that has just the right conditions to find liquid water on a planet’s surface. Proxima b is likely tidally locked around its star, meaning one side of the planet constantly faces the star, while the other side is always dark. This greatly influences the potential for life.
Still, the new world is “probably one of our best targets to explore for signatures of life,” according to scientists who previously spoke to The DCNF.
5: KIC 8462852
Scientists found possible evidence of an extraterrestrial civilization last October, when astronomers with Yale University and other top schools published a study that used NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope to examine the star KIC 8462852. What astronomers found astounded them: the star had light patterns that were consistent with large orbiting masses blocking out some of the star’s light.
“We spent a long time trying to convince ourselves this wasn’t real. We just weren’t able to,” Ben Montet, a Caltech astronomer who co-authored the study, told Gizmodo. “None of the considered phenomena can alone explain the observations.”
The dense formations near KIC 8462852 are eerily similar to “Dyson Spheres,” hypothetical, energy-harvesting megastuctures aliens could build by rearranging their solar system. Scientists have pondered the existence of Dyson Spheres since the 1960s, as they could be a potential solution to energy problems faced by an extremely old civilization. SETI scientists have long argued humans could detect distant alien civilizations by looking for technological artifacts orbiting other stars.
The masses near KIC 8462852 aren’t consistent with its age, leading scientists to believe they appeared around the star fairly recently. KIC 8462852 is only 1,481 light years away from Earth, but is not visible to the naked eye.
Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, is another world which may well be capable of holding life. On its surface lie vast bodies of liquid methane and ethane, which some scientists speculate may take the place of water in living cells.
“Any life system that could have arisen there would have to be extraordinarily different from ours,” Boston noted. “That said, there’s a large amount of organic material there. If we go searching there, that places us in a very different theoretical framework.”
In June 2010, scientists analyzing data from NASA’s Cassini–Huygens mission reported anomalies in the atmosphere near the surface which could have been generated by methane-producing organisms. Liquid water could also be present on Titan below the surface. However, there simply may not be enough energy on Titan to allow any life to exist.
“I think there’s not enough energy on Titan to drive living processes that are like the ones we understand on our planet,” Boston concluded. “The temperature regime and the energy sources available are outside the realms of our kind of life. The liquids there are ethanes.”
This means that if life does exist on Titan, it would be far different from life on Earth.
Recent discoveries of planets outside the solar system drastically increase the likelihood that other technologically advanced civilizations exist. Astronomers currently estimate the odds of humanity being the only civilization in the universe at less than one chance in about “10 billion trillion.”
“There are three ways we might hunt down biology elsewhere in the universe,” Shostak said. “The first, and most obvious, is to simply send men or machines to nearby worlds and look for it. Our robot explorers (and eventually humans) could do reconnaissance on Mars or some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.”
“A second approach is to use large telescopes to look for oxygen or methane in the atmospheres of planets around other stars,” Shostak continued. “We know how to do this, but we don’t really have the necessary hardware yet. The third scheme is to look for radio or laser signals coming from elsewhere that would tell us that there’s intelligent life out there. This is the method used in our SETI experiments.”
Astronomers conclude that the number of advanced alien civilizations in the universe is equal to the number of habitable planets multiplied by the likelihood of a technological species developing on one of these planets. Researchers estimate that there have been roughly 10 billion alien civilizations in the history of the universe.
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