Many NASA scientists think we’re on the verge of finding alien life.
That’s because the agency plans to dramatically ramp up its search for signs of extraterrestrial life in the next 10 years – in ancient Martian rock, hidden oceans on moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and the atmospheres of faraway planets orbiting other stars.
„With all of this activity related to the search for life, in so many different areas, we are on the verge of one of the most profound discoveries ever,“ Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s former administrator, told Congress in 2017.
Ellen Stofan, NASA’s former chief scientist, said in 2015 that she believes we’ll get „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,“ she added, according to the LA Times.
Here’s how NASA plans to track down alien life – in our solar system and beyond.
We’re closer to finding alien life than we’ve ever been.
Foto: Astronaut Scott Kelly took this photo of Japan from the International Space Station and posted it to Twitter on July 25, 2015.sourceNASA/Scott Kelly
„I can’t believe we are the only living entity in the universe,“ astrophysicist and Nobel Prize winner Dider Queloz said during a talk in October. „There are just way too many planets, way too many stars, and the chemistry is universal. The chemistry that led to life has to happen elsewhere.“
Many astrophysicists and astronomers are convinced that it’s not a matter of if we’ll find life – it’s when.
Mars is the closest place where NASA could find signs of alien life.
Foto: A mosaic image of Mars produced with about 100 images from the Viking orbiter.sourceNASA
It’s unlikely that any life is currently thriving on Mars. But scientists think the planet may have hosted life long ago, when it had an atmosphere as thick as Earth’s, which would have kept the Martian surface warm enough to hold liquid water.
In September, NASA chief scientist Jim Green said two rovers set to launch to Mars next year are likely to help scientists find clues about life on the red planet.
Foto: Jim Green gives opening remarks at a NASA media briefing about a Mars-bound spacecraft, September 17, 2014.sourceNASA/Bill Ingalls
He was referring to the Mars 2020 rover, which will look for alien fossils on the red planet, and a similar rover that the European Space Agency is planning to launch in the spring.
„I think we’re close to finding it, and making some announcements,“ he told The Telegraph. Green later clarified that he didn’t mean NASA had already found life.
„What we have are missions that we’re going to launch that will look for life,“ he told Gizmodo.
The Mars 2020 rover will search for signs of ancient microbial life and test out technology that could pave the way for humans to walk the Martian surface.
Foto: Members of NASA’s Mars 2020 project take a selfie after attaching the remote sensing mast to the rover, June 5, 2019.sourceNASA/JPL-Caltech
The robot is slated to launch in July 2020. If all goes according to plan, both rovers will reach Mars in 2021.
It will drill into Martian rock, collect samples, and stash them for future transport back to Earth.
Foto: An artist concept of the proposed NASA Mars Sample Return mission shows the launch of a Martian sample back toward Earth.sourceNASA/JPL-Caltech
„I’m excited about these missions because they have the opportunity to find life, they really do, and I want them to,“ Green told The Telegraph. „We’ve never drilled that deep down. When environments get extreme, life moves into the rocks.“
Beyond Mars, the best place to look for life in our solar system is the hidden ocean on an icy moon of Jupiter called Europa.
Foto: Half of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa as seen via images taken by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s.sourceNASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute
When Galileo Galilei first looked at Jupiter through his homemade telescope in 1610, he spotted four moons circling the planet. Nearly 400 years later, NASA’s Galileo mission found evidence that one of those moons, Europa, conceals a vast ocean of liquid water beneath its icy crust.
Life could arise around deep-sea volcanic vents in this subsurface ocean.
Foto: An illustration of a submersible robot exploring the subsurface ocean of an icy moon.sourceUploaded by ANGELUS on Wikipedia
On Earth, such vents produce intense heat that rips apart molecules and sparks chemical reactions. Microbes convert the resulting hydrogen into sugar. Rather than photosynthesis (which is fueled by light), this process of „chemosynthesis“ uses chemical reactions, so ecosystems can emerge without sunlight.
NASA is planning to take a closer look at that ocean with the Europa Clipper mission, which could launch as early as 2023.
Foto: An artist’s rendering of NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft.sourceNASA/JPL-Caltech
The spacecraft will fly by Europa 45 times, getting as close at 16 miles above the moon’s surface.
„We have gone in nuclear cesspools, places where you’d think nothing could survive, and they are full of life,“ Green told The Telegraph. „The bottom line is where there is water, there is life.“
The Clipper spacecraft is expected to fly through Europa’s water vapor plumes to analyze what might be in the ocean below.
Foto: An illustration shows a plume of subsurface ocean water vapor escaping through a crack in the icy crust of Europa.sourceNASA/ESA/K. Retherford/SWRI
Radar tools will also measure the thickness of the ice and scan for subsurface water.
That investigation could inform work on a future NASA mission to land a spacecraft on Europa’s surface and punch through the ice.
Foto: An artist’s rendering illustrates a conceptual design for a potential future mission to land a robotic probe on the surface of Europa.sourceNASA/JPL-Caltech
The future lander could search for signs of life in the ocean below, digging 4 inches below Europa’s surface to extract samples for analysis in a mini, on-the-go laboratory.
A nuclear-powered helicopter called Dragonfly will take the search for aliens one planet further, to Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.
Foto: Dragonfly will visit multiple locations on Titan, some hundreds of miles apart.sourceNASA
Getting to the distant, cold moon is not easy – Saturn only gets about 1% of the sunlight that bathes Earth, so a spacecraft can’t rely on solar energy. Instead, Dragonfly will propel itself using the heat of decaying plutonium.
NASA plans to launch the spacecraft in 2026, so it will arrive at Titan in 2034.
Titan is a world with water ice, liquid methane pools, and a thick nitrogen atmosphere. That makes it a contender for alien life.
Foto: A near-infrared, color mosaic from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft shows the sun glinting off of Titan’s north polar seas.sourceNASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. Arizona/Univ. Idaho
Titan somewhat resembles early Earth, since it has carbon-rich organic materials like methane and ethane.
„On Titan you substitute methane for the water, so you will have a different type of life, a new set of chemicals that would compose a new type of DNA,“ Green told The Telegraph. „It really would be weird.“
What’s more, scientists suspect that an ocean of liquid water might lurk 60 miles below the ice.
NASA’s search extends beyond our solar system as well. A series of telescopes will hunt down signs of life on distant planets that circle other stars.
Foto: An illustration of NASA’s Kepler space telescope.sourceNASA
Thanks to new technology like the Kepler space telescope, scientists have identified over 4,000 exoplanets – the term for planets outside our solar system.
Kepler retired last year after it ran out of fuel, but it passed the planet-hunting torch to the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which launched in April 2018.
TESS will continue scanning the skies through 2022. Astronomers have predicted that the telescope will find dozens of Earth-sized planets and around 500 that are less than twice Earth’s size. Those are the best candidates for alien life.
NASA is also building two new telescopes to expand this search.
Foto: Ball Aerospace optical technician Scott Murray inspects the first gold primary mirror segment, a critical element of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.sourceNASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham
The two telescopes – the James Webb Space Telescope and the Wide Field InfraRed Survey Telescope – will hunt for new planets orbiting distant stars and scan them for signs of life.
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will look for signs of alien life in the atmospheres of exoplanets.
Foto: The primary mirror of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, consisting of 18 hexagonal mirrors, at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, October 28, 2016.sourceNASA/Chris Gunn
The telescope is fully assembled and now faces a long testing process in Northrop Grumman’s California facilities before its launch date on March 30, 2021.
Finding exoplanets with atmospheres and determining which gases make up those atmospheres is a crucial step in pinpointing places we might find alien life.
Foto: An image taken from the International Space Station shows the layers of Earth’s atmosphere.sourceNASA/Marshall Space Flight Center
That’s because an atmosphere keeps a planet’s surface warm enough to hold liquid water and protects it from its star’s radiation. Life on Earth would not be possible without our atmosphere, which also provides many of the chemicals essential to life, like carbon and nitrogen.
JWST could sense warmth, thereby identifying planets with heat-trapping atmospheres, after just a few hours of watching them orbit their stars.
By measuring the intensity of star light passing through a planet’s atmosphere, JWST could also calculate the composition of that atmosphere.
Foto: An artist’s impression of the planet K2-18b, its host star, and an accompanying planet in the system. Scientists detected water vapor in the atmosphere of K2-18b in September 2019.sourceESA/Hubble, M. Kornmesser
JWST’s 21-foot-wide beryllium mirror and new infrared technology will enable it to distinguish between different molecules in the atmospheres of faraway planets.
In certain combinations of these molecules, the telescope could detect signs of life, also known as „biosignatures.“
If an exoplanet’s atmosphere contains both methane and carbon dioxide, for example, those are clues that there could be life.
Foto: An imagined view from the surface of a planet that orbits an ultracool dwarf star 40 light-years from Earth. The system was discovered using the TRAPPIST telescope at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla Observatory.sourceESO/M. Kornmesser
Earth’s atmosphere has a lot of oxygen because life has been producing it for billions of years. Large amounts of oxygen aren’t stable enough to last long on their own, so the gas must be constantly produced in order to be abundant.
A combination of carbon dioxide and methane (like in Earth’s atmosphere) can be even more telling, since carbon dioxide and methane would normally react with each other to produce new compounds. So if they exist separately, something is probably constantly producing them. That something could be a volcano, but as far as we know, only a lifeform could release that much methane without also belching out carbon monoxide.
JWST will look for clues like that.
One of the first places JWST will search for signs of life is the TRAPPIST-1 system, just 39 light-years away.
Foto: An artist’s impression of the TRAPPIST-1 system, showcasing all seven planets in various phases.sourceNASA
TRAPPIST-1 is a tiny M dwarf star (the most common type of star in the universe) that’s just slightly larger than Jupiter, though much more massive. In its orbit are seven planets about the size of Earth.
Three of them – called TRAPPIST-1 e, f, and g – are in the star’s habitable zone, so they could be warm enough for liquid water to exist.
NASA’s Wide Field InfraRed Survey Telescope (WFIRST) could identify about 2,600 new exoplanets.
Foto: Dave Sime works on the WFIRST primary mirror.sourceHarris Corporation / TJT Photography
The agency plans to launch WFIRST into orbit in the mid-2020s. Over its five-year lifetime, the space telescope will measure light from a billion galaxies and survey the inner Milky Way.
While all these efforts are underway, other scientists will spend the next decade building a new generation of telescopes to search for life on more distant, smaller planets.
Foto: The design for the LUVOIR telescope. If NASA approves it, LUVOIR could block out distant stars‘ light enough to examine the Earth-sized planets circling them.sourceNASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
The proposed LUVOIR telescope, for example, could image 50 Earth-sized exoplanets over four years, studying their atmospheres, seasons, and even surfaces. If chosen for funding and construction, it would launch in the 2030s.
„There’s high confidence that once we build these instruments, we’ll be able to find signatures of life if they’re out there,“ NASA scientist Jessie Christiansen told Business Insider. „I would be surprised if we don’t find something.“
NASA Declares The Mars InSight Digger Dead After Two Years! – Mashable India
NASA announced on Thursday that a “mole” on Mars has ended its mission after landing on the Red Planet nearly two years ago.
The mole — also called a digger, drill, and probe — was built by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and deployed by NASA’s InSight lander. Its purpose was to drill 16 feet into Martian soil to take its temperature and…well, it never managed to do that.
The digger had drilled down merely 14 inches before getting stuck in the first month of its mission. Months later in Oct. 2019, NASA engineers made a plan to put the digger back on track by using a robotic scoop to help refill the 14 inches and support the digger in its next attempt at burrowing down 16 feet. The team at NASA was confident that the probe was finally ready to go, but they were wrong.
NASA’s next idea, in Feb. 2020, was to direct the InSight lander to push on the probe with its robotic arm.
That didn’t work, either. After attempting to use the scoop on InSight’s robotic arm once again on Jan. 9, 2021, the probe made 500 additional hammer strokes with no progress. At that point, the team declared the probe dead.
“We’ve given it everything we’ve got, but Mars and our heroic mole remain incompatible,” said DLR’s Tilman Spohn in NASA’s announcement.
There is good news, however. Spohn said that the work on this probe will benefit future missions, as they’ve learned a lot about the surface of Mars.
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA’s Washington headquarters, said he was proud of the mission’s team — and that their work was purposeful. “This is why we take risks at NASA — we have to push the limits of technology to learn what works and what doesn’t,” he said.
“In that sense, we’ve been successful: We’ve learned a lot that will benefit future missions to Mars and elsewhere,” Zurbuchen continued, “and we thank our German partners from DLR for providing this instrument and for their collaboration.”
Study highlights human activity in Tanzania 2 million years ago – SlashGear
A new study was recently published by principal investigators from Canada and Tanzania working with partners in Africa, North America, and Europe. The entire team is working together to describe a large assemblage of stone tools, fossil bones, and chemical proxies obtained from dental and plant materials. Researchers on the study also examined tiny microscopic bits of silica left by plants, ancient pollen, and airborne charcoal resulting from natural fires retrieved from an ancient riverbed and Lake outcrops on the Serengeti plains.
Scientists say that the data gathered presents the earliest evidence for human activity in the Olduvai Gorge, dating back to about 2 million years ago. Researchers say their study is an important step in filling the gap between fossils and environmental context, and cultural items left by extinct humans. The data used in the study was obtained during a survey of an unexplored western portion of the ancient basin in a locality called Ewass Oldupa.
Stone tools were uncovered at the site belonging to a culture identified by archaeologists as Oldowan. The discovery shows that ancient humans were using tools millions of years ago. Concentrations of both stone tools and animal fossils showed that humans and fauna were gathering around water sources. The study found that early humans carried rocks with them that they used as tools that were obtained from distant sources across the basin at a distance of 12 kilometers east.
These ancient humans also have the flexibility to survive in changing environments. Research showed that humans continued to come to Ewass Oldupa to use local resources for over 200,000 years despite significant and rapid changes to the landscape. Artifacts discovered at the site are dated to the Early Pleistocene era about 2 million years ago. Researchers note that it’s not clear which species made the tools, and no hominid fossils were discovered in the study. However, younger sediments from a site 350 meters away did have Homo habilis fossils.
NASA Test of Mega Moon Rocket Engines Cut Short Unexpectedly – Gadgets 360
NASA’s deep space exploration rocket built by Boeing briefly ignited all four engines of its behemoth core stage for the first time on Saturday, cutting short a crucial test to advance a years-delayed US government programme to return humans to the moon in the next few years.
Mounted in a test facility at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, the Space Launch System’s (SLS) 212-foot tall core stage roared to life at 4:27pm local time (3:57am IST) for just over a minute — well short of the roughly four minutes engineers needed to stay on track for the rocket’s first launch in November this year.
“Today was a good day,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said at a press conference after the test, adding “we got lots of data that we’re going to be able to sort through” to determine if a do-over is needed and whether a November 2021 debut launch date is still possible.
The engine test, the last leg of NASA’s nearly year-long “Green Run” test campaign, was a vital step for the space agency and its top SLS contractor Boeing before a debut unmanned launch later this year under NASA’s Artemis programme, the Trump administration’s push to return US astronauts to the moon by 2024.
It was unclear whether Boeing and NASA would have to repeat the test, a prospect that could push the debut launch into 2022. NASA’s SLS program manager John Honeycutt, cautioning the data review from the test is ongoing, told reporters the turnaround time for another hot fire test could be roughly one month.
To simulate internal conditions of a real liftoff, the rocket’s four Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 engines ignited for roughly one minute and 15 seconds, generating 1.6 million pounds of thrust and consuming 700,000 gallons of propellants on NASA’s largest test stand, a massive facility towering 35 stories tall.
The expendable super heavy-lift SLS is three years behind schedule and nearly $3 billion (roughly Rs. 22,000 crores) over budget. Critics have long argued for NASA to retire the rocket’s shuttle-era core technologies, which have launch costs of $1 billion (roughly Rs. 7,300 crores) or more per mission, in favor of newer commercial alternatives that promise lower costs.
By comparison, it costs as little as $90 million to fly the massive but less powerful Falcon Heavy rocket designed and manufactured by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and some $350 million (roughly Rs. 2,600 crores) per launch for United Launch Alliance’s legacy Delta IV Heavy.
While newer, more reusable rockets from both companies – SpaceX’s Starship and United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan – promise heavier lift capacity than the Falcon Heavy or Delta IV Heavy potentially at lower cost, SLS backers argue it would take two or more launches on those rockets to launch what the SLS could carry in a single mission.
Reuters reported in October that President-elect Joe Biden’s space advisers aim to delay Trump’s 2024 goal, casting fresh doubts on the long-term fate of SLS just as SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin scramble to bring rival new heavy-lift capacity to market.
NASA and Boeing engineers have stayed on a ten-month schedule for the Green Run “despite having significant adversity this year,” Boeing’s SLS manager John Shannon told reporters this week, citing five tropical storms and a hurricane that hit Stennis, as well as a three-month closure after some engineers tested positive for the coronavirus in March.
© Thomson Reuters 2020
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