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.“
Misconceptions about science fuel pandemic debates and controversies, says Neil deGrasse Tyson – CBC.ca
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says some of the bitter arguments about medicine and science during the COVID-19 pandemic can be blamed on a fundamental misunderstanding of science.
“People were unwittingly witnessing science at its very best.… [They said,] ‘You told me not to wear a mask a month ago and now you tell me [to] wear it.… You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ Yes, we do,” the American astrophysicist and author told The Sunday Magazine host Piya Chattopadhyay.
“Science is a means of querying nature. And when we have enough experiments and enough observations, only then can we say: This is how nature behaves, whether you like it or not. And that is when science contributes to what is to what is objectively true in the world.”
Tyson, who is also the director at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, is doing his part to try to make his corner of the scientific world more accessible with his new book A Brief Welcome to the Universe, co-authored with Michael A. Strauss and J. Richard Gott.
He hopes readers can take those lessons to other scientific topics, including the COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen several controversies flourish about the nature of the virus and the measures developed to fight it.
Misconceptions about how science works stems in part, he said, from the fact that it’s often improperly taught at the earliest levels of education.
“People think science is the answer. ‘Oh, give me the answer. You’re a scientist. What’s the answer?’ And then I say things like: ‘We actually don’t have an answer to that.’ And people get upset. They even get angry. ‘You’re a scientist. You should know,'” he explained.
“What’s not taught in school is that science is a way of learning what is and is not true. The scientific method is a way of ensuring that your own bias does not leave you thinking something is true that is not, or that something is not true that is.”
Big universe, simple language
A Brief Welcome to the Universe is billed as an approachable “pocket-sized tour” of the cosmos, answering such questions as “How do stars live and die?” and “How did the universe begin?”
It’s a condensed version of the 2016 edition of the book, Welcome to the Universe: An Astrophysical Tour.
Tyson and his co-authors argue in the book that astrophysics uses simpler language than other scientific disciplines, which makes it a good starting point to learn about science.
“I don’t simplify the origin of the universe and then call it ‘The Big Bang’ to you. We call it that to each other,” said Tyson. The same goes for well-known phenomena like black holes, sunspots and the planet Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, he added.
Start with those, and then you can move onto other topics, some with more complex names — such as the Coriolis force, which, among other things, explains how the Earth’s rotation subtly affects the way a football travels in the air during a field kick.
“There are simple things in science. And if you’re interested, you can then go out and learn the complex things. But I’m not going to lead with the complex things. What good is that? That never solved anything,” he said.
Many people likely know Tyson from his appearances on American talk shows, often critiquing or debunking questionable science seen in movies and other pop culture. He’s commented on everything from the feasibility of resurrecting dinosaurs, like in Jurassic Park, to the improper night-sky backdrop in the final scenes of Titanic.
He also talks about science on his podcast StarTalk, as well as on a National Geographic TV show of the same name and another show called Cosmos.
Tyson was temporarily removed from both programs in late 2018, after accusations of sexual misconduct from two women, which he denied. Following an investigation, in early 2019, National Geographic and Fox reinstated Tyson on their shows. They did not address the allegations in their statement announcing the decision.
Perhaps none of the topics Tyson is known for speaking about has sparked more discussion than Pluto, the former ninth planet.
“Oh, don’t get me started,” Tyson responded immediately upon mention of the icy celestial body, which was demoted from planet to dwarf planet status in 2006 by the International Astronomical Union.
The term “dwarf planet” is relatively new. It grouped Pluto, which was originally discovered in 1930, with a number of other icy bodies larger than an asteroid but smaller in size and mass to rocky planets closer to the Sun, including the Earth.
“The word planet really should be discarded,” he said. “Because if I say I discovered a planet orbiting a star, you have to ask me 20 more questions to get any understanding of what the hell the thing is.”
The word “planet” comes from the Greek planetes, meaning “wanderer.” In ancient times, that included Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, but also the moon and the sun. Earth wasn’t considered a planet, because it was believed to be the unmoving centre of the known universe.
Over time, the scientific method progressed beyond that: the Earth is a planet that orbits the sun, which is a star. We now know our moon is one of at least 200 moons in the solar system.
To Tyson, Pluto’s reclassification represents the next step in our evolving understanding of the cosmos, which has necessarily become more complex.
It also illustrates a broadening of our scientific horizons that ancient civilizations might have never contemplated.
That’s why when Tyson was asked how to best answer a child’s question about things we do not know, such as “how big is the universe,” he said the best thing we can say is that we do not know.
“That is one of the greatest answers you can ever give someone — because it leaves them wanting for more. And they might one day be the person who discovers what the answer will be.”
Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Sarah-Joyce Battersby.
2.8-pound meteorite from space crashes roof of Canadian woman’s home, falls on bed – The Tribune India
Tribune Web Desk
Chandigarh, October 16
Ruth Hamilton (66) had a disturbed awakening on October 3 when a large meteorite plunged from space, through her roof and landed in her bed.
Ruth, resident of Golden, British Columbia, woke up to the sound of a crash and her dog barking on October 3 around 11.35 pm.
Speaking with Canadian Press, she said: “I’ve never been so scared in my life, adding that, “I wasn’t sure what to do so I called 911 and, when I was speaking with the operator, I flipped over my pillow and saw that a rock had slipped between two pillows.”
She told CTV News: “I didn’t feel it.”
“It never touched me. I had debris on my face from the drywall, but not a single scratch.”
A police officer arrived on the scene, but suspected the object that landed in Hamilton’s bed was from a nearby construction site.
“He called the [construction site] and they said they hadn’t done a blast but that they had seen an explosion in the sky and, right then and there, we realised it was a meteorite,” she told the Canadian Press.
It turns out that the 2.8-pound space rock, about the size of a small cabbage, was part of a meteor shower identified by Alan Hildebrand, a planetary scientist in the Department of Geoscience at the University of Calgary, and his colleagues.
The group said the trajectory of the meteorite that hit Hamilton’s house would have made it visible throughout southeastern British Columbia and central and southern Alberta.
NASA to launch first space probe to study Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids
NASA is set on Saturday to launch a first-of-its kind mission, dubbed Lucy, to study Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids, two large clusters of space rocks that scientists believe are remnants of primordial material that formed the solar system’s outer planets.
The space probe, packed inside a special cargo capsule, is due for liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 5:34 a.m. EDT (0934 GMT), carried aloft by an Atlas V rocket from United Launch Alliance (UAL), a joint venture of Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin Corp.
If all goes according to plan, Lucy will be hurled into space on a 12-year expedition to study a record number of asteroids. It will be the first to explore the Trojans, thousands of rocky objects orbiting the sun in two swarms – one ahead of the path of giant gas planet Jupiter and one behind it.
The largest known Trojan asteroids, named for the warriors of Greek mythology, are believed to measure as much as 225 kilometers (140 miles) in diameter.
Scientists hope Lucy’s close-up fly-by of seven Trojans will yield new clues to how the solar system’s planets came to be formed some 4.5 billion years ago and what shaped their present configuration.
Believed to be rich in carbon compounds, the asteroids may even provide new insights into the origin of organic materials and life on Earth, NASA said.
“The Trojan asteroids are leftovers from the early days of our solar system, effectively the fossils of planet formation,” principal mission investigator Harold Levison of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, was quoted by NASA as saying.
No other single science mission has been designed to visit as many different objects independently orbiting the sun in the history of space exploration, NASA said.
As well as the Trojans, Lucy will do a fly-by of an asteroid in the solar system’s main asteroid belt, called DonaldJohanson in honor of the lead discoverer of the fossilized human ancestor known as Lucy, from which the NASA mission takes its name. The Lucy fossil, unearthed in Ethiopia in 1974, was in turn named for the Beatles hit “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”
Lucy the asteroid probe will make spaceflight history in another way. Following a route that circles back to Earth three times for gravitational assists, it will be the first spacecraft ever to return to Earth’s vicinity from the outer solar system, according to NASA.
The probe will use rocket thrusters to maneuver in space and two rounded solar arrays, each the width of a school bus, to recharge batteries that will power the instruments contained in the much smaller central body of the spacecraft.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)
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