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.“
New species of crested dinosaur identified in Mexico
A team of palaeontologists in Mexico have identified a new species of dinosaur after finding its 72 million-year-old fossilized remains almost a decade ago, Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) said on Thursday.
The new species, named Tlatolophus galorum, was identified as a crested dinosaur after 80% of its skull was recovered, allowing experts to compare it to other dinosaurs of that type, INAH said.
The investigation, which also included specialists from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, began in 2013 with the discovery of an articulated tail in the north-central Mexican state of Coahuila, where other discoveries have been made.
“Once we recovered the tail, we continued digging below where it was located. The surprise was that we began to find bones such as the femur, the scapula and other elements,” said Alejandro Ramírez, a scientist involved in the discovery.
Later, the scientists were able to collect, clean and analyze other bone fragments from the front part of the dinosaur’s body.
The palaeontologists had in their possession the crest of the dinosaur, which was 1.32 meters long, as well as other parts of the skull: lower and upper jaws, palate and even a part known as the neurocranium, where the brain was housed, INAH said.
The Mexican anthropology body also explained the meaning of the name – Tlatolophus galorum – for the new species of dinosaur.
Tlatolophus is a mixture of two words, putting together a term from the indigenous Mexican language of Nahuatl that means “word” with the Greek term meaning “crest”. Galorum refers to the people linked to the research, INAH said.
(Reporting by Abraham Gonzalez; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Ana Nicolaci da Costa)
Alberta family searches for answers in teen's sudden death after COVID exposure, negative tests – CBC.ca
A southern Alberta mother and father are grappling with the sudden, unexplained death of their 17-year-old daughter, and with few answers, they’re left wondering if she could be the province’s youngest victim of COVID-19.
Sarah Strate — a healthy, active Grade 12 student at Magrath High School who loved singing, dancing and being outdoors — died on Monday, less than a week after being notified she’d been exposed to COVID-19.
While two tests came back negative, her parents say other signs point to the coronavirus, and they’re waiting for more answers.
“It was so fast. It’s all still such a shock,” said Sarah’s mother, Kristine Strate. “She never even coughed. She had a sore throat and her ears were sore for a while, and [she had] swollen neck glands.”
Kristine said Sarah developed mild symptoms shortly after her older sister — who later tested positive for COVID-19 — visited from Lethbridge, one of Alberta’s current hot spots for the virus.
The family went into isolation at their home in Magrath on Tuesday, April 20. They were swabbed the next day and the results were negative.
‘Everything went south, super-fast’
By Friday night, Sarah had developed fever and chills. On Saturday, she started vomiting and Kristine, a public health nurse, tried to keep her hydrated.
“She woke up feeling a bit more off on Monday morning,” Kristine said. “And everything went south, super-fast.”
Sarah had grown very weak and her parents decided to call 911 when she appeared to become delirious.
“She had her blanket on and I was talking to her and, in an instant, she was unresponsive,” said Kristine, who immediately started performing CPR on her daughter.
When paramedics arrived 20 minutes later, they were able to restore a heartbeat and rushed Sarah to hospital in Lethbridge, where she died.
“I thought there was hope once we got her heart rate back. I really did,” recalled Sarah’s father, Ron.
“He was praying for a miracle, and sometimes miracles don’t come,” said Kristine.
Searching for answers
At the hospital, the family was told Sarah’s lungs were severely infected and that she may have ended up with blood clots in both her heart and lungs, a condition that can be a complication of COVID-19.
But a second test at the hospital came back negative for COVID-19.
“There really is no other answer,” Ron said. “When a healthy 17-year-old girl, who was sitting up in her bed and was able to talk, and within 10 minutes is unconscious on our floor — there was no reason [for it].”
The province currently has no record of any Albertans under the age of 20 who have died of COVID-19.
According to the Strate family, the medical examiner is running additional blood and tissue tests, in an effort to uncover the cause of Sarah’s death.
‘Unusual but not impossible’
University of Alberta infectious disease specialist Dr. Lynora Saxinger, who was not involved in Sarah’s treatment, says it is conceivable that further testing could uncover evidence of a COVID-19 infection, despite two negative test results.
However, she hasn’t seen a similar case in Alberta.
“It would be unusual but not impossible because no test is perfect. We have had cases where an initial test is negative and then if you keep on thinking it’s COVID and you re-test, you then can find COVID,” she said.
According to Saxinger, the rate of false negatives is believed to be very low. But it can happen if there are problems with the testing or specimen collection.
She says people are more likely to test positive after symptoms develop.
“The best sensitivity of the test is around day four or five of having symptoms,” she said. “So you can miss things if you test very, very early. And with new development of symptoms, it’s always a good time to re-test because then the likelihood of getting a positive test is a little higher. But again, no test is perfect.”
Sarah deteriorated so quickly — dying five days after she first developed symptoms — she didn’t live long enough to make it to her follow-up COVID-19 test. Instead, it was done at the hospital.
‘An amazing kid’
The Strate family now faces an agonizing wait for answers — one that will likely take months — about what caused Sarah’s death.
But Ron, who teaches at the school where Sarah attended Grade 12, wants his daughter to be remembered for the life she lived, not her death.
Sarah was one of five children. Ron says she was strong, active and vibrant and had plans to become a massage therapist after graduating from high school.
She played several sports and loved to sing and dance as part of a show choir. She was a leader in the school’s suicide prevention group and would stand up for other students who were facing bullying.
“She’s one of the leaders in our Hope Squad … which goes out and helps kids to not be scared,” he father said.
“She’s an amazing kid.”
Sarah would often spend hours helping struggling classmates, and her parents hope her kindness is not forgotten.
“She’d done so many good things. Honestly, I’ve got so many messages from parents saying, ‘You have no idea how much your daughter helped our kid,'” said Ron.
“This 17-year-old girl probably lived more of a life in 17 years than most adults will live in their whole lives. She was so special. I love her so much.”
China launches key module of space station planned for 2022
BEIJING (Reuters) -China launched an unmanned module on Thursday containing what will become living quarters for three crew on a permanent space station that it plans to complete by the end of 2022, state media reported.
The module, named “Tianhe”, or “Harmony of the Heavens”, was launched on the Long March 5B, China’s largest carrier rocket, at 11:23 a.m. (0323 GMT) from the Wenchang Space Launch Centre on the southern island of Hainan.
Tianhe is one of three main components of what would be China’s first self-developed space station, rivalling the only other station in service – the International Space Station (ISS).
The ISS is backed by the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada. China was barred from participating by the United States.
“(Tianhe) is an important pilot project in the building of a powerful nation in both technology and in space,” state media quoted President Xi Jinping as saying in a congratulatory speech.
Tianhe forms the main living quarters for three crew members in the Chinese space station, which will have a life span of at least 10 years.
The Tianhe launch was the first of 11 missions needed to complete the space station, which will orbit Earth at an altitude of 340 to 450 km (211-280 miles).
In the later missions, China will launch the two other core modules, four manned spacecraft and four cargo spacecraft.
Work on the space station programme began a decade ago with the launch of a space lab Tiangong-1 in 2011, and later, Tiangong-2 in 2016.
Both helped China test the programme’s space rendezvous and docking capabilities.
China aims to become a major space power by 2030. It has ramped up its space programme with visits to the moon, the launch of an uncrewed probe to Mars and the construction of its own space station.
In contrast, the fate of the ageing ISS – in orbit for more than two decades – remains uncertain.
The project is set to expire in 2024, barring funding from its partners. Russia said this month that it would quit the project from 2025.
Russia is deepening ties with China in space as tensions with Washington rise.
Moscow has slammed the U.S.-led Artemis moon exploration programme and instead chosen to join Beijing in setting up a lunar research outpost in the coming years.
(Reporting by Ryan Woo and Liangping Gao; Editing by Christian Schmollinger, Simon Cameron-Moore and Lincoln Feast.)
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