The search for alien life is on
By Jennifer Abbasi: New missions and discoveries on Earth, within our solar system and beyond are bringing us closer than ever to finding alien life on other planets
“The genesis of life is as inevitable as the formation of atoms,” is how Andrei Finkelstein, the director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’s Applied Astronomy Institute, explained his ambitious timeline for finding alien life to an audience of astrobiologists and reporters in June. “There is life on other planets, and we will find it in 20 years.”
But Tullis Onstott, a geologist at Princeton University who specializes in astrobiology, makes an even more ambitious prediction. “In the next 15 years,” he says, “we will likely discover life on an exoplanet near us.” Scientists have long predicted the discovery of extraterrestrial life, but Finkelstein and Onstott have good reason to be optimistic. Researchers are devoting more resources to the search for alien life than ever before, and they are getting some enticing results.
Since 1996, when NASA created its current astrobiology program, the agency has increased the annual budget from $10 million to $55 million. In that same period, the overall number of astrobiologists increased to a few thousand worldwide, and the number of papers they published rose from around 40 to nearly 3,000. Informed by such work, NASA has planned a full slate of search-for-life missions for the next two decades. This year, scientists using data from the Kepler space telescope have found evidence of more than 1,200 new exoplanets, 54 of them potentially habitable, and this fall, NASA will send a rover to Mars to search for the chemical signatures of life. In 2018, it plans to send another rover to Mars—one that will eventually provide soil samples that return to Earth.
Scientists have also outlined a two-craft mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, and they are designing new telescopes, more sophisticated than Kepler, that could look into distant star systems to spot signs of life directly. What we’ll find remains a mystery, of course, but the way we’ll find it is well mapped out.
The first work starts here at home. By studying life that exists in extreme environments, scientists are learning a great deal about how and where to look for it on other planets. Researchers have found microbes in volcanic calderas, deep ocean vents and arsenic-laden lakes [see “Scientist in a Strange Land,”], and the existence of these “extremophile” life-forms has redefined the concept of habitability on this planet and elsewhere. READ FULL ARTICLE