The Search For Aliens Is Very Real

NASA scientists believe we may be just 10 or 20 years from discovering life in outer space. While they may not manifest as the kind of fantastical creatures we see in Star Wars movies, experts are convinced they're out there.

Hello? Is there anybody out there?
Hello? Is there anybody out there?
Michael Locher

MELBOURNE â€" It's unlikely that, somewhere in outer space, there are elaborate species like the ones we see in the Star Wars movies, experts say. But that doesn't mean there's no extra-terrestrial life at all. After all, the universe is huge. Big enough for living creatures of all kinds, if not as fantastical as the ones created by George Lucas & Co.

"Scientists would be truly surprised to find out that our planet is the only one in this galaxy where life has developed," says Daniel Batcheldor, an astrophysicist at the Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Florida.

And it won't take much longer for us to detect what's out there, with NASA experts speculating that 20 to 30 more years is all we'll need. "We know where to look for it, how to look for it, and most of the time, we already have the technical means to do so," says chief NASA scientist Ellen Stofan.

No little green men

Her colleague Jeffrey Newmark agrees. But, he adds, it's not about finding little green men on faraway planets like ours. We're talking more about microbes, miniature organisms. Something to start with, at least.

NASA scientists intensively search for such alien life forms on Mars, a planet where large oceans could once be found. By 2020, a new rover is supposed to retrieve primitive life forms. Astronauts will follow 10 years after that, traveling to space to check personally if something lives there. NASA and and the European Space Agency (ESA) are together preparing the biggest challenge for crewed spaceflight. Orion, the future Mars space shuttle, will take off for its first test flights in 2017 or 2018.

NASA'S Orion space shuttle â€" Source: NASA

Going to Mars is also a project of entrepreneur Elon Musk. The American billionaire and his Los Angeles-based company SpaceX are planning to populate the Red Planet with the help of its own super rocket. Musk believes a durably habitable base in outer space would represent a kind of "backup" for human life. No matter whether there is already life inhabiting the planet.

Organic life on Ganymede

Mars isn't the only focus of the research. The German Aerospace Center in Berlin-Adlershof is one the world's leading research institutes on distant orbs. The scientists there are confident that at least the simplest life forms will soon be discovered, potentially on the Jupiter moons Europa or Ganymede.

"Those orbs do have an ice crust due to their long distance from the sun, but with the creation of heat from the inside â€" through tide friction or the decay of radioactive elements â€" liquid oceans might exist beneath that ice crust," says German scientist Uli Köhler. He suspects the moon Europa has an ocean that contains more water than what can be found on planet Earth.

And then there are the exoplanets. Since 1995, we've known that there are planets orbiting other stars too. Almost 2,000 so-called extra solar planets have been discovered. But so far, no second Earth, with solid ground, oceans and a suitable atmosphere, has been discovered.

Another planet Earth?

Things can change. Considering the numerous exoplanets, it's probably only a matter of time until the first Earth-like planet is discovered. And yet there's no guarantee of finding life there. All in all, most experts consider it most likely that there are multiple planets with life outside of our solar system.

Artist's view of planets orbiting stars in the Milky Way â€" Source: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Work has just started for the German scientists. "The search for life on other planets is one of the big questions of today's applied science," says Köhler. "If it could be answered with a "yes," our sense of self, and our role in the universe, would drastically change."

In addition to planetary scientists, there are other teams waiting for radio signals from outer space. At SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence in Mountain View, California, experts are not looking for biological proof, but instead radio communication.

Scientists are scanning the universe for electromagnetic signals with structures that might indicate intelligent senders. They are not expecting "digital postcards" from aliens, but rather small signals that might have an artificial origin, says SETI scientist Nathalie Cabrol. The waves of earthly TV-senders can still be intercepted far away in the universe, for instance.

On Aug. 15, 1977, mysterious radio signals coming from the stellar constellation Sagittarius were detected. Several other pulsating signals a billion light years away still can't be explained. The radiation, often lasting not more that milliseconds, tell us simply that something has happened that involved strong magnetic fields, discharging a lot of energy. It's not very likely, though, that extra-terrestrial neighbors are at their origin.

"We have sent signals"

Ex-astronaut John Grunsfeld believes that the "others" are more intelligent than we are. "If aliens are out there, they already know about us," he says. After all, humanity has made sure to be noticed. "We have sent out signals in the atmosphere. We make sure someone with a huge telescope can find us, even 20 light-years away."

That's why it's especially important for humans to be prepared. We should consider what humanity wants to be known for, warns SETI's Douglas Vakoch â€" even before any contact happens. How we would want to present ourselves has already been on the agenda of a general meeting of the United Nations. In 1978, there was even the suggestion that the UN form a special unit for this purpose. But it never happened.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020


Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!