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.
MELBOURNE — 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.
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NASA'S Orion space shuttle — 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 — through tide friction or the decay of radioactive elements — 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.
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Artist's view of planets orbiting stars in the Milky Way — 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 — 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.