By: Eileen Marable
NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan thinks so. "I think within a decade, we're going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth, and I think we're going to have definitive evidence within 20 to 30 years," she said Tuesday during a panel event on water in the universe.
That’s a thought provoking statement! Why would she make this announcement during a panel on water? NASA has long been searching for the evidence of water in the universe and is announcing new missions to discover and understand how water is distributed in the universe. With this announcement, it is no surprise the topic turns to finding life beyond Earth. The discovery of water on other planets and exoplanets is one strong indicator that alien life could be found there, as in many cases it is a building block for known life forms.
Stofan isn’t the only one who believes the pace at which we are unlocking new understanding about the universe will reveal alien life.
"It's definitely not an if, it's a when," said Jeffery Newmark, NASA's interim director of heliophysics.
Information coming back from NASA missions has shown the atmospheres and interiors of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are thought to contain enormous quantities of water. Even the five icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn show evidence of there may be oceans beneath their icy surfaces. As we probe further in the universe we are finding more evidence of the water and the elements of water, hydrogen and oxygen everywhere and in many forms.
Scientists are quick to point out that finding alien life doesn’t necessarily mean meeting little green men, or the kind of semi-human sentient beings we think of from Star Trek or Star Wars. The likelihood is our first encounter may be microbes, perhaps similar to those that evolve and change on our own Earth over time.
As much as the headline of yesterday’s panel focused on water as a barometer of finding alien life, the study of water and how it behaves in the universe is also helpful in understanding how our own solar system evolved and why some planets have water and why some who may have had water have dried up.
By being able to observe other planetary systems as they form helps paint the picture of how our own solar system developed, and water is a big part of that story. NASA reports the Spitzer Space Telescope has observed signs of a hail of water-rich comets raining down on a young solar system, much like the kind of bombardment planets in our solar system would have endured in their youth. This could very well be how our own Earth became populated with water.
Many of NASA’s existing missions like Kepler and its successor K2 are laying the groundwork now. NASA is also launching the TESS mission will search nearby, bright stars in the solar neighborhood for Earth sized exoplanets in conjunction with the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).
Watching another distant solar system that could be like ours is a powerful concept to wrap one’s head around. The oceans we swim and sail in, the rivers we see, and the water we drink may well have come from a cosmic event that is just in the offing for other planets in other solar systems.
With that in mind, when we look to the skies, and consider the idea of alien life forms being found it’s hard not to wonder if there are other life forms on distant planets who are going through the process of developing into life forms we might recognize.
With its targeted missions to understand deeper space better in the pipeline, NASA is in the unique position to be able to make that bold prediction that we may find some form of life within the next 20 – 30 years.
All we can say is wow! For more of where water has been discovered, explore NASA's infographic below.