During a panel discussion that took place on Tuesday (April 7) and focused on NASA’s efforts to search for habitable worlds and alien life, several high-ranking scientists working for the agency were hopeful the long-awaited breakthrough might happen in just a couple of decades from now.
“I think we’re going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth within a decade, and I think we’re going to have definitive evidence within 20 to 30 years,” said NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan. “We know where to look. We know how to look. In most cases we have the technology, and we’re on a path to implementing it. And so I think we’re definitely on the road.”
Former astronaut John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, shares Stofan’s enthusiasm and thinks we’re about one generation away from discovering life in our solar system and another one from finding it on a planet around a nearby star.
Grunsfeld claimed recent advances in science have shown that both our solar system and the Milky Way galaxy in general are teeming with environments capable of supporting life as we know it.
Arguably, the recent event that excited astronomers and space research enthusiasts the most was the discovery of liquid water oceans beneath the Jupiter moons Europa and Ganymede, and the Saturn satellite Enceladus – a development that, combined with the discovery of Mars having been covered in oceans in the past and Kepler space telescope observations revealing almost every star in the sky hosts planets, makes the likelihood of finding alien life even higher.
And just as the solar system is awash in water, so is the greater galaxy, said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division.
“We can see water in the interstellar clouds from which planetary systems and stellar systems form. We can see water in the disks of debris that are going to become planetary systems around other stars, and we can see comets being dissipated in other solar systems as [their] star evaporates them.”
Identifying potentially habitable worlds and finding actual evidence of alien life are two very different goals, although NASA claims to be steadily working towards both.
The agency’s next rover is scheduled to launch in 2020 and is set to look for signs of past life and collect samples to be brought back to Earth. NASA also plans to send astronauts on Mars in the 2030s – a step Stofan considers key towards the search for Martian life.
“I’m a field geologist; I go out and break open rocks and look for fossils,” Stofan said. “Those are hard to find. So I have a bias that it’s eventually going to take humans on the surface of Mars – field geologists, astrobiologists, chemists – actually out there looking for that good evidence of life that we can bring back to Earth for all the scientists to argue about.”
NASA is also hoping to launch an exploratory mission to Europa, which will focus on the icy moon’s potential habitability, but could also search for alien life.