With the Kepler mission finding new planets regularly, the question of alien life somewhere in the universe is becoming more profound. NASA, along with seven partners, will be studying the cosmos for the next five years with the specific purpose of determining the origins of life and to ascertain whether there are distant planets that could sustain life.
It will be a multitasking effort that will include examination of Martian soil and studying the roles comets and asteroids play as a water delivery system throughout the universe. Also on the agenda is an attempt to determine why the earth has been inhabited for such a long period of time.
Seven research teams have been awarded a NASA grant for $50 million to study the all-inclusive existence and origins of life. The seven teams will become members of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute in Moffett, California. Each team will receive approximately $8 million in funding.
The selected teams will be charged with analyzing a variety of NASA data, including samples of Martian soil and comet dust. Also on the agenda are the many planets that are being discovered by the Kepler mission.
One team, led by Michael Mumm, will research the source of water on this planet. It will also study the microbiology required for bringing forth life. The team will look at comets and asteroids as a potential delivery system for life’s required ingredients. Once a result has been reached it will forward that information to the team searching the cosmos for environments that are able to sustain life.
Another team will examine the chemistry behind organic molecules delivered by comets and the like. Scott Sanford at the Ames Research Center will lead this team.
A third team will investigate the habitability of places including the moons Enceladus, Europa and Ganymede. The team will also conduct experiments in earthly environments such as the cedars in Northern California.
To better prepare for future Martian exploration, a fourth team will establish principles to help understand what and where to search for life. Included would be an understanding of recognizing material evidence of life.
A University of Colorado team will study the effects of chemical energy released when rocks interact with water. That interaction can produce living organisms on this planet and it is expected that that would be the case on other planets as well.
A study of the conditions of earth’s atmosphere and oceans about three billion years ago will be conducted by a University of California team. They will provide the space agency with a template when investigating pro-life conditions on other planetary bodies. It is supposed that this is the time-frame when the earth’s oxygen increased to its current levels. The last team at the University of Montana will attempt to learn how life transitions from small, single cell units to more complex forms.
NASA contracted these seven teams to examine the full breadth of astrobiology in hopes of understanding how life, in all stages evolved, not only on earth, but throughout the cosmos. As NASA continues its exploration of this vast universe the possibility that alien life exists somewhere out there is becoming more apparent.
By Hans Benes
Image courtesy of NASA