With the official formation of the exploration group, Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS), NASA renews its effort in the proverbial search for all things E.T. (extra-terrestrial). Long the subject of science fiction flicks and Area 51 theorists, the belief that life exists outsides the confines of terra firma, has received some organized assistance with this new team of scientists assembled by NASA. NExSS is tasked with searching for new planets and assessing the potential therein for viable life. They believe they will find this extra-terrestrial life within 10 to 20 years.
Ellen Stofan, chief scientist for NASA, testified in a policy panel this week that science now knows where and how to look and also has the technology to accomplish it. Stefan went on to clarify that the extra-terrestrial life that they expect to find will not resemble the lovable Stephen Spielberg character opining a phone call back home. They believe the find will likely be small microbes that have adapted to the perhaps harsh environs of other planets in distant solar systems. These scientists believe that it is a matter of when rather than if.
Over an hour-long presentation in Washington, D.C., scientists detailed a host of recent discoveries that demonstrate how viable these theories have become. Director of Planetary Science at NASA, Jim Green, presented a study of the polar ice caps on Mars. This study suggests that 50 percent of that planet’s surface was one time covered by oceans up to one mile in depth. This astounding presence of water could have lasted more than a billion years. Evidence of the presence of water has long been the hallmark variable for NASA and its search for the extra-terrestrial. Proof that water may have been present for this lengthy period of time fuels the belief that life could have not only existed but even gotten more complex.
Many of these recent revelations are the result of the pioneering exploration and collection of data by the Mars Rover Expeditions. The slow but steady onslaught of data collection from these rovers has been groundbreaking. However, Chief Stofan stated that placing human field geologists and astrobiologists on the surface of Mars for exploration would be invaluable in really determining evidence of past life on our planetary neighbor.
Jim Green also pointed out a study that measured the aurora on Jupiter’s moon, Ganymede, which indicates it likely has a large liquid ocean beneath its ice-covered surface. This research has really expanded the previously-accepted norms for “habitable zones.” Scientists determine habitability by gauging the range of extreme temperatures within a zone. New science indicates that previous guidelines for habitability have been too narrow. Green says that habitable zones might exist not just around stars but around larger planets as well. He humorously notes that we live in a “soggy solar system.” NASA is also planning a trip to Europa, another moon orbiting Jupiter.
The formation of NXeSS will only enhance these exploratory efforts. This new team will consist of experts from 20 different fields including Earth scientists, astrophysicists and heliophysicists. All of these scientists ultimately study how planets form and what makes them more or less habitable. The NXeSS team just puts them all under the same roof for the first time. The group will include scientists from schools including Arizona State University, Stanford, Yale and Penn State. Although two of the nation’s leading science universities, MIT and Harvard, are not included in the team, both schools are involved in other NASA space programs.
NXeSS represents a bold new mission in space exploration. While NASA’s effort in the search for “E.T.” might not produce a friendly alien in Hollywood terms, it will undoubtedly continue to advance the understanding of life and its existence beyond the confines of the planet, Earth.
By Chris Marion
Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center – Creativecommons Flickr License