Data has been flooding in from the nation’s latest space telescope, one with a 30-meter-diameter mirror (the Hubble’s, for comparison, was 2.4 meters). The initial searches for signs of life on exoplanets by 2020s telescopes found so many tantalizing hints. The new telescope, with thousands of times the capability, has searched hundreds of the nearest Earth-size exoplanets and found something astonishing: A large fraction show unusual chemistry in their atmospheres.
We are working hard to understand if any of the unusual chemistry can be attributed to gases produced by life. If geophysical or other contributions can be ruled out, we might establish that our galaxy is teeming with life, or at least microbial life.
If we instead hit a dead end with ambiguous chemical signals, we’ll need to go to the next step. Thanks to telomere gene therapy that has extended my life, I am willing and able to direct an even more capable space telescope, but that isn’t good enough. We will have to leave it to the next generations to figure out how to send the first interstellar space probes to actually travel up to tens of light years away to visit the other Earths.
A few weeks ago, NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan made news by saying, “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.” It was a bold statement, but NASA is now backing those words with action.
The field of astrobiology just got a significant boost thanks an ambitious new alien-hunting initiative launched by NASA. Called NExSS, the initiative will bring together an impressive array of experts and teams across a variety of scientific fields.
The goal of NExSS — short for Nexus for Exoplanet System Science — is to improve our understanding of extrasolar planets, and how their stars and neighboring planets interact to support life. To achieve this, NASA has put together a multidisciplinary team consisting of earth scientists, planetary scientists, heliophysicists, and astrophysicists.
“This interdisciplinary endeavor connects top research teams and provides a synthesized approach in the search for planets with the greatest potential for signs of life,” noted Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary science, in a statement. “The hunt for exoplanets is not only a priority for astronomers, it’s of keen interest to planetary and climate scientists as well.”
Since 1995, over 1,000 exoplanets have been discovered. Thousands of additional candidates are still waiting to be confirmed. The time has come, says NASA, for scientists to acquire a better understanding of these distant objects to learn how they might be capable of giving rise to life and how we might be able to detect their bio signatures from Earth using current and next-gen telescopic technologies.
By applying a “system science” approach, the teams will work to understand how biology interacts with the atmosphere, geology, oceans, and interior of a planet, and how host stars contribute to habitability. At the same time, the scientists will classify the diversity of worlds (including a “periodic table of planets”), assess potential habitability of exoplanets, and develop new alien-hunting tools and technologies.
This is very exciting stuff, especially in consideration of future projects such as the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), and the Wide-field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). Over the course of the next 10-to-20 years, astrobiologists may very well detect signs of alien life. But that alien life is bound to be microbial in nature. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence is another challenge altogether.