With NASA spotting water flows on Mars this week, excitement abounds as to what might be the next big thing for astrobiologsts and space scientists in general.
Interestingly a congressional hearing entitled “Astrobiology and the Search for Life Beyond Earth in the Next Decade” was on tap this week to take a look at what some key issues are as NASA and other space organization look toward the future.
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NASA’s Chief Scientist Dr. Ellen Stofan opened the hearing by saying: “With future technology and instruments currently under development, we will explore the solar system and beyond, and could indeed --perhaps in as little as 10-20 years --discover some form of life, past or present.”
“We now know that we live in a soggy solar system, and undoubtedly, in a soggy universe. We continue to find vast amounts of liquid water in unlikely places. For instance, Jupiter lies outside the habitable zone and we would expect water in Jupiter's vicinity to be frozen. Yet we now have evidence of liquid oceans on three of the four moons of Jupiter, sloshing around tantalizingly under the icy crusts of those worlds. Using the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, we have found signs of water in the atmospheres of planets around other stars,” Stofan said.
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Stofan talked of a number of future NASA activities including:
- In July 2014, NASA selected the instruments for the Mars 2020 rover mission, which will study Martian rocks and soils to understand past habitable conditions on Mars and to seek signs of ancient microbial life. Mars 2020 will also test our ability to extract oxygen from the Red Planet's carbon-dioxide atmosphere to prepare for future human exploration. If we do find evidence of life on Mars, it will likely be fossilized microorganisms preserved in the rock layers. The Mars 2020 rover will begin the search, but as a field geologist, I can tell you it may be hard to find. That's why I believe it will take human explorers - geologists and astrobiologists - who can move quickly and make intuitive decisions on their feet - to identify it.
- Beyond Mars, we are planning to look at another intriguing world in our solar system. The President's Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 budget request supports the formulation and development of a mission to the Jovian moon Europa. We estimate that Europa has twice as much water as the Earth's oceans and that there is an interchange of materials between Europa's icy crust and its water oceans. Hubble has observed plumes at one of Europa's poles. A Europa mission could potentially, among other things, analyze Europa's water plumes to determine the composition of those oceans.
- Beyond our solar system, there are countless other worlds that could harbor life. Current space- and ground-based telescopes have found nearly 5,000 exoplanets to date. The majority of these exoplanets are giant gas planets close to their home stars, because such planets are more easily detected. However, extrapolating from the available data, we calculate that the majority of the planets in the Universe are smaller rocky planets, which are more likely to support life.
- In 2017, NASA will be launching the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, (TESS), which will look for rocky planets near the habitable zones of the closest stars. With TESS' planets in hand, we will use the James Webb Space Telescope to analyze the kinds of molecules that such planets' atmospheres contain, such as water, oxygen, carbon dioxide and methane.
- Perhaps even more interesting is the possibility that life could exist in the absence of liquid water. That's why scientists are interested in exploring some of the more unusual places in our solar system and beyond, such as Saturn's moon Titan, where it rains liquid methane and ethane. Could such an environment harbor life? We don't know yet.
- In April NASA announced the formation of an initiative dedicated to the search for life on planets outside our solar system. The Nexus for Exoplanet System Science is an interdisciplinary effort that connects top research teams and provides a synthesized approach in the search for planets with the greatest potential for signs of life. This new network will help scientists communicate and coordinate their research, training and educational activities across disciplinary, organizational, divisional and geographic boundaries.
Meanwhile another speaker Dr. Andrew Siemion, the Director of the SETI Research Center, University of California, Berkeley said that the era of the virtual observatory" has arrived.
“Hundreds of terabytes of astronomical data, collected with billion dollar telescopes, are now freely available. In many cases, these data are made available to the entire astronomical community the instant they are collected. These data undoubtedly contain many astronomical discoveries that are as yet uncovered. Perhaps, if looked at very closely in a novel way, some of these data contain evidence of an extraterrestrial intelligence,” Siemion stated.
Dr. Jacob Bean Assistant Professor, Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, with the University of Chicago said that astronomers eagerly await the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST ) in 2018.
“Among its many new important capabilities, the wider wavelength range, higher spectral resolution, and higher precision possible with JWST compared to existing capabilities will dramatically extend the reach of exoplanet spectroscopy,” he stated. “This will enable more detailed investigations of the hot, giant planets currently being studied, and it will also enable the push towards characterizing the more numerous smaller and cooler planets that have been revealed in abundance by the Kepler mission.”
Bean also noted that a flagship space telescope with next generation optics will be needed to detect life on Earth-like planets in the future. Astronomers commonly refer to telescope concepts with this capability as a Terrestrial Planet Finder"(TPF). A decade ago NASA had plans for an exoplanet exploration program that included three major space telescopes that would search for and characterize Earth analogs around nearby stars. This program included two TPF missions with complementary capabilities for searching for biosignature gasses. These missions were cancelled for budgetary reasons, he said.
“One strawman concept1 is for a large, single aperture telescope (12 meter diameter primary mirror size, compared to Hubble's 2.4m and JWST 's 6.5 m primary mirrors) operating from the ultraviolet to near-infrared wavelength regimes. This wavelength range is similar to that currently spanned by Hubble, and so this new telescope would enable substantial new science in a similarly broad range of areas (e.g. the formation and evolution of galaxies, the origins of the chemical elements, and the life cycles of stars) if it were equipped with appropriate instruments,” Bean said.
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