Tag Archives: space

NASA Chief: We’ll find extraterrestrial life within the next decade

It seems almost unthinkable that out of an infinitely vast universe, there’s no one but us, occupying a small blue dot in a remote galaxy. So is anyone else looking towards us when we watch the stars at night? Or are we really the only ones? Now top NASA scientists are saying it’s almost certain that we’ve got company.

“I believe we are going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth in the next decade and definitive evidence in the next 10 to 20 years,” said Ellen Stofan, NASA’s chief scientist, during a public panel held in Washington on Tuesday.

“We know where to look, we know how to look, and in most cases we have the technology,” said Stofan.

Jeffery Newmark, the agency’s interim director of heliophysics put it in these terms: “It’s definitely not an if, it’s a when.”

Lest the headline made you imagine an INDEPENDENCE DAY scenario of alien invasion – you can rest easy. The same goes for any thoughts that the ancient Egyptians received intergalactic help with building the pyramids.

“We are not talking about little green men,” Stofan said to clarify any hyperbole. “We are talking about little microbes.”

Throughout the course of their hour-long presentation, NASA’s leaders described the numerous recent discoveries that indicate how never before in history have people been closer to uncovering extraterrestrial life – whether it happens to be in our own solar system, or on any number of Earth-like candidates spotted light years from home.

Among the examples, Jim Green, the director of planetary science for NASA, referenced a study analyzing the thin atmosphere just above the Martian polar ice caps, the remains of an era when nearly 50% of the planet’s northern hemisphere were covered with an ocean larger than the Arctic Sea – up to one mile deep, and for up to 1.2 billion years, it had liquid water, plenty of time to have allowed for lifeforms to develop, and possibly even for there to be fossils, compressed within the planet’s organic rocks.

“We think that long period of time is necessary for life to get more complex,” Stofan said.

Bringing teams of field geologists and also researchers within the burgeoning field of astrobiology to Mars would sharply increase the odds of discovering fossils of the past – potentially an intriguing story of survival that rivals the narrative that rocks on Earth tell us – a mass extinction event that may have ended life as we know it on the red planet.

Another recent study that made headlines not too long ago was referenced by Green. Measurements of the aurora occurring on Jupiter’s distant moon Ganymede may indicate that beneath its layers of ice, it may be concealing an immense liquid ocean.

These findings are examples of why we may have been casting our nets too far in the hunt for extraterrestrial life. Previous searches for life were almost analogous to finding a hospitable planet to inhabit – one whose conditions most closely resembled the Earth, a familiar environment to adapt to in terms of climate and gravity. Therefore, astronomers set their sights on “habitable zones,” planetary bodies close enough to a host star where temperatures made it possible for liquid water to exist on the surface, without freezing or vaporizing. There is, however, the possibility that life may be very different from our own – with beings that are based on composites of methane and nitrogen, rather than the organic carbon-based life forms found on Earth.

“We now recognize that habitable zones are not just around stars, they can be around giant planets too,” Green said. “We are finding out the solar system is really a soggy place.”

Among other exciting voyages coming up, NASA announced plans this winter to travel to another moon of Jupiter Europa, also thought to contain an ocean with hydrothermal vents.

“I don’t know what we are going to find there,” he said.

Newmark described how NASA’s own work here at home, which recently came under fire at a Senate hearing, is critical to exploring the possibilities of interplanetary life. Right now, NASA dedicates $1 billion annually to Earth science, and is engaged in studying how Earth’s magnetic field is instrumental in protecting the planet’s water and atmosphere against being carried off by solar wind, making it critical in enabling life on Earth to develop.

“Mars does not have a significant magnetic field, so it lets the wind strip away the water and atmosphere,” he said.

Paul Hertz, director of astrophysics at NASA also joined the panel discussion, where he spoke of the ways in which future telescopes already being planned will enable scientists to survey the atmospheres on large rocky planets, such as the Kepler discoveries found near distant stars, in a hope to find the chemical markers necessary for life.

“We are not just studying water and habitability in our solar system, but also looking for it in planets around other stars,” he said – something that could be advantageous in navigating the solar system and coming up with more efficient ways for space travel than what we currently have.

NASA associate administrator John Grunsfeld, said part of what excites him most about the search for life beyond our planet is to see what that life looks like.

“Once we get beyond Mars, which formed from the same stuff as Earth, the likelihood that life is similar to what we find on this planet is very low,” he said.

Grunsfeld maintains that researchers are very close to making strides in the search for extraterrestrial beings, and thinks that such a goal is within the grasp of an upcoming generation of scientists and space explorers. Green, however, hopes that the discoveries will be made much sooner. After all, the advances are coming at a faster pace than ever before. The Europa mission hopes to take off by the end of the decade.

“The science community is making enormous progress,” said Green. “And I’ve told my team I’m planning to be the director of planetary science when we discover life in the solar system.”

James Sullivan
James Sullivan is the assistant editor of Brain World Magazine and a contributor to Truth Is Cool and OMNI Reboot. He can usually be found on TVTropes or RationalWiki when not exploiting life and science stories for another blog article.

Former Cosmonaut Recalls Taking the First Ever Spacewalk

It’s been fifty years now, but Alexei Leonov can still remember the moment he opened the capsule and wandered into the cold vastness of space for the first time – the moment when he was the first and at the time, the only human to float through the heavens.

“I gently pulled myself out and kicked off from the vessel,” recalled the former cosmonaut Leonov, who is now a youthful 80 years old. He is the last survivor of the Soviets’ Voskhod space program.

“[There was] an inky black, stars everywhere and the sun so bright I could barely stand it.”

Hanging from a fifteen foot cord, he took in the jaw-dropping view of Earth, slowly turnings his face towards home, where he would get a view unlike any of his neighbors.

“I filmed the Earth, perfectly round, the Caucasus, Crimea, the Volga. It was beautiful.”

The date was March 18, 1965, when tensions were at a high between the Soviet Union and United States, foes of the Cold War, both determined to set forth on a conquest of space.

At the time, Americans were still preparing the way for a spacewalk, which they would successfully complete in June of that same year on the Gemini 4 mission. Leonov alongside the ship’s pilot Pavel Belyayev (codenamed Almaz-1 and Almaz-2) were sent nearly 310 miles above Earth, where millions witnessed their mission unfold, live on both the radio and television.

As Leonov watched over the Crimean Peninsula from space, he heard Belyayev report back to Earth on the broadcast: “This is Almaz-1: Man has gone out into space.” Then he heard the recognizable voice of Yuri Levitan, who was then a famous broadcaster on Soviet radio, confirming the pilot’s words. “But who are they talking about?” he wondered momentarily.

Leonov spent 12 minutes in outer space on this voyage – a fairly short amount of time, considering the years of frantic efforts by the USSR’s scientists and engineers as they pushed endlessly to stay ahead of the Americans in the space race. The race had more or less begun in 1957 when the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite and the U.S. government in response, passed legislation that led to the establishment of NASA, along with a call for a greater emphasis on math and science in public school curriculum.

In 1962, the Soviets met another one of their goals: The first person to orbit Earth, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. 12 months later, still not fully content with their success, the Soviets laid out a metaphor for their new objective: “Swimming in space like a sailor in the ocean.”

Russia’s space chief, who is often called the father of practical astronautics, Sergei Korolyov, handpicked Leonov to embark on this historic mission. Because of Korolyov’s ingenuity, Soviet officials since the regime of Stalin referred to him solely as “the Chief Designer” until his death, fearing that he would be targeted by American spies and assassinated were his identity known.

“Korolyov chose me because I had already piloted several aircraft, I scored highly and I could paint, which is rare among cosmonauts,” smiled Leonov, who after his retirement proved himself a rather talented space artist with portraits of himself floating in orbit.

For his 12 minutes floating outside the Voskhod 2 spacecraft, Leonov endured 18 months of intense physical training.

As ready as he might have been for that spacewalk, the same couldn’t be said of Voskhod 2.

“The spacecraft had no ejection system,” he said. “We would either have to wait nine months to revamp it or use this model. We chose the second option.”

Since NASA was preparing their own spacewalk with Ed White, the second option was the only viable one.

“It wasn’t about courage. We just knew it had to be done,” Leonov said.

As triumphant as he may have felt at his first glimpse of Earth from space, the feelings subsided rather quickly.

As the spacecraft’s orbit quickly drew it from the sun, and the view grew dark, Leonov had to re-enter the craft, but his spacesuit suddenly inflated, releasing atmospheric pressure that made the suit deform. As small as it sounds, this could have prevented him from entering the Voskhod 2’s airlock.

Rather than bothering to alert the control center, which could have risked more time and oxygen, Leonov released some of the oxygen already available in his suit, putting himself at risk of oxygen starvation.

After a long orderal, he successfully managed to struggle back through the airlock head first, rather than feet first. This series of difficult maneuvers left him covered in sweat. During the entire outing, he managed to lose 12 pounds.

There were more problems awaiting Leonov and his team back in the cabin. The ship’s automatic guidance system for re-entry ceased to work properly, forcing the crew to guide Voskhod 2 on its journey back to Earth.

Leonov described the complications in great detail in his book on the space race. First, their landing module failed to break off from the orbital module, releasing massive G-forces that made them spin wildly along the cable, as they hurtled towards the Earth.

They managed a successful landing in which no one was injured, but over 1,200 miles from their intended destination in Kazakhstan. This may sound like something of a happy ending, but when they emerged from the spacecraft, they found themselves in deep snow, in the wilderness of the Ural Mountains, the home to many wolves and bears.

“We waited three days in the forest to be rescued, and Soviet radio reported we were on holiday after the flight,” Leonov recalled, laughing.

When the rescuers finally did come, they brought out a large cauldron by helicopter that was then filled with snow from the taiga forest and heated, providing the cosmonauts with a hot bath.

Leonov and Belyayev soon returned home, where they were hailed as heroes, having completed the first successful spacewalk in history, 10 weeks ahead of the United States.

A decade after his adventure, Leonov went on to command the Soyuz 19 in what was the first joint space mission between both the Soviet Union and the United States. The rivalry between their programs largely ended after Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev canceled funding on the Soviet lunar landing, as the U.S. had by that time already completed a successful mission to the moon.

As the political climate between Moscow and Washington has grown somewhat hostile during the Ukraine conflict and there is some doubt as to the future of NASA’s space program, Leonov offered up some pretty wise words:

“There have never been frontiers between astronauts. The day that this notion sinks into the minds of politicians, our planet will be different.”

James Sullivan
James Sullivan is the assistant editor of Brain World Magazine and a contributor to Truth Is Cool and OMNI Reboot. He can usually be found on TVTropes or RationalWiki when not exploiting life and science stories for another blog article.