What more could be out there? Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Nasa chief scientist says we're (possibly) only a decade away from finding alien life

It's increasingly clear that the Solar System is more life-friendly than we'd previously suspected.

Some provocative news today, as reported by Space.com - Nasa chief scientist Ellen Stofan told a panel yesterday that we're only "decades" from having "definitive proof" of alien life:

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," Nasa chief scientist Ellen Stofan said Tuesday (7 April) during a panel discussion that focused on the space agency's efforts to search for habitable worlds and alien life.

"We know where to look. We know how to look," Stofan added during the event, which was webcast live. "In most cases we have the technology, and we're on a path to implementing it. And so I think we're definitely on the road."

Former astronaut John Grunsfeld, also speaking on the panel agreed, arguing that evidence for life both in our Solar System and further afield is only "one generation away".

It's heady stuff, bolstered by a range of recent discoveries that have shown us that water is everywhere in the Solar System. Most prominently, we've got Europa, Enceladus and Ganymede, all large moons with vast oceans beneath their icy crusts; but we also know that smaller objects - which, to an extent, had been dismissed as dull and rocky until recently - are also wet, or at least in possession of some surface ice. That group includes Mercury and Ceres, and, of course, Mars. Together with our increasing awareness of the wateryness of asteroids and comets, and it does appear that the Solar System is a place of water - and water is the crucial factor for life as we know it, especially when liquid, as it appears is the case on some of Jupiter's and Saturn's moons where gravity and radiation make up for the distance from the Sun.

What life is present there is, if it exists, microbial at best. The chances that there's anything larger than bacteria floating around beneath the surface of Europa is so slim as to be effectively impossible, but that hasn't put a brake on the excitement felt around the space community right now. And this comes at an important time for Nasa, which is coming towards the end of its current generation of missions and preparing to pitch for funding for its next - and it will have to pick its targets carefully, as the appetite for space exploration within the US government is increasingly hostile to anything without a clear economic or prestige benefit, such as the next-gen Space Launch System heavy lift rocket. That makes the pure science of probes like, say, Cassini, harder to justify.

Despite receiving a slight budget increase in late 2014 after several years of cuts, at the end of March it was revealed that the Opportunity rover on Mars and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter could both be victims of budget cuts imposed by Republicans in Congress, while key prestige projects - like the agency's much-feted plan to capture an asteroid and bring it into orbit around the Moon - have been repeatedly scaled- and pushed-back as technological and monetary challenges have grown in number. And there are those who question whether its disproportionate focus on Mars - and on the endless search for life elsewhere in the Solar System - is the most effective use of its resources.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

GETTY
Show Hide image

How the Night Tube could give London’s mice that Friday feeling

London Underground’s smaller inhabitants might be affected by the off-squeak service – and learn when the weekend’s coming up.

What will the mice who live in the Tube network make of the new all-night service? Half a million of them are thought to have made the London Underground their home – and will be in for a surprise when the Victoria and Central lines keep running this weekend.

The Londonist is concerned the mice “are unlikely to get any sleep” with the new Night Tube, and may move to the District line instead. Yet a number of scientists point out to the New Statesman that mice are nocturnal creatures, most likely to sleep while the lights are on and the trains are running.

So will they get on board with the change – or make a run for different platforms on other lines?

The bad news:

“When the Tube’s away, the mice will play,” is how the rhyme (almost) goes. 

Many have come to know  and even love  the mischiefs of the mice who stream off the tracks and out of the tunnels as the stations close at night, in search of discarded morsels of Maccy D. And until now, they’ve had a good few hours to conduct such galavanting in peace. But the new system means they will have to re-structure their sleep and foraging cycles, or “circadian rhythms”. 

“The presence of night trains should upset several of these entrainment factors (or zeitgebers = time givers) leading to disturbances in their behaviours,” explains Professor Patrick Nolan, from MRC Harwell, an international centre for mouse genetics. 

“When you fly across the Atlantic, for example, it takes a few days to adapt, you feel a bit groggy, don't perform as well as you usually do, don't eat well, etc. You soon adapt to the change. But if there are constant disruptions like this, the effect may be more severe and long-lasting. And this is how the schedule changes in the Underground might affect the resident mice.” 

So it's the constant switching between the week and weekend schedules that could leave the mice  and Tube drivers  most cheesed off. Agoraphobia (fear of open spaces) and photophobia (sensitivity to light) are two possible effects of the resulting anxiety, and their mating patterns and liver functions are also likely to be disturbed.

The good news:

Yet it is unlikely mice will be leaving the Night Tubes for good. 

The more time we humans have to drop our dinners, the larger the menu becomes for the mice (researchers tell me that strawberry milk and Wheetos are particularly favoured fare).

“Mice are active most of the time – so more trains at night hours will not make such a difference to them,” say the RSPCA’s wildlife officers. “In fact, it may help as it may provide more foraging opportunities.”

They’ve also faced worse before. The London Transport Museum reminds us that, during the Second World War, cats were employed to counter vermin on the network (spot the cat in the 1940s TfL workers' canteen below).


Credit: London Transport Museum

For Dr Samuel Solomon at UCL, there is plenty to suggest the mice will successfully adapt. His study of mouse reflexes shows how they respond to various visual stimuli – and can start running within one-tenth of a second. “There might be cues they pick up – if people clean the station differently on Fridays, for instance.”

The tracks’ electric current may no longer be entirely switched off (if it ever was), but their whiskers’ sensitivity to vibrations could help them juggle their escapades to fit around the Night Tube’s less frequent service.

What Dr Soloman can’t yet predict is whether the mice will start to anticipate that Friday feeling: “It will be interesting to see whether they can learn that Friday is Friday”.

All in all, the Tube mice seem well set for the Night Tube’s new challenge. Who knows, they may soon gain the confidence of their 24/7 brothers in New York – and start ordering take-out...

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.