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.