Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Search for Extraterrestrials Narrows

A large number of experts participated recently at the Astrobiology Science Conference, which was held near Houston, Texas. At the meeting, scientists and NASA representatives spoke about the challenges still ahead in discovering forms of life on other planet, both in our solar system and beyond. The participants also addressed the controversy that famed physicists Stephen Hawking set in motion recently, when he said that Earth may be better off not searching for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence.

According to prominent scientists, the best possible places to look for alien life are currently in the process of being pinned down, and addressed in future space missions. The conference was held to mark the 50th anniversary of the quest for life in other places in the Universe. On Wednesday, NASA experts said that the American space agency was at the time considering a number of no less than 28 future space missions, all of which will be aimed at discovering alien life.

“We're interested and prepared to discover any form of life,” explained during a teleconference NASA Headquarters senior astrobiology scientist Mary Voytek. “Astrobiology and the search for life is really central to what we should be doing next in the exploration of the solar system,” added Steve Squyres, who is a planetary scientists at the Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York. The expert is also the principal science investigator of the Mars Exploration Rovers project, which manages the twin geology robots Spirit and Opportunity.

He mentioned that potential targets for astrobiology research could include the Red Planet, Mercury, as well as numerous moons of gas giants such as Jupiter and Saturn, such as Titan, Enceladus and Europa. According to Squyres, a sample-return mission to Mars would prove “invaluable” for this field of research, and would contribute to advancing our knowledge of how the planet looked like before it became the cold, desolate wasteland it is today.

“I personally think if we're ever going to be able to show that there was past life on Mars – if there was past life on Mars – I think we're going to need to study the samples here on Earth rather than [with robots]. I think if we had the rocks back tomorrow and I had them in my lab, I think we could solve this problem,” added University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) research scientist Bill Schopf, quoted by Space.