Alien Life By 2025 – NASA

On Tuesday April 7, NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan spoke at a panel discussion on water in the universe. Stofan boldly stated “there will be strong indications of alien life within a decade and definite evidence of it within 20-30 years”.

“We know where to look, we know how to look” – Ellen Stofan

Exhale now if the possibility created notions of wide eyed “greys” or Starship Trooper “bug” armies. Life must first be seen from microscopic perspectives – confirmation of other-worldly life will likely arrive as microbes eking out existence right under our noses.

Simply looking for evidence of water in our solar system holds promise of life. We know that half of Mars was once covered in liquid ocean – likely for a billion years until the atmosphere degraded. Data from the Hubble Telescope suggests Jupiter’s moon Ganymede hides a saltwater ocean beneath thick icy exterior armor. Likewise Jupiter’s iconic moon Europa, and Saturn’s Enceladus.

Without a shred of doubt, confidence that irrefutable evidence of alien tenacity will manifest itself in my lifetime is unshakable. Pondering implications of such certainties leave me hopelessly buoyed, incapable of wiping a childish grin off my face.

Europa Or Bust

On February 2, 2015 NASA administrator Charles Bolden spoke of a selection process for projects accompanying a mission to Europa. The same day, a White House announcement revealed an additional half billion in direct funding for the space agency – with 30 million destined to “formulate” plans for Europa Clipper, a mission to Jupiter’s iconic moon, Europa.

Europa captured scientific imagination in 1979 – images from Voyager raised eyebrows over  liquid water, perhaps even lifeforms,  beneath Europa’s frozen exterior. Science speculates this crust to be 100 kilometers thick – many believe a hidden ocean exists, kept liquid by constant push and pull of Jupiter’s impressive gravity. Similar to extreme forms of life found in the deepest corners of our oceans – lifeforms thriving on energy from hydrothermal vents.

Europa Clipper isn’t expected to land – landing will likely take place once the Clipper mission completes accurate mapping and analysis. If all goes well, translation – Clipper’s ice penetrating radar, infrared imaging, and ion/neutral mass spectrometers bolster suspicions – A Europa landing mission will follow.

All I can say is – about time NASA. Europa or bust.

A composite of Europa made from images from the Galileo spacecraft, which orbited in the jovian system for eight years, beginning in 1995.  Image via NASA/JPL

A composite of Europa made from images from the Galileo spacecraft, which orbited in the Jovian system for eight years, beginning in 1995. Areas that appear blue or white contain relatively pure water ice. Image via NASA/JPL

Europa Has Plate Tectonics

“Plate tectonics” – “Plate” a geologic term for large slab of rock, and “Tectonics”, part of the root in Greek for “to move” – put them together – suddenly ocean currents, weather patterns, and an average global temperature of 54 degrees Fahrenheit start to make sense. Science accepts the theory of moving plates of rock – 7 major and over a dozen minor plates, making up the Lithosphere. A 100 Kilometer deep  (give or take, here and there) outer crust  floating about on hot layers of  upper mantle.

Tectonic plates couldn’t exist without water. As our world took shape billions of years ago – water was the single factor capable of setting life in motion – accretion settled down, planet Earth announced she was here to stay – it was water that set our unique set of circumstances in motion. There’s a lot of it beneath the surface – perhaps as much as an entire ocean – pooled, saturating, running and generally messing around with otherwise solid stone. Our planet was precisely the proper size to form and cool – not too fast, not too slow, but just right. Mars tried to develop tectonics, science speculates it had an atmosphere and magnetic shield for a cosmic blink, but ultimately proved too small (hence cooled to fast) to make it in the long run.

Plate tectonics are tricky – on Earth they are credited with formation of mountain ranges (the Andes and Himalayas for instance), geographic barriers responsible for trapping moisture, continental drifts and collisions (Antarctica separating from Australia – hence redirection of ocean currents) or volcanic eruptions which released trapped carbon dioxide gas leading to global warming.

Plate tectonics are the reason we have earthquakes – ever drifting sections of the planet grind against each other, exert unimaginable pressure as one plate attempts to overtake another – inevitably very bad days follow. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, monsoons, hurricanes – all products of our unique tectonic designation. I could write pages about Earthly tectonics, but ask  you trust me when I tell you – they are the reason we exist. At the moment, I have Europa on my mind.

Europa is the 6th closest of Jupiter’s 63 moons. It caught Galileo’s attention in 1610 (a ponder in itself – why this moon Galileo?). Of interest to NASA since the early 70’s, modern science suspects Europa’s smooth icy surface hides a liquid ocean – data from the Hubble telescope indicate “plumes” of water vapor spewing from a suspected underground source. Earlier this week, researchers S.A. Kattenhorn and L. M. Procter published findings culled from Hubble images indicating tectonic movement on Europa. Using images from Hubble, they concluded Europa’s surface appeared to move about, much like our own – a conclusion with only one explanation – plate tectonics.

Plate tectonics rely on water, water is the one and only constant needed to support life. We’ve long believed Earth was unique regarding tectonics and the ramifications of liquid water  in relation to supporting any form of life. Pondering Europa as a planetary body with plate tectonics means it’s possible life exists beneath the surface.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has conceptualized a mission dubbed “Europa Clipper”, with an optimistic launch in the next 10 years. Despite a daunting 2 billion dollar price tag, NASA is asking the scientific community to submit suggestions by October 17, 2014 for instrumentation or investigative approaches to determine once and for all if Europa has what it takes to support life.

“Life” is complicated. Plate tectonics  may be tricky, yet one thing remains unshakeable – life exists on Earth due to tectonics – we owe it to ourselves to investigate that possibility on Europa.