Thursday, 2 December 2010

NASA Announcement - Possible Proof of Life Out There?

Surprise News Conference

CGI rendering of the Mars Rover
Yesterday, I heard about an impending announcement by NASA at a news conference due to start at 2pm EST (Eastern Standard Time) on the 2nd of December. That's about 7pm (if my maths is correct) for those of us on GMT. (Click here to read)

Here's a snippet from the announcement of the news conference:

“WASHINGTON -- NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.”

Renowned theoretical physicist, Michio Kaku 
Apparently speculation has been rife on the internet since the announcement. Everybody's wondering what it could be. Possible proof of the existence of extraterrestrial life? Even renowned scientist Michio Kaku has been asked to talk about the possibilities on America's MSNBC and FOX networks, and posted on his blog about the event (Click here to read).

His thoughts are that it could be anything from:
a) The discovery of many earth-like planets in space (As opposed to the larger Jupiter-like planets they tend to be discovering).
b) Analysis of the chemicals on some of our solar system's moons that could provide the building blocks to life.
c) Proof of the existence of some extraterrestrial microbial life.

Personally, I feel we can discount options a) and b). There have been past announcements about moons in our solar system that have chemicals that could allow the existence of life. We've also had plenty of announcements about extra-solar planets. Not only have we had them before, but given the differing scientific fields that such discoveries would influence and impact, it seems highly doubtful they would call a news conference specifically related to astrobiology.

Option c) seems the most likely on his list.

The Possibilities

Obviously at this point the news conference could be about the discovery of the tiniest bit of extraterrestrial microbial life, right through to walking on stage with a live alien making first contact. However, being sensible, what are the most likely contenders?

In my opinion, we can break them down to a few major ideas.

Small Scale Contenders:

The Mars Rover finding evidence for
sub-surface water
1 – The Mars Rovers. Yes, I know, everyone always jumps to Mars as the most likely suspect due to its historic expectations, but bear with me. Mars is also the only extraterrestrial planet on which we have regularly operating probes at ground level searching out new material. If the discovery is a small one, it is very possible that the Rovers would be the first suspects to find it. It could be anything from a tiny Martian insect caught on camera, to a simple moss (or similar) on a rock, to photographing a definite fossil fragment.

Cueva de los Cristales
(Cave of Crystals)
2 – The recently discovered Mexican 'Cueva de los Cristales' (Cave of Crystals).  This discovery was a completely isolated never-before-seen phenomena on this scale, and there is speculation that it could result in the finding of independently evolved forms of life in its isolated unique environment. This could impact studies of astrobiology greatly, but why would NASA be the ones making the announcement?

The Hayabusa re-entry into the
Earth's atmosphere
3 – The Hayabusa Spacecraft. The Japanese Hayabusa probe that collected particles from the Itokawa asteroid. Perhaps some of the key chemical building blocks of life or even fossilised microbial samples have been discovered in its captured particles. Perhaps its minilander, Minerva, didn't fail? Then again, even if NASA were involved in analysis of the materials, why would they be making the announcement?

Mid Scale Contenders:

Saturn's moon Enceladus, taken
from the Cassini probe
1 – The Cassini spacecraft and Huygens probe that landed on Titan. This mission has not only landed a probe on Titan, but analysed the chemical make-up of several of Saturn's moons. Could further analysis of the photos from the Cassini-Huygens probe have provided new evidence? (Seems unlikely, given the landing occurred some time ago) Or has the Cassini probe discovered chemicals around one of the moons that can only created by the existence of life? (Or at least provide the necessary building blocks)

Large Scale Contenders:

The famous 'Face on Mars' after
closer photography from orbit
1 – The Mars orbiting satellites, or other planetary/moon probes. Perhaps one of these has indeed photographed evidence of life? Though due to the scales at which these spacecraft take their photographs, it would have to be something like ancient structures or similar, implying not only the past(?) existence of life, but intelligent life.

2 – A signal of intelligent origin. I find this unlikely, because although it would be of importance to astrobiologists, it would not be they alone whom it would impact, as the news conference suggests.

Global Impact

It's difficult to speculate, as it depends entirely upon the level and scale of their discovery. It can't be absurdly large, or we would be hearing some kind of announcement from the White House (Unless of course this has been kept under wraps sufficiently to get the news people in-place without giving the game away too much. The news conference is happening at NASA's Washington offices, after all).

If it turns out to be genuine proof of extraterrestrial life, even on the smallest scale, it will completely alter our perception of our place in the universe. However, this will be a gradual change, as it won't impact or interest the average Joe on the street as much as the latest sports scores.

If it turns out to be proof of not only extraterrestrial life, but intelligent life, then it could cause all manner of situations, from riots in highly religious and extreme countries who decry the evidence and its implications, right through to causing our largest world governments to band together to discover more about our alien companions in the universe, potentially ushering in a new era of planetary co-operation and purpose.

Final Thoughts

Of course, all of this is speculation by someone who has no real scientific knowledge, but for the average interested individual such as myself, those seem the most likely logical candidates. My gut instinct says something on a scale that the Mars Rovers might discover.

I could be completely wrong (and I probably am), but it's fun to wonder. The only way we're really going to find out, is tonight, by watching the NASA news conference.

We should all make the effort if we can. It may not be anything spectacular, in fact it's probably disappointingly mundane, but it could also be something that completely changes our world and our existence forever. Wouldn't you want to be one of the first to know?

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