The surface of Jupiter's moon, Europa.

Search for Alien Life Fueled by Moons, Stars and Rocky Planets

March 21, 2009 11:00 AM
by Shannon Firth
New discoveries such as the moons of Saturn and Jupiter and the alkaline soil on Mars suggest that extraterrestrial life could be a real possibility.

Rocky Moons and Planets Hold the Key

The moons of Jupiter and Saturn may sound like a surprising place to find life forms, but Jupiter's Europa and Saturn's Titan are "wondrous targets in the search for alien life," according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

"For years, NASA scientists and others planned and panned, pumped and dumped various proposed missions to Titan and Europa." But in February, NASA paved the way for a 2020 mission to Europa.

On March 6, NASA’s Kepler spacecraft lifted off. It will follow 100,000 stars over four years, searching for signs of planets with a similar orbital path to Earth’s own.

Although most of the 250 planets discovered outside our solar system “have no solid surface and [are] hundreds of times the mass of Earth," according to The New York Times,  scientists in Geneva in 2008 listed 45 planets they believe are rocky like our own, renewing hope of life in outer space.

Additionally, the discovery of alkaline soil suitable for plant growth on Mars has fueled speculation about life on the Red Planet. "We basically have found what appears to be the requirements, the nutrients, to support life whether past, present or future," said Samuel P. Kounaves of Tufts University, who is leading the soil analysis. 

Previous missions to Mars have determined that there is currently no life on the planet. But in May 2008, NASA sent the Mars Phoenix Lander to sample the Red Planet's topsoil, looking for evidence that the environment could have housed water or even life.

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Related Topic: Japan’s space exploration and space race with China

Japan has long been interested in exploring the possibility of alien life forms. In the small town of Hakui, Japan’s government funded what Time magazine writer Sachiko Sakamaki called a “$48 million ufo welcome mat.” In the 2002 article, Sakamaki, speaking of Japan's "$48 million UFO welcome mat," asked, “How will the aliens know to touch down there and not at the McDonald’s down the road?”

The question of alien life dominated Japanese government discussions in December 2007 when cabinet member Nobutaka Machimura said he believed aliens “definitely” exist.

Perhaps in response, observatories in Japan announced plans in 2008 to explore the question of life in outer space by studying one individual star that could potentially be home to extraterrestrial life forms.

Justin McCurry and Jonathan Watts of the Taipei Times catalogued the disappointments of Japan's space program in 2005 and discussed the China–Japan rivalry: “China may have put a man into orbit, but Japan, it seems, intends to build a station for him on the Moon.”

On June 3, 2008, the third portion of a “bus-sized” Japanese space laboratory named Kibo, meaning “Hope,” reached the International Space Station. Japanese mission specialist Akihko Koshide said, “It has been 20-plus years to get this module up in space. It looks empty, but it’s filled with dreams.”

Historical Context: The beginning of extraterrestrial research

The Pink Tentacle blog details an e-mail sent to Altair in 1983. According to astronomer Hisashi Hirabayashi, who sent the message, “if intelligent aliens received, decoded and responded quickly to the message,” a response can be expected as early as 2015.

The basis for most extraterrestrial-based research began with the The SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), a nonprofit organization founded in 1984 that endeavors to “explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe.”

Opinion & Analysis: Why all the fuss?

Blogger Bruce K. Gagnon cited two reasons for the global interest in space: “One is to give nations the ability to better coordinate warfare on Earth. The second is that many nations and corporations view space as the “new world.” Gold on asteroids, water and helium-3 on the moon, magnesium, cobalt, and uranium are believed to be on Mars.”

Reference: Astronomy guide


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