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Location: UFOUpDatesList.Com > 1998 > Jul > Jul 30

Somewhere Out There, Vital Signs Await Nasa

From: Mark LeCuyer <randydan@wavetech.net>
Date: Thu, 30 Jul 1998 04:32:18 -0500
Fwd Date: Thu, 30 Jul 1998 06:56:01 -0400
Subject: Somewhere Out There, Vital Signs Await Nasa

From: Mark - Alien Astronomer

Source: FLORIDA TODAY Space Online
July 29, 1998

Somewhere out there, vital signs await NASA
By Elizabeth Weise
Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON - The search for the origins of life in the universe
is just starting to pick up speed.

Between now and 2006, NASA will send out probes to sample
comet, asteroid and star dust, Martian soil, and a gust of
solar wind particles.

Other missions will send back information about their
destinations, from Jupiter's icy moon Europa to the primordial
nebula that formed our solar system 4.5 billion years ago.

"Basically, we've got rides to all the places of interest to
start piecing together the chain of events behind the origins
of life," says Lynn Harper, head of NASA's astrobiology

Where and how to look for those origins - and perhaps examples
of extraterrestrial life - are the questions NASA put to a
group of leading scientists who met for three days last week at
the NASA/Ames Research Center at Moffett Field in California.

Their goal was to start mapping a five-year plan for the space
agency's emerging astrobiology program. They were to provide
direction for research, next-generation missions and technology

NASA isn't expecting to drop in on ET. What it imagines we
might find is more along the lines of microbes and clues in the
chemical signature of objects to indicate the presence of those

But microbes beget larger forms of life, and finding anything
living beyond Earth means there's a good chance something as
complex as - if not more complex than - us exists among the
millions of planets in our galaxy.

In a wrap-up session, Michael Mumma, a chief scientist at
Goddard Space Flight Center, put it succinctly: "There are two
basic questions: Where did we come from, and are we alone?"

To answer those questions, the first task is to decide in what
range of conditions life might arise. It turns out to be a much
broader area than many suspected, even here on Earth.

In recent years biologists have discovered microbes living
inside salt crystals and rocks, deep undersea at enormous
pressure, in utter darkness and in boiling hot springs in
Yellowstone National Park. One species of bacterium even lives
half a mile beneath the surface of the planet and gets its
energy from the weathering of basalt.

Although such arcane substances as liquid hydrocarbons salted
with polar molecules and ammonia-water are two media that might
support life, in general it's agreed that liquid water is a
prerequisite. That defines the "habitable zone" within which to
begin the search.

But there are other possibilities.

Water clouds might exist at the edges of the habitable zone,
and water might be found under the surface on planets and moons
outside the zone.

The most likely spots in our solar system are Mars, which may
have a liquid aquifer buried hundreds of feet below ground, and
Jupiter's moons Europa and Callisto, which are believed to have
water beneath their icy surfaces.

Some astronomers think Pluto may harbor liquid oceans in its
interior, based on evidence of tidal forces. "It looks
squashed" is how one scientist put it.

One of the goals of last week's meeting was to think about
designs for experiments that could piggyback on planned
missions, possible because of NASA's recent "better, faster,
cheaper" push.

Whereas a mission once might have taken the better part of a
decade, quicker turnaround times and more nimble missions allow
scientists to test their ideas quickly.

One proposal is the Europa ice clipper. As soon as it was clear
that Europa had the potential for liquid water beneath the
frozen surface, a mission was proposed to do a flyby and shoot
something into the surface that would chip up some of the ice
and collect it.

Another is the New Millennium Mars Microprobe, which will
piggyback on the Mars polar lander going up in January. This
volleyball-size probe literally will be thrown off the lander
as it enters the atmosphere.

"It whacks into the planet, the front part penetrates into the
soil, maybe up to 2 meters, and the aft portion remains at the
surface and communicates back to Earth," says Michael Meyer, an
astrobiologist out of NASA's Office of Space Science in

The probe will measure water content in the soil and
temperature change over time, giving scientists an idea of the
extremes life would have to exist within.

As for Pluto, the Pluto Express is planned to launch in 2004,
meaning scientists have a few years to put together experiments
to expand our knowledge of Pluto's secrets.

When it's not possible to drop by and grab some samples, remote
sensing techniques must be developed and refined to look at
planets many light-years away.

Long-range telescopes can analyze the atmosphere of a planet to
look for chemical signatures that might mean the presence of

Because we know what elements are most common in the universe
and what combinations of those elements don't seem to happen by
themselves, we can guess that some biological process might
have occurred.

A good example of this is Earth.

When the Galileo probe flew by Earth, it saw oxygen, methane
and nitrous oxide in our atmosphere. But those three can't
coexist over time.

"If you bottled it very long, the methane or the oxygen would
disappear," Meyer says. And in an atmosphere, oxygen ends up as
ozone, which is even easier to spot.

"And if you have CO2 (carbon dioxide) and ozone, which are two
easy things to see, then you'd be very suspicious because it
might be a life process."

One of the main research focuses the scientists agreed on
sounds the most unlikely but hinges on that very fact. The
proposed Mission to Early Earth would explore our planet's
origins by examining paleontological remnants and looking at
extreme environments deep beneath the seas and Earth's crust,
where life forms left from the early, pre-oxygen Earth might be

Figuring out what happened on Earth might help us guess what
happened, or is happening, on other planets, as life appears
now to be almost automatic, given certain circumstances.

"If you put the right kinds of elements together, you get a
planet. If you have a planet in the right place, you get a
climate. And if you have the right kind of climate, life
develops," says John Hayes of the Woods Hole Oceanographic

On Earth, that's exactly what happened.

After the appearance of liquid water - the precursor of all
life - on our planet 4 billion years ago, paleontologists date
the first chemical signs of life at 3.8 billion years ago.

"Life came pretty quickly as soon as water existed," says Jill
Tarter, who's with the Search for Extraterrestrial Life
Institute in Mountain View, Calif.

If life's pretty much a given when certain conditions are met,
then what about Mars, which early on sported liquid water and
was much more similar to Earth than it is now?

"Mars in fact might have been a better place for life to start
because it had fewer (asteroid) hits," Tarter says.

There are whose who posit that it might have had life, then
"seeded" Earth, explaining the rapid (geologically speaking)
appearance of life here a mere 200 million years after liquid
water became available.

Chris McKay, one of the NASA research scientists who announced
two years ago they had found what appeared to be fossilized
microbes on a meteorite from Mars, isn't necessarily one who
follows that theory, but he can explain how it might have

"Natural processes can spread life from one planet to another;
it doesn't require intelligent life," he told the assembled

Rocks thrown out of a planet's or moon's orbit by the force of
a meteorite crashing to the surface are slowly drawn by the
gravitational force of nearby bodies.

"After an impact on Mars, rocks start arriving on Earth within
a few years," he says. There's abundant proof of this, as 12
meteorites found in Antarctica all came from Mars.

Those rocks haven't been heated beyond a few hundred degrees,
and their interiors stay intact, shielding any hitchhiking
microbes from ultraviolet radiation and the other rigors of
space travel without the benefit of a space capsule.

"If you were coming from Earth and going to Mars, you'd be
well-protected in a small rock - if you were a bacillus," McKay
says. To test some of these ideas, one experiment is planned
that would expose to the vacuum of space various Earth-based
bacteria from extreme environments.

It's not as far-fetched as it sounds.

Spore-forming bacteria have reportedly been revived from the
stomachs of wasps entombed in amber for more than 25 million

After their intensive three days of discussions, the scientists
went back to their universities and laboratories, but they
haven't ended talks. NASA has created a "virtual" Astrobiology
Institute, using high-speed Internet links initially among 11
academic and research institutions (see astrobiology.arc.nasa

It will be "in the forefront of the increasingly important link
between astronomy and biology," NASA administrator Daniel S.
Goldin says.

With $9 million in funding for 1999 and $20 million in 2000,
NASA expects the research to take us even farther along the
road to understanding our planet and our place in the universe