Some of NASA’s top minds believe we’re not alone in the universe. And they think we’ll find out for sure soon.
“I believe we are going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth in the next decade, and definitive evidence in the next 10 to 20 years,” NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan said at a panel April 7 in Washington.
“We know where to look, we know how to look, and in most cases we have the technology,” she said. (Video of these comments is available at the Daily Mail.)
Stofan clarified that the life she expects to encounter is tiny—on the scale of bacteria. “We are not talking about little green men,” she said.
There are a number of reasons to be somewhat expectant about the possibility of extraterrestrial life. One is that we keep finding new evidence that water is replete in our own solar system: subterranean oceans on the moons of Saturn and Jupiter, crater pools on Mercury, signs of a Martian ocean that may have once been over a mile deep.
Another reason is that we keep finding planets outside our solar system that look like Earth—so far scientists have pinpointed over 4,000 that are rocky and mild in climate. Such candidates are mostly identified by the Kepler Space Telescope, a task that will become easier after the new James Webb Space Telescope launches in 2018.
So the trouble isn’t with identifying places where life might exist—there are plenty of those. Rather, it’s a needle-in-the-haystack problem: finding microscopic lifeforms in the great expanse of space.
Still, NASA is optimistic. As Jeffrey Newmark, NASA’s interim director of heliophysics, said at the panel: “It’s definitely not an if, it’s a when.”