Wednesday, May 6, 2015

CONTACT: Are We On The Verge Of Finding Extraterrestrial Life - United States And Russia Space Agencies Create Unprecedented Search Teams Hunting Aliens?!

The Nexss team, includes those who study Earth as a life-bearing planet (lower right), those researching the diversity of solar system planets (left),
and those on the new frontier, discovering worlds orbiting other stars in the galaxy (upper right)

May 6, 2015 -  SPACE
 - NASA claims we'll find aliens in the next 10 to 20 years – and now the agency is revving up its efforts to track them down.

NASA beefs up its team of 'alien hunters'

The group has put together a team of 'extraterrestrial experts' to see if any of the planets discovered outside our solar system are habitable.

And it says that amateur astronomers could help with its 'unprecedented' search for ET by accessing research data online.

The initiative, dubbed Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (Nexss), will include scientists from 10 universities including Stanford, the University of California and Yale.

The study of exoplanets is a relatively new field, and began with the discovery of the first exoplanet around a star like our sun in 1995.

Since the launch of the Kepler space telescope six years ago, more than 1,000 exoplanets have been found, with thousands of additional candidates waiting to be confirmed.

NASA has set up a website for the public called Planet Hunters which allows anyone to search the data gathered by Kepler, which launched six years ago.

Scientists are also developing new ways to confirm the habitability of these worlds and search for biosignatures, or signs of life.

By applying a 'system science' approach, the team hopes to understand an alien planet's biology interacts with the atmosphere, geology, oceans, and interior of a planet.

The announcement comes just weeks after NASA's top scientist predicted we could be on the verge of finding life on one of them.

During a talk in Washington last month, the space agency announced that humanity is likely to encounter extra-terrestrials within a decade.



THE NEXSS TEAM OF 'ALIEN HUNTERS': WHAT WILL THEY DO?

Alien hunters from the University of Berkeley, California and Stanford are tasked with answering the question: 'What are the properties of exoplanetary systems, as they relate to their formation, evolution, and potential to harbour life?'

They will combine astronomical observations of exoplanets and forming planetary systems with powerful computer simulations and cutting-edge microscopic studies of meteorites.

The team from Arizona State University in Phoenix will take a similar approach. This research group will place planetary habitability in a chemical context, with the goal of producing a 'periodic table of planets.'

Researchers from Hampton University, Virginia, will be exploring the sources and sinks for volatiles on habitable worlds. This research will help determine the past and present habitability of Mars and even Venus.

The team centered at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies will investigate habitability on a more local scale. It will examine the habitability of solar system rocky planets through time.

The team from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, will design new spectrometers - optical instruments that measure the spectrum of light - with the stability to reach Earth-detecting precision for nearby stars.

A group led the University of Nebraska-Kearney will explore the existence and evolution of exospheres around exoplanets, the outer, 'unbound' portion of a planet's atmosphere.

From the University of California, Santa Cruz, a group will investigate how novel maths equations can be used to extract information from light that is emitted and reflected by planetary atmospheres.

'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,' Ellen Stofan, chief scientist for NASA, said.

'We know where to look, we know how to look, and in most cases we have the technology.'

Jeffery Newmark, interim director of heliophysics at the agency, added: 'It's definitely not an if, it's a when.'

'We are not talking about little green men,' Stofan said. 'We are talking about little microbes.'

The announcement was prompted by the recent discovery of water by NASA in surprising places.

Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA, noted that a recent study of the Martian atmosphere found 50 per cent of the planet's northern hemisphere once had oceans a mile deep.

The same study found that water had been present on the red planet for up to 1.2 billion year.


During a talk last month, Nasa said humanity will encounter extra-terrestrials within a decade. '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,' said Ellen Stofan, chief scientist for Nasa, (pictured) at a Washington panel discussion

'We think that long period of time is necessary for life to get more complex,' Stofan said.

NASA associate administrator John Grunsfeld said he is excited about seeing what form life beyond Earth may take.

'Once we get beyond Mars, which formed from the same stuff as Earth, the likelihood that life is similar to what we find on this planet is very low,' he said.

'I think we're one generation away in our solar system, whether it's on an icy moon or on Mars, and one generation [away] on a planet around a nearby star.

At the same conference last year, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden made a more conservative estimate.

He claimed that we will find life within the next 20 years - with a high chance it will be outside our solar system.

NASA next Mars rover, scheduled to launch in 2020, will search for signs of past life and bring samples for a possible return to Earth for analysis.

NASA also hopes to land astronauts on Mars in the 2030s, which Stofan says is crucial key to the search for Mars life.


BILLIONS OF EXOPLANETS ARE MORE EARTH-LIKE THAN THOUGHT

In their hunt for alien life, astronomers have so far focused on looking for Earth-like planets around smaller, cooler suns.

But these exoplanets - despite having a chance of holding water - are believed to be locked in a rotation around their sun which causes only one side of their surface face the star.

Now astronomers claim that such exoplanets actually rotate around their stars, and spin at such a speed that they exhibit a day-night cycle similar to Earth – increasing the chance of finding alien life.

Planets with potential oceans could have a climate that is much more similar to Earth's than previously expected,' said Jérémy Leconte, a postdoctoral fellow at the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (CITA) at the University of Toronto.

'If we are correct, there is no permanent, cold night side on exoplanets causing water to remain trapped in a gigantic ice sheet,' he said.

'Whether this new understanding of exoplanets' climate increases the ability of these planets to develop life remains an open question.'

'I'm a field geologist; I go out and break open rocks and look for fossils,' Stofan said. 'Those are hard to find.

'So I have a bias that it's eventually going to take humans on the surface of Mars — field geologists, astrobiologists, chemists — actually out there looking for that good evidence of life that we can bring back to Earth for all the scientists to argue about.'

The space agency is also planning a mission to Europa, which may launch as early as 2022. It hopes to find out whether the icy moon is habitable.

Meanwhile, the agency's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), will launch in 2018 to scope out the atmospheres of nearby 'super-Earth' alien planets. - Daily Mail.

Russian space agency also on the hunt for extraterrestrial life

Russia’s space agency recently released a draft of their Federal Space Program for 2016 to 2025, and it includes their plans to join the European Space Agency (ESA) on the ExoMars Program whose mission is to hunt for signs of extraterrestrial life on Mars.

Russian newspaper RIA Novosti summarized the goals of the Russian Federal Space Agency, aka Roscomos, in a recent article on a draft of the new Russian Federal Space Program, which RIA Novosti was allowed to review. The headline for their story reads, “Search for extraterrestrial life is included in the draft of the new space program of the Russian Federation.”

The alien hunting program Roscomos is participating in is one that was created by the ESA and for a period of time was going to be executed in participation with NASA. It was part of the ESA/NASA Mars Exploration Joint Initiative. However, the ExoMars program was defunded on the U.S. side in 2013 purportedly due to cost overruns of the James Webb Space Telescope.


Graphic showing the now defunct ESA/NASA ExoMars project. (Credit: ESA/NASA)
Graphic showing the now defunct ESA-NASA ExoMars project. (Credit: ESA/NASA)

After NASA pulled out, Roscosmos jumped in, and as they put it, “thereby taking the place left by NASA.”

It is an ambitious project that includes four spacecraft. There will be an orbiter, two landers and a rover. The first part of the mission will include the orbiter and a lander, and is currently scheduled to be launched by a Roscomos Proton rocket in January, 2016.

The orbiter is called the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), and it serves many purposes. It will be used to survey Mars’ surface for landing sites, serve a sa communications relay for the landers and rover, map the distribution of near-surface water, and analyze the climate, including searching for and analyzing methane gas.

The ExoMars project timeline. See the English version below. Click to enlarge. (Credit: Roscosmos)
The ExoMars project details and timeline. See the English version below.   (Credit: RIA Novosti)

The detection of methane is important because one source of methane is microbes. Previously, NASA reported that their Curiosity rover did not detect methane at a high enough level to support the idea that it stems from a biological source. However, scientists did point out that if life existed in the past, most of this methane could have been depleted.

It is hoped that the TGO will be able to further analyze the methane that has been detected on Mars to discover its origins.

The lander that will accompany the TGO in January is called the Schiaparelli Descent and Landing Demonstrator Module (EDM) Lander, and, like its name indicates, one of its main goals it to test the ability of a lander to safely descend and land on the Martian surface.

Once there, it will also check the atmosphere and Martian weather. It includes a camera, so there will hopefully be some dramatic footage of its landing if it survives the trip. The lander is expected to arrive in October 2016.

The second ExoMars launch is planned to for May 2018. This package, which includes a lander and a rover, is expected to touch down on Mars in January 2019. The rover will have a drill which will pull Martian samples into an onboard lab for analysis. It will have the ability to look for biomolecules and biosignatures from life that exists, or existed, on Mars in the present or past.


ExoMars model at ILA 2006 (Berlin) (Credit: Thomas Hagemeyer/Wikimedia Commons)
ExoMars model at ILA 2006 (Berlin) (Credit: Thomas Hagemeyer/Wikimedia Commons)

This is yet another project in the hunt for evidence of extraterrestrial life, which is the crux of the majority of the research on Mars, according to Seth Shostak, senior astronomer for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute.

He says the Mars missions are not just about looking at rocks. “That’s the mythology,” says Shostak. “Mars is about life, not geology, as interesting as that is.”

NASA’s chief scientist Ellen Stofan recently said, “I think we’re going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth within a decade, and I think we’re going to have definitive evidence within twenty to thirty years.”

Perhaps Mars is the place we will find it. Although, what a rub it would be if the ESA and Roscomos find it without the participation of NASA. Then again, there are scientists who feel we have evidence of extraterrestrial life on Mars right here on Earth. The race is on.


ExoMars English
The ExoMars project details and timeline.  (Credit: RIA Novosti)

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