Space Program Research Indicates Extraterrestrial Life Likely

November 17, 2013 in Technology, Top News

NASA SAM instrument suite

The Sample Analysis at Mars instrument suite, prior to its installation on the Curiosity rover. Source: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Research findings by NASA scientists appear to raise the odds of confirming the existence of past life in the solar system, and of finding other biologically viable planets in the extended universe. NASA’s Curiosity rover has gathered soil materials from Mars that indicate at least a several percent presence of water by weight.

Curiosity is the first rover on Mars capable of gathering and processing rock and soil samples. Curiosity uses a Sample Analysis at Mars instrument suite (SAM), including gas chromatography, mass spectrometry and tunable laser spectrometry to identify chemical compounds and isotopic ratios capable of showing evidence of water, as well as at least trace levels of organic compounds.

Laurie Leshin, dean of the School of Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute reported recently, “One of the most exciting results from this very first solid sample ingested by Curiosity is the high percentage of water in the soil.”

According to comments by Leshin and NASA reports in September, about two percent of the soil on the surface of Mars is made up of water.

A paper by the Mars Science Laboratory Science Team reports on the methodologies being used in the use of SAM instruments on Mars. It describes scientists using the Mars rover’s scoop to gather up dust, dirt and finely grained soil from a sandy area known as Rocknest. Researchers used SAM to heat the fine dust, dirt and soil to 1,535 degrees Fahrenheit. This revealed a compound containing chlorine and oxygen, as well as indicating the presence of carbonate materials, which form in the presence of water.

NASA’s Kepler telescope program also has emerged with significant findings related to the search for life beyond earth. Monday, Nov. 4 marked an international gathering of scientists at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. to discuss new findings from the analysis of Kepler Space Telescope data. At that forum the Kepler team announced the discovery of 833 new candidate planets which may be habitable for life, coming to a total of 3,538 such planets. Of these, Kepler has confirmed at least five planets as habitable zones, two of these in a single solar system.

According to NASA, “Kepler’s mission is to determine what percentage of stars like the sun harbor small planets the approximate size and temperature of Earth. For four years, the space telescope simultaneously and continuously monitors the brightness of more than 150,000 stars, recording a measurement every 30 minutes. More than a year of the collected data remains to be fully reviewed and analyzed.”

Findings at this time appear to indicate high numbers of life-friendly planets in existence within the discernible universe. About 22 percent of sun-like stars in our own Milky Way galaxy alone are orbited by potentially habitable planets about the size of Earth. As many as two billion planets in a 12 light-year radius may be suitable for life.