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Op-ed | Is NASA ready to find life beyond Earth?

Amy Ross, a spacesuit engineer at NASA's Johnson Space Center, left, and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, second from left, watch as Kristine Davis, a spacesuit engineer at NASA's Johnson Space Center, wearing a ground prototype of NASA's new Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU), and Dustin Gohmert, Orion Crew Survival Systems Project Manager at NASA's Johnson Space Center, wearing the Orion Crew Survival System suit, right, wave after being introduced by the administrator, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019 at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

“The world is not ready for the discovery of life on Mars,” NASA Chief Scientist Jim Green recently told a British newspaper. “I don’t think we’re prepared for the results.”

Agreed. But we could take it one step further and ask, “Is NASA ready to find life beyond Earth?” The quest to find and investigate life beyond the Earth has reached a tipping point. We stand on the brink of changing the perspective of humanity’s place in the universe and finally answering the question “Are we alone?”

The quest to find life beyond Earth is compelling. However, the capabilities to achieve the quest are distributed across the NASA organization, primarily in the Science Mission Directorate. They compete against other priorities for resources and urgency. This is a quest for all humanity. For NASA to succeed requires a new approach.

Why now? This current quest began in the mid-1990s. Swiss scientists Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz discovered the first planet orbiting another star in 1995, work recognized with the 2019 Nobel Prize for Physics. In 1996, the claim of a fossilized bacteria in a Mars meteorite sample created new momentum in the NASA planetary program. These discoveries set off a chain of missions and research that today is paying off handsomely.

The NASA Kepler mission science team has identified more than 2,700 confirmed extrasolar planets, the so-called exoplanets. Kepler and other observatories have demonstrated that our solar system is not typical, that planets come in many different types and orbits, and has identified candidates for Earthlike planets orbiting other suns. Those in the habitable zone where water is expected to be a liquid are of particular interest. These discoveries have created an enthusiastic and fast-growing exoplanet community, eager to find life beyond Earth.

Within our solar system, the Cassini mission team discovered geysers from Saturn’s moon Enceladus that are gushing salty water and possibly microbial life created in hydrothermal activity — analogous to life found around deep ocean vents on the Earth. Astrobiology, an interdisciplinary scientific field concerned with the origins of and search for life in the universe, has gone from a speculative theoretical research initiative started at NASA over 20 years ago, to the observational mainstream with a thriving science community.

The time is now to create a new “Life beyond Earth” organization within the NASA Science Mission Directorate. This would bring together the NASA life-finding capabilities including both the relevant future telescopes and solar system exploration missions. This may seem like a radical proposal to combine such different capabilities. However, the common science objective should drive the organization, rather than capability or technique. And it is worth remembering that telescopes discovered the planets in our solar system and the large future life-finding telescopes will provide amazing high-resolution imaging capabilities not just of exoplanets, but also of solar system planets and moons.

A “Life beyond Earth” organization would include the science enabled by human exploration. Future Artemis astronauts will return samples from the ice-filled, permanently shadowed lunar craters that may hold clues to the origins of life. Robotic missions and eventually astronauts will return samples from Mars that may provide definitive evidence for life beyond Earth. The important advocacy for planetary protection to prevent false alarms from contaminating microbes brought from Earth would be an essential part of this organization. Astronauts will most likely be needed to assemble in space the large life finding telescopes required to make detailed studies of candidate extrasolar habitable planets.

Such reorganizations have been successfully undertaken in response to the shifting scientific landscape. Heliophysics at NASA was created 20 years ago bringing together the solar astronomers and the space physicists toward a common goal: studying the Sun-Earth magnetosphere system. While initially there were concerns about how the two different scientific cultures would coexist, it has been a resounding success exemplified by successful missions, such as the Parker Solar Probe.

This new organization will also inform decadal surveys, which set priorities for future science missions. The astrophysics decadal survey (Astro2020) is currently underway. New observatories are being considered to directly image exoplanets and search for the signatures of habitability. Astro2020 has a Hobson’s choice to prioritize the search for life against other high priority astrophysics science. Likewise, the upcoming planetary science 2023 decadal will confront a similar dilemma (e.g., prioritizing returning samples from Mars against flagship missions to the ice giants.). Ultimately, under this new approach, there would be a “search for life” decadal survey that would focus on prioritizing resources toward this quest.

The quest for life beyond Earth has entered a new phase and requires a bold new initiative. It presents an opportunity to raise the tide to lift all boats. This will prepare NASA and the public not just for the first discovery of life beyond the Earth, but for what follows. In doing so this will be a winwin for NASA, the scientific community and humanity.

Nicholas E. White Ph.D. is a research professor of physics at George Washington University and owner of Space Science Solutions LLC. He previously served as senior vice president for science at the Universities Space Research Association and director of science at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. He is a fellow of the American Physical Society.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 23, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.