NASA made a bold prediction this week. The space agency, while announcing that they would be launching the Transiting Exoplanet Surveying Satellite (TESS) in 2017, stated that the agency was taking an aggressive approach to looking for extraterrestrial life and that alien life would be found within the next twenty years.
The Week reported July 15 that NASA scientists now estimate that the discovery of extraterrestrial life will take place in the next two decades. They added that they believed their estimate to be a conservative one.
NASA suggests that there could be as many as 100 million worlds in the Milky Way galaxy alone that harbors some form of alien life. And with more and more exoplanets being discovered, the odds seem to lean toward the possibility that somewhere out there in the universe, chemicals combined to form other life forms as they did on Earth.
"Just imagine the moment when we find potential signatures of life," Director Matt Mountain of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore statement at the announcement. "Imagine the moment when the world wakes up and the human race realizes that its long loneliness in time and space may be over — the possibility we're no longer alone in the universe."
Kevin Hand, a NASA astronomer, concurred. He said that within the next 20 years "we will find out we are not alone in the universe." In fact, he said that alien life might be as close as Jupiter; specifically, on its moon, Europa.
The panel of NASA scientists said the agency would also focus on finding life on exoplanets, or extrasolar planets (worlds outside the Solar System), or stars. TESS would be instrumental in identifying potential worlds for astronomers and other scientists to study for the potentiality of harboring life.
Although NASA made a bold commitment and prediction, there was no going boldly where no one has gone before. That spaceship sailed quite some time ago, what with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) searching of alien life now for five decades. Besides, being bankrolled by the federal government puts some public relations constraints on the agency that might not exist if they were privately owned. Legislators themselves can look like crackpots when talking about things extraterrestrial, but an agency that needs votes for appropriations cannot afford to even come close to embarrassing a potential congressional benefactor. And since there was always so little to go on except for Drake's Equation (which postulates the probability of life and intelligent life in our galaxy), NASA always stuck to the science, to the facts, to the data. Making crazy predictions wasn't part of the overall plan to keep the agency perpetually funded. (Oddly enough, the federal government funded SETI research until 1995.)
No, NASA's bold prediction wasn't even the first.
Dr. Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute in California, and Dr. Dan Wethimer, Directory of SETI Research at the University of California Berkeley, told a House congressional panel in May that alien life would be discovered within the next twenty years, provided there was enough funding to keep the search going.
Shostak told the legislators that about one in five planets in the universe had the potential to sustain life -- and, on some worlds, intelligent life. In the Milky Way alone, he estimated that as many as 80 billion planets could be Earth-like. "There is, in other words," he asserted, "more than adequate cosmic real estate for extraterrestrial life, including intelligent life."
Shostak wrote a paper in 2006 where he predicted that alien life would be discovered within 25 years.
In 2011, Russian scientist Andrei Finkelstein, director of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Applied Astronomy Institute, added his voice to those who feel discovery of alien life is imminent. He told an international symposium that extraterrestrial life would be discovered in the next two decades as well. And he believes the aliens will resemble humans.
Dr. Shostak holds out for a far more diverse physiological make-up of alien life forms.
As for NASA, things have loosened up a bit at the space agency over the years. Three generations into kids growing up watching "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" have made the search for alien life forms not only a reality (see: astrobiology and the continuing work of SETI) but something worthy of intellectual, academic, and practical pursuit as well.
And now NASA is on board for the search.
So... twenty years. Correction: Less than twenty years...
It's a relatively safe prognostication that the alien life that is eventually initially discovered will most likely be microbial, but there is also the ouside chance it will be some higher life form. And if so, that life form just might be intelligent. A visitor perhaps. And if so, it might pay to be ready for some major changes in the ways of the world. Because finding life outside the home planet will be a game-changer, literally opening up new worlds of study and research and questioning the very foundations of what we know and what we believe and even the way we think about... just about everything.