Alien World - Exotic Life FormsStarting discoveries by NASA scientist suggest the universe may be teeming with exotic life-forms.
Published in the July 1999 issue.
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As scientists begin to ponder data that show the ingredients of life to be plentiful in the universe, they have begun to speculate how subtle change in factors such as gravity and sunlight might influence the development of alien life-forms. In this artist's conception of an alien world, a stronger gravitational field has produced a higher-density atmosphere. Creatures can fly using smaller wings than would work on Earth. But less light reaches the planet's surface. The "trees" have responded by concentrating their "leaves" near their tops where each will receive maximum exposure to sunlight.
If the case for extraterrestrial life were put to a jury it probably would be out for less than 5 minutes before returning the verdict that we are not alone. No one expects E.T. to come knocking on the door of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. However, recent research findings, including the discovery of the first solar system other than our own, have convinced leading scientists that life probably exists on the surfaces and in the oceans of distant planets and their moons, and perhaps even in the void of space itself.
More than simply convincing skeptical scientists, these recent findings have quietly moved NASA to abandon its long-standing position that biologists need not apply. Now, NASA is welcoming microbe hunters with open arms. One indication of its enthusiasm came in a surprise announcement by NASA administrator Daniel Goldin. Speaking to more than 1000 aerospace executives and senior military officers who gathered for the 15th annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., Goldin said he would order all NASA employees to take a basic course in biological science.
The announcement wasn't the agency's first step toward recognizing that life may come in more flavors than those found on Earth. About the time tiny Pathfinderwas mesmerizing the nation with its robotic exploration of Mars, Goldin was ordering the managers of the cash-strapped space agency to find a way to create an Astrobiology Institute (AI). "Its [funding] isn't impressive by National Institutes of Health standards, but it is impressive," says Kenneth Nealson, one of the project's senior scientists. Nealson's presence is yet another indication of NASA's seriousness. In addition to working for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., Nealson serves on the National Academy of Sciences' subcommittee for Solar System Exploration.
"The search for life is no longer a fringe type of thing," Nealson tells POPULAR MECHANICS. "We are attracting great people." The top priority for Nealson and his colleagues at the 11 major government and university laboratories that form AI is to answer this question: What does an alien really look like?