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Recent announcements from scientific community boost search for extraterrestrial life

Recent announcements from the scientific community have given a boost to the search for extraterrestrial life, and seem to have sharply increased the mainstream public’s interest in the subject.

Credit: Yale University
Credit: Yale University
Findings published in the December 1st advanced online publication of Nature show that astronomers are now estimating there to be three times the number of stars in the universe as previously thought. The new estimate of approximately 300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (300 sextillion) stars is based on the observation of red dwarf stars, which have previously been difficult to detect because of their faint signatures. New observation technology like that at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii allowed astronomers to detect the faint signature of red dwarfs in eight large, elliptical galaxies. These galaxies have been found to be much more bountiful than previously assumed.

Gliese 581 (credit: European Southern Observatory)
Gliese 581 (credit: European Southern Observatory)
This discovery also increases the number of planets that might contain life. According to Pieter van Dokkum, a Yale University astronomer who led the research, “There are possibly trillions of Earths orbiting these stars.” The discovered red dwarf stars are typically more than 10 billion years old, and according to van Dokkum, have existed long enough for complex life to evolve.

Many astronomers believe that a recently discovered planet could potentially support life, and this planet orbits Gliese 581—a red dwarf star.

Another announcement from the scientific community was delivered by NASA on December 2nd at a press conference at the NASA headquarters auditorium in Washington, DC.

Even before the NASA press conference was held, the internet exploded with speculation. “NASA finds aliens,” “Has NASA found alien life?,” and “Will NASA’s announcement reveal aliens?” are just a few examples of the headlines from independent bloggers and major media companies alike that were the result of NASA’s tantalizing press release announcing their press conference. The release simply indicated that the conference would “discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.”

Mono Lake (credit: Michael Gäbler)
Mono Lake (credit: Michael Gäbler)
This curiously worded press release sent researchers and journalists digging for clues as to what the topic of this press conference might end up being. After researching the credentials of the announced press conference participants, some predicted that NASA would be announcing the discovery of evidence to support the existence of arsenic-based life. Prior to the press conference, NASA imposed a media embargo on information relating to the subject of the conference, but that did not stop the UK’s The Sun from spilling information about NASA’s discovery of arsenic-based bacteria living in a California lake.

The rumors were confirmed by NASA when they announced the discovery of a new type of bacteria living in Mono Lake, California, which belongs to a particular strain of the Gammaproteobacteria family of bacteria called GFAJ-1. This bacteria substitutes arsenic for phosphorus in its cell components, giving it a unique biochemistry. According to geomicrobiologist Felisa Wolfe-Simon, who has studied this bacteria, this finding “opens the door for us to think about biology in ways we have never thought,” and it also multiplies the search parameters for researchers scouring the universe for extraterrestrial life.

This life form is not new however, as the discovery of these arsenic-based microorganisms was announced more than five years ago, and was the subject of the May 26, 2005 All Things Considered segment on NPR.

GFAJ-1 (Credit: Science/AAAS)
GFAJ-1 (Credit: Science/AAAS)
NASA’s decision to hold a press conference about five-year-old news raises questions as to their motives. Was this just a sociological experiment to gauge the public’s reaction to a press release about extraterrestrial life? Was this simply a publicity stunt by NASA to garner interest in their research with the hope of securing funding? Or is NASA really five years behind the times? It is unclear.

The staggering amount of attention given to NASA’s press conference, both from the media and from the public, is becoming a typical reaction to any news that hints at the possibility of extraterrestrial life, as was exemplified in October of 2010 when UFOs over New York City ignited a global media frenzy.

Felisa Wolfe-Simon processing mud from Mono Lake (Credit: NASA)
Felisa Wolfe-Simon processing mud from Mono Lake (Credit: NASA)
Is the world ready for the discovery of extraterrestrial life? Most likely, the answer is “yes.”

While there have always been scientists interested in the search for extraterrestrial life, there has been a stigma attached to this research. The recent announcements from the scientific community relating to extraterrestrial life help to move the search into a more accepted and respected arena of scientific research.

Mainstream media outlets around the world seem to be reporting more UFO sightings than they have in the past. While UFO reports have traditionally been delivered by the media flippantly, it appears that the media has now changed to a more serious tone when delivering these stories. This could be in response to the public’s increased interest in the topic of UFOs and extraterrestrials, as is evident by the ever multiplying number of television programs and movies with these themes.

In the recent November 2010 election, voters in Denver, Colorado voted on the creation of an Extraterrestrial Affairs Commission, which would have looked into UFO reports and published UFO information on the city’s website, among other things. While the initiative did not pass, nearly 30 percent of the voters (approximately 50,000 people) were in favor of creating such a commission. Following in the footsteps of Denver, there are efforts underway to push for the creation of a similar initiative in New York.

So, it seems that humans could be ready, and possibly even expecting an official announcement to come regarding the existence of extraterrestrial life. Perhaps this recent headline in response to NASA’s latest press release says it best—”Will NASA Just Hurry Up and Admit They Caught an Alien?”

Jason McClellan

Jason McClellan is a UFO journalist and the producer/co-host of the web series Spacing Out! He is also the web content manager and staff writer for OpenMinds.tv, and a co-organizer and technical producer of the International UFO Congress. As a founding member of Open Minds, Jason served as a writer and editor for the now defunct Open Minds magazine. He has appeared on Syfy, NatGeo, and, most recently, he co-starred on H2's Hangar 1: The UFO Files. ------ Follow Jason on Twitter @acecentric and subscribe to Jason's updates on Facebook.

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  1. That was a different bacteria. It uses arsenic for respiration, not in place of phosphorous.

  2. Thanks for pointing that out, Nicholas. You are quite correct. The bacteria discovered at Searles Lake in 2005 were found to breathe the arsenic as we breathe oxygen. It appears that NASA is now acknowledging this bacteria, yet they are claiming that their newly discovered bacteria is “the first known microorganism on Earth able to thrive and reproduce using the toxic chemical arsenic,” which doesn’t seem to be the case.

  3. The point still stands that life can and even here on Earth does come in forms, previous to 2005 or so, that were unknown to exist or even thought to be possible. Life just isn’t restricted by our previously limited parameters.

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