No, NASA is probably not announcing extraterrestrial life. And though this stock image shows a water bear, these cool little creatures come from right here on Earth (and have nothing to do with the announcement, but are scary looking when magnified). Image Credit: NASA
No, NASA is probably not announcing extraterrestrial life. And though this stock image shows a water bear, these cool little creatures come from right here on Earth (and have nothing to do with the announcement, but are scary looking when magnified). Image Credit: NASA

Astrobiology, Breaking News, NASA

Calm Down: NASA Hasn’t Found any Aliens

30 Nov , 2010 by

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You may have heard in your wanderings through the blogosphere and in the internet today that NASA will be holding a press conference on December 2nd in which they will make an announcement regarding information the search for extraterrestrial life. And that this announcement involves astrobiology, the study of life outside what we know about here on Earth. While true, it is nothing to get worked up about.

Speculation abounds that this is, “the big one,” and that an announcement will be made that extraterrestrial life has been discovered. You can find this speculation at Kottke.org, io9, Gawker, and a lot of other places.

To be clear, there is almost no chance that the press release will be announcing little green men or little brown bacteria anywhere. Follow along for the long explanation below the fold.

Here’s what the press release is titled: “NASA Sets News Conference on Astrobiology Discovery: Science Journal Has Embargoed Details Until 2 p.m. EST On Dec. 2”. All this means is that Science Journal will be publishing some results related to astrobiology that are under embargo until that time. The embargo system is a basically a way of allowing journalists to see scientific results and get interviews and do research on an article before it’s published, but only if they promise to publish their information after the original publication does so. It makes sense, and it works most of the time to the benefit of almost everyone.

NASA regularly – like every day – announces upcoming press conferences and releases, and embargoed press releases float around to science writers like those of us here at Universe Today. This in itself is nothing out of the ordinary, and anyone with an email address can sign up to have these announcements delivered to their inbox or view them on NASA’s website. These emails are meant mainly to notify members of the press that there is something coming up worthy of being a phone-in listener of, the details of which require you to have press credentials.

The press release goes on to say,

“NASA will hold a news conference at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life. Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.
The news conference will be held at the NASA Headquarters auditorium at 300 E St. SW, in Washington. It will be broadcast live on NASA Television and streamed on the agency’s website at http://www.nasa.gov.
Participants are:
– Mary Voytek, director, Astrobiology Program, NASA Headquarters, Washington
– Felisa Wolfe-Simon, NASA astrobiology research fellow, U.S. Geological Survey, Menlo Park, Calif.
– Pamela Conrad, astrobiologist, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
– Steven Benner, distinguished fellow, Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, Gainesville, Fla.
– James Elser, professor, Arizona State University, Tempe”

And that’s about it. My first reaction to this was that they had potentially made the discovery of exotic, new organic molecules in an exoplanetary atmosphere, or that some chemical conducive to the existence of life as we know it was possibly found on some body in the Solar System. Announcements like this come out of NASA all of the time.

Just because some of the participants do work in fields that are related to oceanography or ecology or biology, does not mean that their services are required here to help make an announcement that life other than that on Earth has been discovered, as other speculative bloggers might think.

As Nancy wrote in a post earlier today, extraterrestrial life is very much of interest to Universe Today readers. Which is why she’ll be listening in on that news conference Thursday, and reporting what findings are released.

Extraterrestrial life is very much of interest to probably most of the population of our planet, too, and the fact that we have the tools necessary to potentially make this discovery within the next few hundred years (or sooner), is really, really exciting.

But just because it’s exciting doesn’t mean we have to jump all over a NASA press release that includes the words “extraterrestrial life” or “precursor to life on Mars” and make wild speculations. When that announcement is made (or if, depending on how you choose to solve the Drake Equation), you can be sure that it will be very closely guarded until being made public, and after that the President will likely have some things to say.

For some more level-headed analysis, Keith Cowing at Nasa Watch has some much more reasonable speculation that the announcement involves arsenic biochemistry. The Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait, also has a good debunking of the rampant speculation, and makes some good points about how NASA can create press releases in the future that have better-worded announcements.

So calm down – but don’t stop looking up! Keep being excited about all of the genuinely cool and exciting developments we’re currently making with regards to space.

Source: NASA press release

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By
I started writing for Universe Today in September 2007, and have loved every second of it since! Astronomy and science are fascinating for me to learn and write about, and it makes me happy to share my passion for science with others. In addition to the science writing, I'm a full-time bicycle mechanic and the two balance nicely, as I get to work with my hands for part of the day, and my head the other part (some of the topics are a stretch for me to wrap my head around, too!).



31 Responses

  1. jbuz says:

    way to be a downer!!

  2. Ya seriously… let’s at least offer some hope their announcement gives this sad excuse for a species something worthwhile to think about.

  3. vagueofgodalming says:

    some results related to astrobiology that are under embargo

    So you openly admit that NASA is involved in a cover-up? Julian Assange really needs to focus on the important stuff instead of embarrassing Hillary Clinton.

    Obama cut most of the Nasa budgets

    Whut? I thought he increased the budget? (Not that he gets what he wants – Congress decides.)

  4. GekkoNZ says:

    Thank you Universe Today for some realistic perspective on the matter.

    Surely NASA knows how press releases with that style of wording can be interpreted by the population at large, most especially in this day and age of blogs and viral misinformation. It just causes unnecessary speculation and disappointment when the details are released.

  5. Aqua says:

    Hmm….how about: Species of methane found on Mars definitely organic tracer?

  6. the rover says:

    You guys also go around telling 6-year-olds there’s no Santa?

  7. Harry says:

    @Rover, nice one. It has to be said that till the NASA announcement is not done, how can you already know and claim that there is not going to be any news about existence of alien life. That is just down right negative and writing an entire article about it is just a downer.

  8. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says:

    “NASA will be holding a press conference on December 2nd in which they will make an announcement regarding information the search for extraterrestrial life.”

    Yeah, sure! Let’s face it. If extraterrestrial life is discovered, it might pose an interesting philosophical question. However, unless these ET’s decide to attack the earth or wipe humanity of the face of the planet, I doubt if it will make any difference. Why? It will probably be too darn far away to make an use of knowing it!

    Frankly, I’d really more look forward to hearing if life still exists in the NASA’s space program!

  9. Hon. Salacious B. Crumb says:

    Of course the other thing might be that Sarah Palin is proved to be an alien. I mean her ideas in reality are often quite wacky enough to be, literally, completely out of this world! I.e. She today called a guy as being un-American, which is quite bizarre, as they guy isn’t American! I’ll really laugh if this discovery was made in the state of Alaska

  10. Torbjorn Larsson OM says:

    Of course, the real winners are the E. coli that inhabits us and likely outnumber our cells genome. At least the sum total of our symbionts do.

    I, for one, hail Our Genetic Overlords! [Translation: I know how to keep my gastrointestinal system happy. Hear? … oh, stop growling!]

    Species of methane found on Mars definitely organic tracer?

    I doubt that is the case.

    As I frequently mention, our own methanogens (archaea) are the youngest branch together with us (eukaryotes). And the anaerobic methanogen metabolism is a descendant of a simpler aerobic methylotroph one (by coenzyme phylogeny) so after the Earth oxygenation event and perhaps the very youngest metabolism. That _should_ point to evolutionary difficulty (of course here, modulo contingency).

    No, much more likelier, especially know that they have found putative signs of massive carbonate layers thrown up from ~ 6 km down in a crater peak correlated with a methane emission area, is that hydrothermal activity on carbonates creates the methane.

    Which is a *good* sign for extinct and extant life on Mars – once massive oceans, now massively hydrothermally active!

    It will probably be too darn far away to make an use of knowing it!

    Again, I doubt that is the case.

    Statistics on biospheres and habitability will certainly help constrain abiogenesis mechanisms. We should be able, with a large enough sample, to gain insight in the conditions that lead to life. And conversely figure out what biochemistries results in the probiotic-to-protobiotic-to-biotic transitions. Both would help elucidate likely pathways.

  11. Torbjorn Larsson OM says:

    Huh! First cut off in comments (but it looks to be my own fault), then thrown out afterwards! I’ll try again, in toto:

    Yeah, but the good thing is that this still bugs everyone.

    If it is “shadow biosphere” stuff, it is remotely interesting; the chances for life in habitable places are high anyway. Let’s hope for something more substantial!

    this sad excuse for a species

    Um, what!? As a species our success has been tremendous, and we are now in an exponential growth and massive niche overtake/creation that few other species can brag about. As a primate species we are easily the most successful to spread our genome around.

    Of course, the real winners are the E. coli that inhabits us and likely outnumber our cells genome. At least the sum total of our symbionts do.

    I, for one, hail Our Genetic Overlords! [Translation: I know how to keep my gastrointestinal system happy.]

    Species of methane found on Mars definitely organic tracer?

    I doubt that is the case.

    As I frequently mention, our own methanogens (archaea) are the youngest branch together with us (eukaryotes). And the anaerobic methanogen metabolism is a descendant of an aerobic methylotroph one (by coenzyme phylogeny) so after the Earth oxygenation event and perhaps the very youngest metabolism. That _should_ point to evolutionary difficulty (of course, modulo contingency).

    No, much more likelier, especially know that they have found putative signs of massive carbonate layers thrown up from ~ 6 km down in a crater peak correlated with a methane gas area, is that hydrothermal activity on carbonates creates the methane.

    Which is a *good* sign for extinct and extant life on Mars – once massive oceans, now hydrothermally active!

    It will probably be too darn far away to make an use of knowing it!

    Again, I doubt that is the case.

    Statistics on biospheres and habitability will certainly help constrain abiogenesis mechanisms. We should be able, with a large enough sample, to gain insight in the conditions that lead to life. And conversely figure out what biochemistries results in the probiotic-to-protobiotic-to-biotic transitions. Both would help elucidate likely pathways.

  12. sieben says:

    What about the fact that Obama cut most of the Nasa budgetts to save money, and the guys at Nasa now thinks, its time to show the world something awesome. That will float the cash back to Nasa to do their jobs? I think we can expect something extraordinary tomorrow.

  13. Uncle Fred says:

    I’ll have a look tomorrow. Maybe a new way to search for life has been found?

  14. HeadAroundU says:

    So, how many UT readers read those sites and believe it. This debunking always fascinates me.

  15. Cosmic Super Ape says:

    The explanation of the embargo system was very interesting! Probably my favorite part about this article.

  16. Lawrence B. Crowell says:

    Here is a list of the authors of the paper to appear in “Science,” and their work:

    Mary Voytek: A microbiologist interested in aquatic microbial ecology and biogeochemistry. She has studies life in extreme conditions on Earth suxh as deep-sea hydrothermal vents and terrestrial deep-subsurface sites and is an Interim Senior Scientist for Astrobiology in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA HQ.

    Felisa Wolfe-Simon:a NASA Astrobiology Research Fellow through the NAI and Exobiology at NASA. She has studied (hypothetical) life forms with unusual chemistry including arsenic-based life.

    Pamela Conrad: Works at NASA’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory and studies signatures for life and planetary habitability assessment.

    Steven Benner: A biochemist who runs a laboratory that aims to create artificial life. The lab also studies bio-signatures from planets other than Earth and is working with NASA to deign the next generation of probes to Mars

    James Elser: A researcher in the field of biological stoichiometry, the study of balance of energy and multiple chemical elements in living systems. Currently, he is an active member of the ASU’s NASA-funded Astrobiology project “Follow the Elements”

    LC

  17. HeadAroundU says:

    So, why does UT advertise those shitty sites? Does UT get new readers like that?

  18. @HeadaroundU — Universe Today doesn’t choose the ads the that come up. Read this post by Fraser from last year about the topic. http://www.universetoday.com/29197/woowoo-ads-on-universe-today/ You can opt out of the ads if you use Firefox.

  19. HeadAroundU says:

    I’m talking about Kottke.org, io9 and Gawker. I’m always on topic. :)

  20. Aqua says:

    “…methanogens the youngest branch…” on Earth!

  21. Aqua says:

    I’d say, “…a laboratory that aims to create artificial life…” is a good poss.

  22. Dori says:

    How’d you get a picture of my ex-boyfriend to illustrate this article?

  23. geraldspace says:

    My guess: They will show that it is possible to have organisms that use arsenates (arsenic compounds) instead of phosphates, even in their DNA structures, and that by searching for aresenates, we may identify life forms that would otherwise have been ignored because they didn’t meet the “life as we know it” criteria. But that’s just my guess.

  24. Jon Hanford says:

    Looks like the embargo has been broken. The Daily Mail is reporting on the discovery of an organism found in Mono Lake, CA, that utilizes arsenic instead of phosphorous to sustain itself: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1334628/Astrobiology-findings-Alien-bacteria-lives-arsenic-Californian-lake-opens-search-life-planets.html

    This is indeed a significant discovery (good guess Geraldspace).

  25. John c says:

    There are 2 types of people in this world !! The people that believe everything the government and NASA tells them and the people that question what these parties tell us. You have naive, insecure, little nerds that right stupid articles such as this and the people that find out the real stories for themselves….WHY does NASA have a truth embargo ?? Why does NASA use the word “bogey” ?? Why did they say an alien ship blah blah blah during a live transmission and then deny it ?and then say they were joking ?? Wake up people seriously

  26. Uncle Fred says:

    @John C:

    ..Why do you have to troll our forums??

  27. dwdeclare says:

    i think it’s just going to be another one of those damn “rick rolls”

  28. Lawrence B. Crowell says:

    Arsenic exists in the same column of the periodic table as phosphorus and so its outer electron structure is similar. Of course it is only similar enough to chemically react with living forms in a perturbing way. Phosphorus is a crucial part of nucleotides, and is involved with energetic pathways ATP – > ADP + P_i, where the remaining phosphorus binds onto a polypeptide site, called phosphorylation. That is associated with molecular pathways and processes. If arsenic gets into the loop it usually causes the processes to get gummed up.

    Arsenic life is maybe not that alien, but more a testimony to the power of evolution to adapt to a different chemical process. I would frankly be rather surprised if these bacteria turn out to be from outer space.

    LC

  29. Anonymous says:

    they have discovered aliens, but its kept in a top secret lab and not told to public. I am having a very hard time finding where they were stored. A space craft thing has crashed and there were weird creatures inside. A farmer persons house is where they landed. People have claimed to have been abducted by them. Now im not sure if this is true or not, but they explained them the same way each person.

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