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Calm Down: NASA Hasn’t Found any Aliens

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

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

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Nancy Atkinson December 1, 2010, 8:31 AM

    Oh! Sorry!

  • Aqua December 1, 2010, 8:56 AM

    “…methanogens the youngest branch…” on Earth!

  • Aqua December 1, 2010, 8:59 AM

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

  • Dori December 1, 2010, 9:59 AM

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

  • geraldspace December 1, 2010, 1:24 PM

    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.

  • Jon Hanford December 1, 2010, 3:51 PM

    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).

  • John c December 2, 2010, 3:03 AM

    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

  • Uncle Fred December 2, 2010, 3:32 AM

    @John C:

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

  • dwdeclare December 2, 2010, 7:01 AM

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

  • Lawrence B. Crowell December 2, 2010, 8:37 AM

    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.


  • Anonymous May 13, 2011, 4:35 AM

    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.