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Astrobiology -- Are We Alone in the Universe?: Got Life?


Chasma Boreale
Chasma Boreale is a valley that cuts deep into Mars' north polar icecap. Where the ice cap has retreated, sand from warmer climate cycles is exposed and has been shaped into dunes by the wind. This eerily Earth-like vista was made by combining data from NASA's Mars Odyssey and Global Surveyor orbiters. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University, Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS)

Meeting relatives often provokes the question, "How are we related?" As humans, we gather perspective through our relationships with other people and with our environment. Similarly, as we study our solar system and worlds beyond, we search for that information about our relationship with the Universe -- where else does life exist? How does life evolve? Are we alone?

California's Mono Lake is naturally hypersaline
-- roughly 2-3 times saltier than the ocean and
includes trace amounts of minerals, including
arsenic. Recently, bacteria which appear to
incorporate arsenic rather than phosphorus into
their basic biological molecules were found
living in Mono Lake.
Mono Lake

These are among the big questions that drive NASA's science research and its planetary and astronomical missions; their search for life is at an exciting stage right now! The Mars Science Laboratory's Curiosity rover is currently investigating whether the region has ever offered conditions favorable for microbial life; the rover will also examine any complex organic molecules it finds.

The Cassini Solstice mission to continues to study Saturn's moon Enceladus, where it discovered an icy plume with complex organic chemicals. With heat, organic chemicals and, potentially liquid water, Enceladus could be a place where primitive life forms might evolve. [For more information and activities on the search for water, go to Water in the Solar System.]

Missions are searching for evidence of life outside of our solar system as well. The Spitzer Space Telescope examines the infrared Universe to observe organic molecules that may hold the secret to life on planets. The Hubble Space Telescope is measuring the atmospheres of distant worlds and detecting many of the ingredients for life. [For more information and activities on the search for planets beyond our solar system, click to the YSS topic Discovering New Worlds.]

Join us as we explore one of the most fundamental questions: are we alone in the Universe? Check out activities related to our search for life in the Classrooms and Organizations and Clubs sections, and find a variety of powerpoints, articles, videos, interactives, and more under Educational Resources.

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Last Updated: 16 Apr 2014