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Life beyond Earth? NASA's chief scientist would like to find it

November 21, 2013|By Deborah Netburn
  • Ellen Stofan, NASA chief scientist, gives an address at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge.
Ellen Stofan, NASA chief scientist, gives an address at the Jet Propulsion… (NASA/JPL-Caltech )

Is there life beyond Earth in our solar system? If there is, NASA's new chief scientist, Ellen Stofan, would like to find it.

"If I had an unlimited budget, I would really be probing that question of life, because we know what the questions are, and we know what the destinations are," she said. 

Stofan was at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Wednesday, attending meetings and speaking with the press. She landed NASA's top scientist job in August, but this was not her first visit to the campus in La Canada Flintridge. Her background is in planetary geology, and she worked at JPL as a senior scientist for nearly a decade, from 1991 to 2000.

PHOTOS: Moons of the solar system

Stofan has studied the geology of Venus and Mars, as well as Saturn's moon Titan, and Earth. She is an associate member of NASA's Cassini mission, and was principal investigator on a proposed mission to send a lander to Titan. 

Now that she's chief scientist at the space agency, she has to deal with major budget uncertainty and the unpleasant possibility of a government sequester in January.

But just for kicks, we asked her to imagine a world where budget issues did not exist. Where would she like to see the agency send a spacecraft?

"I'm so biased to this issue of the origins of life and the limits of life," Stofan said. "And we have such great places to study right here in our solar system to really move the frontier on that."

For now, much of NASA's hunt for alien life is focused on Mars -- which Stofan said is not a bad choice.

"Mars was this water-based planet, and we know there was stable water on the surface for a long time, which is critical for life having a chance to develop," she said.

She thinks scientists will turn up evidence of past life on Mars one day, but that it may take landing a human geologist on the planet to do it.

But there are other places in the solar system where she'd like to see NASA hunting for life. For example, she said, Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Enceladus are both good candidates because they are thought to have watery oceans beneath their surfaces.

But Stofan wouldn't limit the search to water.

"We also have more exotic ideas about life," she said. "Water-based life is very much an Earth-centric view, and we can push the envelope on that here in our own solar system. We have the methane seas of Titan. We have the clouds of Venus ... " 

Unfortunately for her, she doesn't have the budget.

Are you fascinated by the search for extra-terrestrial life? Me too. Follow me on Twitter for more stories like this. 


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