Alien Life — Real Or Sci-Fi? NASA Just Spent $50 Million To Figure Out The Answer

Jonathan Vankin

Alien life — is there really such a thing? Or are aliens just a creation of sci-fi writers and Hollywood? The thought that we, as humans on planet Earth, are completely alone in a universe of unimaginable size seems as hard to fathom as the size of the universe itself. But at this point in human history, no evidence exists that there's anyone else out there.

NASA wants to find some — evidence, that is — and on Monday, the space agency announced that it will pour about $50 million into seven different astrobiology research projects across the United States to study what NASA called "the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe."

In other words, do aliens exist? But at the same time, the study could also shed light on where and how life on Earth got started billions of years ago as well.

"With the Curiosity rover characterizing the potential habitability of Mars, the Kepler mission discovering new planets outside our solar system, and Mars 2020 on the horizon," said NASA's Planetary Science Division Director, "these research teams will provide the critical interdisciplinary expertise to help interpret data from these missions and future astrobiology-focused missions."

One of the most immediate concerns for the new astrobiology teams, which will each receive five-year grants, is getting ready for NASA's next Mars rover mission in 2020. The teams will try to figure out better ways to recognize signs of life on the Red Planet.

The researchers will also study Earth-dwelling "extremophiles," that is, organisms that live and even thrive in conditions that would kill most other Earth-bound life forms. For example, recent reports from the International Space Station, Russian cosmonauts have found plankton that originated on Earth living on the outside of the space station — with no oxygen or air, and the extreme temperatures of outer space.

Other extremophile organisms have been found to live in rocks deep inside the Earth, or even in the depths of the Mariana Trench, the deepest known location on the ocean floor.

Finding out what makes extremophile organisms capable of surviving environments that would destroy other organisms could lead to the NASA-funded scientists understanding of how extraterrestrial life forms could exist on seemingly hostile alien worlds.

The new astrobiology teams, in addition to performing basic research in alien life, will also directly assist NASA by helping to pick targets for exploration where alien life has a chance to exist as well as by designing new, ultra-high-tech instruments for detecting extraterrestrial life forms.