We are not alone: NASA research finds potential for life in universe

Composite image of the Antennae Galaxies from the Hubble Space Telescope and ALMA Observatory, a radio telescope in Chile.(Courtesy of European Southern Observatory).

It was 1952 when chemist Stanley Miller showed that the advanced compounds of life could be produced naturally from more basic molecules and large amount of energy.

Miller replicated the earlier stages of Earth from billions of years ago and found that certain proportions of molecules that iterate through an energized system can begin to form amino acids, which are the foundations of proteins.

This was a groundbreaking experiment in the search for the origin of life, as it was one of the first to show that the evolution of basic molecules to more advanced ones could occur naturally on Earth.

Scientists today have gone even further, making a few of the integral building blocks of life in a simulated deep-space environment.

Researchers at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California recently published results from an ongoing study on the possibility of the origin of life outside of earth, or even planets altogether.

The experiment simulated the physical and chemical makeup of interstellar space after a supernova, where relatively dense clouds of matter are subject to intense amounts of radiation from nearby stars.

The researchers recreated the subzero temperatures of space (as low as -430°F) and blasted a freezing mixture of basic molecules with large amounts of ultraviolet radiation, just as a nearby star would emit.

This process took some of the most simple organic molecules like methane and ammonia generated advanced compounds on which all advanced life relies.

Variations of the experiment created many of the same amino acids made by Miller, but the degree to which the experiments differ is staggering.

While Miller relied on relatively exact conditions, which likely existed at certain stages of the development of earth, or even other planets, NASA’s experiment found those same seeds of life in deep space, where they were previously thought not to occur.

NASA’s recent experiment shows that life may be able to form in places much less ideal than simply warm, wet planets and opens the possibility of finding microbial life in places in space that hadn’t been previously imagined.

Some of the most interesting variations of this experiment yielded integral components of RNA and DNA from the icy molecular soup, with the researchers finding nucleobases like uracil, cytosine and thymine, compounds which partially make up the genetic material of all life on earth.

This experiment comes on the heels of other research in the origin of life both on and off of our home planet, including other research by NASA at Ames.

This includes a study on the origin of the organic matter contributing to the makeup of all meteors, which was also recreated using a similar recipe of radiation and ice.

The recent experiments support the idea that compounds previously thought too difficult to recreate, like RNA, DNA, or amino acids, may actually occur very commonly throughout the universe. This means the possibility of eventually finding life, or at least traces of it, all across the cosmos exists.

Every new discovery inches closer to what humans have for years seen as the astrobiology of tomorrow, in evidence of life outside Earth.

Years ago, there was excitement when Stanley Miller was able to show that under specific conditions, the foundation of life may arise.

NASA’s recent experiment gives more reason than ever to think that these foundations may not even be as finicky in their creation as originally believed.

While there is certainly no “smoking gun” just yet, many scientists point at studies like this one out of Ames and say it’s only a matter of time before we are able to conclude that our universe just might be teeming with life.

With this new research, we can now contemplate the question of existence outside our planet. Are we alone?


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