Last week, Stephen Hawking announced that a potential alien visit to our planet would be like Columbus landing in the new world. Except we are the natives — and everyone knows how well that went for the natives. Despite Hawking’s warnings of extreme risk, reports that the space community is forging ahead with efforts to find life outside our planet. Currently, a list of 28 future science missions are planned to seek evidence of extraterrestrial life.

Last week, NASA held the Astrobiology Science Conference near Houston. Once there, several space experts spoke to about the search for alien life. Mary Voytek is an astrobiology senior scientist at NASA Headquarters who told reporters that NASA was prepared to discover any form of life. Steve Squyres is principal investigator of the Mars Exploration Rover project and a Cornell University planetary scientist. As he told, "Astrobiology and the search for life are really central to what we should be doing next in the exploration of the solar system."

And just where will we be looking? NASA is planning robotic missions to Mercury, Mars, as well as the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. In particular, the moons of Saturn look like possible habitats. Titan contains lakes of methane and ethane, while Enceladus has plumes of water vapor. These factors make the ringed planet’s moonS look like excellent potential hot spots for life.

And then there is Mars. Early reports suggest that NASA is considering a three-part mission to the red planet that would bring Martian rocks back to Earth for study. This has some scientists thrilled. Bill Schopf is a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles.  As he told, "I personally think if we're ever going to be able to show that there was past life on Mars — if there was past life on Mars — I think we're going to need to study the samples here on Earth rather than robotically. I think if we had the rocks back tomorrow and I had them in my lab, I think we could solve this problem." Scientists would look for possible fossil-containing sulfate in Mars rocks.

Finally, experts would also consider asteroids as a potential for life outside of Earth. Many asteroids contain frozen water and organic compounds, which are the key ingredients to life. Scientists already believe to have found these key components on a space rock in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. 

For further reading:

Scientists eager to find alien life get big boost
28 future science missions planned to look for extraterrestrial life.