How We Could Discover Alien Life

Space reporter Marina Koren on NASA’s plans to travel to the moon, Mars, and Europa—and why it is now studying UAPs

Jupiter and two of its moons, Io (left) and Europa (right)
Jupiter and two of its moons, Io (left) and Europa (right), taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1979. (Space Frontiers / Hulton Archive / Getty)

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Fifty years ago this week, NASA launched the Apollo 17 mission. When that crew returned, President Richard Nixon said “this may be the last time in this century that men will walk on the moon”—and he was right. Now NASA is mounting its next mission to put humans (and not just men) on the lunar surface. The Atlantic’s space reporter, Marina Koren, caught me up on those plans, as well as the latest on the search for alien life, Elon Musk’s ambitions for Mars, and more.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.


New Frontiers

Isabel Fattal: America is undertaking a program to send astronauts back to the moon. Why now, after 50 years? And how soon should we expect it to happen?

Marina Koren: NASA is mounting a new program called Artemis (the sister of Apollo in mythology) to get American astronauts back on the moon again within this decade. But spaceflight is a long game, and schedules can shift.

Why are we going back? The Apollo missions—six landings in total—were pretty “go there and come back”–type missions. This time around, NASA wants to create a sustained presence on the moon, to have a few outposts that astronauts can visit regularly and do science experiments, and also learn how to live and work in a really hostile environment.

Another key difference that NASA would mention is that they want to have diverse crews for that triumphant return. The Artemis astronauts won’t all be white men with military backgrounds, which was for the most part what the Apollo astronaut corps was.

Isabel: What are some big questions that space experts are hoping to answer in the next few decades? What kinds of discoveries are they anticipating?

Marina: One mission that’s particularly exciting is a NASA mission to Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter. That probe is going to launch in October of 2024. Europa just looks like a giant ice ball, completely frozen over. But scientists believe that beneath that icy exterior is a salty ocean. Salty oceans are fantastic, because they could have the right conditions for microbial life to emerge. This mission won’t land on Europa, but it will stay in orbit for long enough and with sophisticated-enough science instruments that it could potentially detect not life necessarily, but whether Europa is a good place for life to arise.

When we talk about the search for life, people might think of distant messages from faraway stars reaching Earth. But I think it’s more likely that we’ll discover signs of microbial life in our own solar system in our lifetime than that we’ll hear from some distant alien civilization.

Isabel: What do you make of Elon Musk’s ambitions to find a new home for humanity on Mars?

Marina: Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 with the express purpose of using that company to get to Mars. At the time, you could’ve been like, “Good luck with that.” But today, 20 years later, the man runs the most successful commercial space company in the world. SpaceX is developing its own giant rocket to be able to go to the moon and to Mars. It hasn’t reached orbit yet; they’re still in the testing phase. But we’ve seen what SpaceX can do with smaller rockets, and you really can’t count the company out.

That said, Mars would be a terrible place to live. So when I hear people say, “Let’s make Mars our next home,” I think we really need to rethink the word home in that context. It would be extremely difficult for humans to survive there, let alone feel pretty comfortable there. It’s a dry, barren world.

NASA right now is focused on the moon, and it has said that a Mars landing is probably going to be pushed to the late 2030s or early 2040s. I talked to someone who used to work at NASA on Mars programs who said that he doesn’t think astronauts will reach the red planet until the 2060s.

When people do reach Mars, it might be a collaborative effort from NASA and SpaceX, because SpaceX has benefited hugely from NASA contracts and funding over the years. And I could see NASA saying, “We can’t let Elon Musk go alone and beat us. We’re going to try to go together.” The future of humans on Mars probably involves Elon Musk, whatever way you want to feel about that.

Isabel: Do you think about UAPs—unidentified aerial phenomena, or what many of us know as unidentified flying objects—at all?

Marina: I definitely think about it, because this year, NASA announced that it’s going to form a committee dedicated to studying UAPs. This was huge, because NASA has always stayed away from this discourse. The reality is that these mysterious sightings in Earth’s skies are explainable. It’s not aliens. My theory is that NASA felt a little bit left out of the conversation, which has been sparked by articles about declassified reports and footage that experts have looked at and determined that it’s just clutter or weather balloons or drones from foreign nations. It’s a national-security concern. It’s not a NASA concern.

Isabel: Do you have a favorite rover or a favorite space telescope?

Marina: I’ll give a little shout-out to a Mars mission called InSight, a solar-powered lander that has, for the past several years, been listening to the ground on Mars and detecting Marsquakes, which is one of my favorite words.

Isabel: Incredible word.

Marina: I want to give InSight a shout-out, because it’s actually dying at the moment. It is completely covered in Martian dust, and it did not arrive on the red planet with any type of windshield-wiper technology, because NASA wasn’t expecting this mission to last that long.

I think NASA is officially announcing the mission over in the next couple of weeks. This tugged at my heartstrings, because there’s a lot of attention paid to Mars rovers, but we don’t really care as much about landers. I have a tendency—and I think other people do too—to anthropomorphize space robots as this extension of humankind. They’re doing what we ask them to do, and sometimes they look cute. I’m going to pour one out for InSight when NASA calls it, because it did a lot of cool research, and now it’s just going to be a piece of debris on another planet—a sign that humanity was there.

Related:


Today’s News
  1. Russia launched missiles at Ukraine’s energy grid, according to Ukrainian officials, knocking out power in several regions. It’s the latest in a series of strikes targeting civilian infrastructure.
  2. The Supreme Court heard arguments in a case considering whether a web designer in Colorado is legally obligated to design websites for same-sex weddings.
  3. Brazil, a favorite to take home the World Cup trophy, won its match against South Korea.

Dispatches

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Evening Read
Sketch of a pink octopus with flecks of other colors
(Erik Carter / The Atlantic)

The “Mother of the Year” Who Starved for 53 Months

By Sabrina Imbler

Years ago, when I was in the seventh grade, an octopus sailed off the seafloor and secured herself to a rocky outcropping off the coast of California. She was nearly a mile below the surface, thousands of feet past any tendrils of sun. But in the bright beams of a submarine, the octopus’s edges glowed the reddish purple of a salted Japanese plum.

I know about the purple octopus because a remotely operated submersible watched her glide toward the cliff … More than anything, I wanted to know why the octopus, with her big and alien brain, did not eat while she brooded her eggs. I couldn’t imagine how a creature with a consciousness would starve for four and a half years without something like hope. What I mean to say is: I wanted to know whether she ever regretted it.

According to my mother, I first noticed my body sometime in middle school, one day in the kitchen. She says I walked in and approached her, that I pulled up my shirt to expose my stomach and told her I was fat. She says this conversation is still etched into her memory, after all these years.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic


Culture Break
Emma Corrin and Jack O’Connell mid-embrace in "Lady Chatterley's Lover"
(Netflix)

Read. The Passenger and Stella Maris, Cormac McCarthy’s two new novels, are the pinnacle of a controversial career.

Watch. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, on Netflix, makes sex scenes look like a work of art.

Play our daily crossword.


P.S.

Marina recently decided to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time (she felt it was her duty as a space reporter) and found it beautiful—but very overhyped. I asked her what space show or movie has held her attention better recently. Her answer: the Apple TV+ series For All Mankind, which she referred to as a “space soap.”

“The premise is that the Soviets beat the Americans to the moon,” she explains. “We see the American reaction and what they decide to do, and the decisions they make are not unrealistic.” Plus: “The writing, the character arcs, the emotion—I cry in every episode.”

— Isabel