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NASA’s “Astrobiology” press conference…

Oh boy.

The internet is going into serious manic meltdown over this press release by NASA…

NASA to Hold News Conference on Astrobiology Discovery

NASA will hold a news conference at 11 a.m. PST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.

Inevitably some people on the web are adding 2 and 2 and getting 500, suggesting breathlessly that This Is IT! The Big Announcement that NASA has found extraterrestrial life! Others are suggesting that this is something NASA has been forced to do because of the “Wikileaks” affair – suggesting that there are some documents about to be leaked by Wikileaks that gives details of  ‘just what NASA really knows about aliens’ (I know, I know…) And the theories are flying: NASA has found bacteria on Mars… or detected an alien signal… or imaged fossils on another planet..?

I really don’t think so.

And if you look carefully and properly at the wording of the press release it’s actually pretty clear that this is something RELATED to the search for extraterrestrial life, not the actual discovery OF extraterrestrial life.

Let’s go through it, shall we?

NASA to Hold News Conference on Astrobiology Discovery
Science Journal Has Embargoed Details Until 11 a.m. PST On Dec. 2

Ok, nothing too enlightening there, just an announcement of a news conference. 

BUT, that second line, about the embargo, is interesting. That means more than a few people already know about the story and the discovery because it’s being published in “Science.” Now, what has happened before is that these embargoes have been broken before they were supposed to be. That might happen again this time. So we might know what this “discovery” is before Thursday night.

MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. — NASA will hold a news conference at 11 a.m. PST on Thursday, Dec. 2, to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.

You see that? The discovery will “impact the search”. That means the search hasn’t ended, the search hasn’t been successful yet, it’s still ongoing. But someone, somewhere, has made a discovery that will AFFECT the search, hopefully in a positive, helpful way. And that is big news, because anything new we learn that helps pin down possible habitats “Out there”, that helps us to refine our definitions of what might constitute extraterrestrial life, has to be a good thing.

Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.

That’s just a standard, NASA beginner’s guide to the subject.

The news conference will be held at the NASA Headquarters auditorium at 300 E St. SW, in Washington. It will be broadcast live on NASA Television and streamed on the agency’s website at http://www.nasa.gov.

Hmm. The fact that this is a FULL press conference, being broadcast on the main NASA TV channel and not tucked away on the “media channel” suggests it is significant news, something NASA really wants to a) share with the public and b) inform the press about.

Reporters may view the televised press conference at NASA Ames Research Center in the main auditorium, Bldg. 201 or ask questions by phone. To obtain dial-in information, journalists must send their name, affiliation and telephone number to Steve Cole at stephen.e.cole@nasa.gov or call 202-358-0918 by 9 a.m. PST Dec. 2, 2010.

Again, nothing too exciting there.

Now, on to the panel…

Participants are:

  • Mary Voytek, director, Astrobiology Program, NASA Headquarters, Washington
  • Felisa Wolfe-Simon, NASA astrobiology research fellow, U.S. Geological Survey, Menlo Park, Calif.
  • Pamela Conrad, astrobiologist, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.
  • Steven Benner, distinguished fellow, Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, Gainesville, Fla.
  • James Elser, professor, Arizona State University, Tempe

Ah. Now that’s quite revealing, I think. Mary Voytek is a big name and a NASA big gun, for sure, but there’s no place at the Big Table for the Head of NASA, which suggests it’s not a HUGE discovery, nothing “front page”, nothing that will make TV stations break into their scheduled programming with a “Breaking News” alert. The boss of NASA would DEFINITELY be there to bask in the limelight, and smile proudly for the cameras, if this was something huge.

As for the other panelists, they’re all specialists in research into, shall we say, ‘unusual forms of life’ or the unusual places and conditions where life might exist and thrive. One has studied how life might exist in arsenic-rich environments, for example. But none of them stand out as being specialists in the search for the “Big stuff”, like bacteria or fossils on Mars, I’d say. (just my opinion though!)

So… What IS it?

Well…. I think what we’ll hear is that one of these scientists has worked out that life is possible on one of the moons, or planets, in our solar system, because they’ve found strange or unusual or just bizarre organisms here on Earth that could feasibly live in the environment on that moon or planet, or, in the case of Mars, might have done in the past. Maybe they’ve found, in some hidden-away nook or cranny on Earth, a new type of bacteria, or gloopy…something… that could possibly live beneath the surface of Mars, or in the methane lakes of Titan, something like that..?

I don’t know. No-one does yet. Actually, quite a few people probably do, because Science will have sent out details of the story to certain journalists on the condition that they keep it to themselves until Thursday night’s press conference. The question now is will the story leak before then? We’ll have to wait and see.

But in the meantime, everyone, please, calm down… 🙂