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Galaxy Quest

At least, we are alone as far as we know. The search for extraterrestrial life, however, continues at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NASA scientist Dr. Jack Farmer, a native of Rotan in West Texas, detailed those efforts this spring during Angelo State’s 36th annual WTMA Distinguished Lectureship in Science Honoring Dr. Roy E. Moon.

“We are poking around in our own solar system looking for microbes, and we’re looking for habitable environments around other stars in our galaxy, but we have a lot of work left to do.”

Dr. Jack Farmer

“The big question is, ‘Are we alone?,’” Farmer said, “and humans have been asking that question since we first looked up into the night sky and began pondering our place in the universe. The unique thing about where we are now in the sciences is that we have achieved enough that we can actually begin to answer that question. It’s a very exciting time to be asking this question, probably the most exciting time in history.”

To set the stage for his presentation, Farmer went through the basic requirements for life—liquid water, essential elements and energy sources—and how they combine to determine the habitability of any environment. The majority of NASA’s efforts to date have been concentrated on the search for water, and evidence of the current or past presence of water has been found on Mars and several moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn. That search has also revealed the presence of some essential elements, particularly on the Saturn moons Titan and Enceladus.

“We have to always keep in mind at the front of our thinking,” Farmer said, “that we are talking about organisms that are living on Earth, and we are asking the question, ‘Could they adapt to a Martian or other planetary environment?’”

Much of the information Farmer provided came from orbital and surface missions to Mars, the Galileo space probe launched in 1989 and the Kepler mission that is searching for habitable planets further out in our Milky Way galaxy. The Mars Science Lab mission was scheduled to land on the red planet in August, and the Kepler mission has already identified more than 2,300 planets that could be candidates for supporting life, with more coming in all the time.

“I hope this gives a sense of the immensity of the universe and the scope of the question we are asking, ‘Could life exist somewhere else?,’” Farmer said. “We are poking around in our own solar system looking for microbes, and we’re looking for habitable environments around other stars in our galaxy, but we have a lot of work left to do.”

“I think astrobiology is a really exciting field because it’s carte blanche for anyone coming into it these days,” he continued. “There are so many ways you can go to try to answer those fundamental questions that we have been asking for millennia.”

The quest for those answers, however, has already been curtailed by federal budget cuts. Farmer ended his lecture by encouraging audience members to support the NASA space exploration programs and all their positive spinoffs.

“The kind of windfall,” Farmer said, “that comes from exploration and developing new technologies to answer these types of questions, to take us out to places we’ve never been before and to make new discoveries—it feeds back into the classrooms, engages students and gets them involved. They will create the next generation of technologists, engineers and scientists. In my opinion, we can’t afford not to do this.”

“A lot of these questions that everyone is so interested in and a lot of the unforeseen discoveries, technology spinoffs and other things that will benefit all of us will be cut off in midstream,” he added. “Cutting these programs will ultimately be like shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Fall 2012 Bonus Features