In 1991 Helen Sharman made history when she became the first British person to leave planet Earth. Then, after heading off into the atmosphere, the research chemist spent just over a week on board the space station Mir with a team of Soviet cosmonauts. So, she knows more than most about what lies beyond our planet. And when Sharman gave her surprising thoughts on the likelihood of extraterrestrials, they made plenty of headlines.
Of course, Sharman isn’t alone in speculating upon alien life. Ever since humans first studied the stars, we’ve been asking ourselves the same question: are we alone in the universe? Hoping to find the answers, scientists began actively experimenting with ways to communicate with distant planets back in the 19th century. And this fascinating field of research continues hundreds of years later.
A major breakthrough came in the early 1960s, when an astronomer named Frank Drake came up with an intriguing formula – one that is still used by scientists today. He claimed that by multiplying seven unique values together, researchers could predict the number of intelligent civilizations that are able to communicate across space. Nevertheless, many of these factors – such as the total of Earth-like planets in existence – are open to interpretation.
And, interestingly, the Drake equation has produced an extremely wide array of estimates as to the number of intelligent civilizations out there – ranging from billions to zero. To many, then, it’s viewed as little more than a theoretical tool. But if the upper estimates of intelligent life are true, how close are we to understanding these alien civilizations?
In any case, there have been some investigations that have yielded what seem to be promising results. In 1976 NASA’s Viking Project became the first mission to successfully arrive on the surface of Mars, and while there the landers recorded some startling information. According to an experiment, nutrients in the soil were being metabolized into methane – suggesting the presence of organic life.
And while none of the Viking landers’ other experiments supported those findings – meaning NASA eventually dismissed them – there are still some who believe that the 1976 mission really did find evidence of life on Mars. Then, 20 years later, more proof emerged to apparently support these claims.
You see, in 1996 NASA researchers claimed to have identified nanobacteria on a meteorite that had originated from Mars. Then, six years on, a team of Russian scientists announced that a type of microbe now found on Earth may have originated on the Red Planet. And in 2004 there was perhaps the most encouraging news to date.
This time, three separate institutions revealed that they had discovered traces of methane on Mars. And although the gas could have been produced by geological activity, there is a high chance that its presence is the byproduct of an organic process. Currently, scientists plan to send equipment into space to test their theory. But it should be known, though, that the Red Planet isn’t the only potential source of alien life.
Just one year after the Viking missions landed on Mars, researchers at Ohio State University detected something known as the “Wow!” signal. This burst of radio activity is believed to have originated somewhere in the vicinity of the Sagittarius constellation, and it continues to baffle specialists to this day. In 1984 the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) was also founded to search for and study any future transmissions from space.
Then, in 2003, researchers from SETI trained a giant telescope on the sky in an attempt to track down the source of some 200 previously recorded signals. And while the majority of the transmissions had faded, there was one that remained – beaming out of what appeared to be an empty spot in space. According to many experts, this is the closest that humans have ever come to communicating with extraterrestrial life.
Yet researchers have picked up other possible indicators on planets a little closer to home. For example, in 2002 astrobiologists at the University of Texas suggested that microbes may just account for chemical anomalies in the clouds above Venus. The following year, researchers in Italy theorized that the sulfur present on Europa – a moon of Jupiter – could perhaps be evidence of organic activity.
In 2001 experts also revisited the Drake equation, using new techniques to refine the factors first outlined 50 years beforehand. Now, they were able to more accurately estimate many of the elements used to make the calculation. And the team eventually concluded that the number of potential alien civilizations capable of communicating with Earth was actually in the hundreds of thousands.
Still, as scientists have studied and debated the potential for life on other planets, others have taken a more hands-on approach to solving the mysteries of the universe. Since the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space in 1961, over 550 astronauts have journeyed to the stars.
Today, in fact, there are about half a dozen people on the International Space Station at any one time. But space was a far less populated place back in 1989, when Helen Sharman first began contemplating a change of career. At that time, the much more basic Mir station – maintained by the Soviet Union – provided a home for astronauts away from planet Earth.
In Britain – where Sharman lived – there wasn’t even a space program to speak of. However, with the Cold War drawing to a close, the powers that be were searching for ways to bolster the country’s relationship with the Soviet Union. And as a result, they hit upon the idea of Project Juno.
Essentially, Project Juno was Britain’s attempt to piggyback onto the success of the Soviet cosmonauts – booking a spot for a homegrown astronaut on their next mission. At the time, the authorities had hoped that this initiative would help to foster a connection between the two nations. Now, all they needed was a willing volunteer.
Of course, that task eventually fell to Sharman. She had grown up in the English city of Sheffield with an interest in science from a young age. And even though she’d been warned by a teacher that chemistry and physics classes were dominated by males, Sharman decided to pursue her passion. Then, after graduating from Birkbeck College in London, she found a job as a research chemist in Slough.
And after two years working for the confectionery company Mars Wrigley, Sharman happened to hear a radio advertisement seeking participants for Project Juno. This announced, “Astronaut wanted. No experience necessary.” Intrigued, the chemist joined 13,000 individuals all keen to become the first British person in space.
Slowly, the team behind Project Juno filtered through the applicants and eventually came up with a shortlist of 150 candidates – including Sharman. And although she did not have any previous experience, her foreign language skills, scientific education and personal fitness level helped propel her to the top of the list.
Then, after an intense period of assessments and tests, the shortlist for Project Juno was whittled down to just two candidates. And to her surprise, Sharman was one of them. Competing against her for the coveted spot was Major Tim Mace – a helicopter pilot with a background in aeronautical engineering. Together, the pair would travel to Russia to begin training.
For 18 months the two hopefuls prepared for the mission, with neither of them knowing which one would actually go into space. Then, finally, a decision was made: Sharman would be the one to accompany the Russian cosmonauts to Mir. And in May 1991 the 27-year-old boarded a rocket in Kazakhstan and began her incredible journey.
For eight days, Sharman lived and worked on Mir, conducting a number of experiments in space. As well as studying the effect of microgravity on crystals, she carried out a number of biological tests. When Sharman wasn’t immersed in scientific work, however, the Sheffield native used a radio to communicate with curious children back on Earth.
And while conditions on the ISS are relatively luxurious – astronauts enjoy state-of-the-art communications technology and even gourmet food – they stand in stark contrast to life on Mir. According to Sharman, meals there consisted of canned meat and soup, and it was common for power cuts to leave the entire station in the dark.
But before long, it was time for Sharman to return to Earth, where she found herself propelled into the spotlight as a symbol of space-age Britain. Still, this fame was short-lived; unwilling to become a celebrity, the one-time astronaut withdrew from the blaze of publicity. Instead, she simply returned to normality.
Then, 24 years after Sharman’s visit to Mir, European Space Agency astronaut Tim Peake embarked on a mission to the ISS. By that time, Project Juno had been all but forgotten, and so many regarded him as the first official Briton in space. His predecessor, meanwhile, had begun working as operations manager at Imperial College London’s Department of Chemistry.
Yet while Sharman appears not to overly court publicity, she has spoken about life in space in the years since her time on Mir. And in January 2020 a conversation published in The Guardian thrust the pioneering astronaut into the limelight once more – as she had surprising things to say about aliens.
During the interview, Sharman discussed the notion of life on other planets from the perspective of an astronaut who has seen first-hand the enormity of space. And, shockingly, she confirmed that she was indeed a staunch believer in the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations. What’s more, she claimed that aliens may already be here.
“Aliens exist. There [are] no two ways about it,” Sharman readily proclaimed. “There are so many billions of stars out there in the universe that there must be all sorts of different forms of life.” The former astronaut acknowledged, however, that extraterrestrial beings may look completely different from what we would assume.
“Will they be like you and me, made up of carbon and nitrogen? Maybe not,” Sharman continued. “It’s possible they’re here right now, and we simply can’t see them.” That said, on her website, she is quick to point out that she does not believe humanoid aliens are currently residing on Earth.
On a separate page dedicated to the topic of alien life, Sharman’s website details the former astronaut’s beliefs. This reads, “The Earth – along with some spacecraft that humans have sent into space – supports all life we know. [But Sharman] agrees with the view of many scientists that it is possible for meteorites to have brought to Earth molecules that were – or could be – precursors to life and perhaps even something we might consider to be life itself.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sharman is far from the only astronaut to speak out about the possibility of alien civilizations. In 2018 director Darren Aronofsky released One Strange Rock – a National Geographic documentary exploring life on Earth. And while promoting the series, a number of astronauts were interviewed by the press.
Some, it seems, were reserved when discussing the prospect of alien life. In a 2018 interview with Mashable, astronaut Mae Jemison explained, “We have to think through things to find the evidence.” By contrast, others such as Jeff Hoffman – who has clocked over 1,200 hours in space – were more enthusiastic.
“I believe there is life elsewhere in the universe,” Hoffman told Mashable. “But as a scientist, I look for evidence. And as yet, we have [none]. So, I have nothing to support my belief, but I still believe it.” Meanwhile, famous Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield pointed out the sheer size of the universe and, in doing so, highlighted the difficulty inherent in searching for alien civilizations.
Furthermore, while there is the possibility that our planet is completely unique and the only one in the universe capable of supporting living creatures, most experts believe that such a scenario is incredibly unlikely. According to Hadfield, it may instead be the case that while “life is relatively common, complex, intelligent life is rare.”
Hadfield also noted that just a single discovery would open up an entire realm of possibility in the search for alien intelligence. He told Mashable, “If we can find one fossil on Mars, or one little tube worm deep under the oceans of Europa or Enceladus, then the universe is full of life.”
And in September 2019 former NASA astronaut Michael Collins spoke out during a question-and-answer session on Twitter. Half a century earlier, he had made history as the third person on the momentous Apollo 11 mission to the moon. While Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had become the first men to walk on the lunar surface, Collins had piloted the command module that would bring them all back to Earth.
Throughout the session, fans seized the opportunity, then, to ask Collins a number of probing questions. But one commenter took things even further – inquiring of the former astronaut whether he believed in the existence of alien life. And the answer, astonishingly, was a resounding yes.
Unfortunately, Collins did not elaborate on the reason for his claim that aliens exist, but it seems probable that the astronaut and Sharman found such life an inevitability when confronted with the vastness of space. And on Twitter, his answer was met with a flurry of comments – each agreeing with the likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligence existing somewhere in the universe.
Still, even if these alien lifeforms do exist, will science ever succeed in tracking them down? Well, in June 2020 – so, five months after Collins’ Twitter response – a report was published in the Astrophysical Journal. Apparently, a group of researchers had returned to Drake’s equation and once again re-evaluated its results.
This time, the team had fed new data into the equation, and consequently they had calculated that there could be more than 200 alien civilizations capable of communicating within our galaxy alone. But we probably shouldn’t get too excited yet. The researchers conceded, after all, that the actual number of civilizations may be much lower – at just 36. And owing to the distance between our planet and these hypothetical life forms, it may be thousands of years before an actual conversation can begin.
So, while it’s too early to say for sure whether aliens could ever get in touch with us, there is still potential proof of life on other planets. And for a more definitive answer, perhaps we should be further exploring what the Viking Project unearthed back in 1976.
More than four decades ago, two U.S. space probes landed on the surface of Mars. Equipped with a series of experiments, the craft then began searching for evidence of life on the Red Planet. And according to scientist Gilbert Levin, they found what they were looking for, too. So, why hasn’t NASA been shouting from the rooftops about this monumental discovery?
Ever since the first investigations of Mars in the 17th century, people have been preoccupied with one question: could there be life on this distant planet? Even today, finding proof that we’re not alone in the universe remains the holy grail of countless researchers who spend their days looking to the stars. And from the 1960s, NASA has been leading the race to answer this conundrum once and for all.
To that end, in 1993 NASA launched the Mars Exploration Program – an endeavor with four distinct goals. Along with determining whether life has ever existed on the Red Planet, the project seeks to study both the geological make-up and meteorological conditions of this far-off piece of the universe. In addition, NASA aims to lay the groundwork for human visitors to Mars.
And over the years, NASA has made many attempts to gather data about Mars, which is located 140 million miles from Earth. The first successful mission was launched back in 1964, when Mariner 4 rocketed into space from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Then, the following year, the probe undertook a fly-by of the planet – a pioneering feat in itself.
That was far from the only breakthrough made, either. As the probe passed close to Mars, it managed to capture images of the terrain below – the first-ever close-up glimpse of a planet from deep space. But then, later that year, communications stopped, only resuming briefly in 1967.
Today, Mariner 4 has been abandoned, a wreck of a spacecraft floating uselessly somewhere around the sun. Over the years, though, other NASA missions have taken up the mantle. In 1969, for example, both Mariner 6 and Mariner 7 traveled to Mars, sending vital information back to Earth during their respective journeys.
Apparently, these later probes were tasked with laying the groundwork for future research – including the hunt for life on the Red Planet. But while neither Mariner 6 nor Mariner 7 spotted any actual Martians, it wouldn’t be long before a NASA mission uncovered something intriguing.
Still, the space agency saw some failure in the interim. Setting off from Cape Canaveral in May 1971, Mariner 8 was intended to be the first probe to go into orbit around Mars. Yet unfortunately there was an equipment failure during the launch, and this led the craft to crash down into the Atlantic Ocean.
Undeterred, NASA launched Mariner 9 just weeks later, beating the Soviet Union in the race to send a probe into Martian orbit. And for almost a year, the craft circled the Red Planet, ultimately transmitting more than 7,000 images back to researchers on Earth.
Mariner 9 proved an invaluable source of data, too. In total, it photographed 85 percent of Mars’ surface, revealing in detail a complex terrain of canyons and craters. But for those hoping for signs of life in the vicinity, there was sadly very little to go on.
Meanwhile, another ambitious NASA project was coming to the end of its run. Back in the 1960s, it seems, some had believed that man would land on Mars as early as the 1980s. And as a precursor to these hypothetical missions, the agency therefore initiated the Voyager Mars Program in 1966.
Originally, the Voyager Mars Program intended to send a series of probes into outer space in the mid-’70s. But this endeavor was ultimately called off in 1971 – the same year in which Mariner 9 reached Martian orbit. According to experts, the design of the proposed Voyager Mars spacecraft was flawed, and so such a rocket may have proved both costly and dangerous to launch.
Yet despite this cancellation, NASA’s big plans for Mars did not fade away. And, eventually, the Voyager Mars Program evolved into the Viking Program. This time, the objectives of the mission were threefold: to capture detailed images of the planet, to study its composition and to uncover whether life existed there.
In fact, the Viking Program would go on to develop the very first landers designed to search for biosignatures – indicators of past or present life – on Mars. So, on August 20, 1975, Viking 1 left Cape Canaveral, arriving at the Red Planet close to a year later. Viking 2, on the other hand, departed Earth on September 9, 1975, and found Mars a month after its partner probe in 1976.
Both Viking 1 and Viking 2 consisted of two parts. One of these, the orbiter, was designed to detach above the Martian atmosphere and take snapshots of the planet below. The lander, by contrast, would continue on and finally come to rest on the alien terrain.
And for just over four weeks, Viking 1 orbited around Mars, scanning for a suitable landing site. Then, to the delight of those at NASA, the units successfully detached, with each embarking on its unique mission. Altogether, the program cost somewhere in the region of $1 billion – or around $5 billion today.
So, what exactly did NASA get for its money? Well, amazingly, the Viking Program delivered results that would inform the study of Mars for decades to come. While the landers of both Viking 1 and Viking 2 busied themselves on the surface below, the orbiters gathered a steady stream of information about the Red Planet. And with that data, researchers were able to develop a startling theory.
By this point, NASA knew that the surface of the planet was littered with the remnants of extinct volcanoes. Incredibly, though, the images captured by the two orbiters revealed something new: evidence that water may have once existed. For example, the probes detected geological aspects on Mars that could have been created as the result of flowing liquid.
The two Viking orbiters also detected signs that there was still water on the planet – albeit deep underground. And even though this data has been questioned over the years, it has never been disproved. Understandably, then, some researchers have jumped on the possible presence of water as proof that Mars could once have supported life.
As the Viking orbiters delivered these revelations back to Earth, however, the two landers were busy conducting experiments on the surface. Deployed to different locations on Mars, they were tasked to search the planet for evidence of life, among other things. And what they found continues to cause controversy to this day.
After their respective arrivals on Mars, each of the landers carried out a series of identical procedures designed to collect soil samples from the surface. Near the equator of the planet, Viking 1 utilized its robotic arm to place specimens within a special container; in the northern hemisphere, Viking 2 completed the exact same process.
Together, the NASA team back on Earth hoped that these samples would ultimately provide more information about the biology of Mars – determining, perhaps, how likely it was to support life. And while the majority of the materials were later found to contain no evidence of any thriving organisms, there were also some surprising results.
In one experiment, a device known as a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer identified the chemicals present in Martian soil. Ultimately, this test concluded that the samples showed little sign of organic life. There was also a gas exchange study, which looked at the vapors released by the specimens in a laboratory setting.
In the so-called pyrolytic release experiment, meanwhile, the samples were subjected to conditions designed to mimic those on Mars. Apparently, researchers theorized that any microorganisms present would convert the carbon in the atmosphere into biomass, which could then be detected. But, yet again, this process also failed to turn up anything notable.
Unlike the other tests, though, the labeled release experiment yielded results that made scientists think twice about life on Mars. In fact, after just one month on the Red Planet, Viking 1 had apparently delivered data that suggested something truly exciting.
The labeled release experiment was a relatively simple affair. Essentially, it took a sample of Martian soil and doused it in a special mixture of nutrients. Then, if any microorganisms were present in the specimen, they would begin to metabolize the solution – a process that could be monitored and tracked.
Crucially, both the pyrolytic release and labeled release experiments incorporated control tests that would allow researchers to check the results. If either of these experiments returned a positive response, the same soil would then be subjected to a secondary procedure. And by heating the sample, researchers would thus be able to determine whether or not the reaction had been by chemical or biological means.
Even before Viking 1 had landed on Mars, researchers had conducted a number of trial runs of the labeled release experiment. Crucially, not a single one had returned a false result. And when the lander relayed the first set of data to Earth on July 30, 1976, staff at NASA were in for a shock.
Amazingly, the results of the first labeled release experiment suggested that there were indeed living microbes present on Mars. Not only that, but this conclusion was also supported by the control test – apparently confirming that the activity was biological rather than chemical. The stunning finding didn’t appear to be a one-off, either.
Over the course of the program, both Viking 1 and Viking 2 continued to conduct labeled release experiments on Mars, with NASA ultimately receiving four indications of the presence of microbes in Martian soil. Apparently, the data resembled that collected from samples here on planet Earth.
But if this was the case, you may ask, why wasn’t more of a fanfare made of this remarkable discovery? Well, unfortunately, the results did not appear to bear up to scrutiny. And when another Viking experiment, a molecule analysis, failed to turn up any corroborating evidence, NASA reached a rather disappointing conclusion.
Ultimately, the agency’s researchers concluded, the positive results generated by the labeled release experiment were not proof of microbial activity on Mars. Instead, they represented something in the Martian soil that was merely echoing the appearance of life. Yet not everyone agreed with this conclusion. And in 1997 two of the scientists involved in the study explained their own views on the matter.
In the book Mars: The Living Planet, engineer Dr. Gilbert Levin and co-experimenter Patricia Ann Straat – along with academic Barry DiGregorio – discussed the labeled release procedures. And according to Levin, the tests really had indicated the presence of microbial life on Mars. That’s an opinion he still holds to this day, in fact.
For many years, Levin remained in the minority, with his conclusions questioned by most of his fellow scientists. But the engineer received vindication of a sort in April 2012, when the results of a new analysis were released. Over at the University of Southern California, ex-NASA project director Joseph Miller had decided to take another look at the labeled release experiment.
Together with Giorgio Bianciardi from the University of Siena in Italy, Miller ran the Viking Program’s data through a different test. This time, the process involved a method known as cluster analysis, which divided the biological and non-biological indicators. And the scientists consequently reached a fascinating conclusion: Levin may have been right after all.
“We just plugged all the [Viking experimental and control] data in and said, ‘Let the cluster analysis sort it out,’” Miller told National Geographic in 2012. “What happened was [that] we found two clusters. One cluster constituted the two active experiments on Viking, [while] the other cluster was the five control experiments.”
This wasn’t all. During the study, the researchers also compared the data collected by the Viking Program with various samples – both biological and non-biological – from Earth. And according to Miller, the results spoke for themselves. “It turned out that all the biological experiments from Earth sorted with the active experiments from Viking, and all the non-biological data series sorted with the control experiments,” he explained. “It was an extremely clear-cut phenomenon.”
Elsewhere, the specialists found evidence to suggest that a circadian rhythm – an internal day clock found in all organisms – could be detected in the Viking Program’s samples. However, Miller has since expressed his disappointment in NASA for failing to take the necessary measures to investigate this further. And in a 2019 article for Scientific American, Levin also puzzled over the agency’s apparent loss of interest in the search for extraterrestrial life.
According to Levin, NASA has never sent any life-detection equipment back to Mars to check up on the Viking program’s original results. Even so, that hasn’t stopped more astonishing finds from emerging over the years. When the Curiosity rover landed in 2012, for example, it found reason to suggest that the Martian environment may once have provided suitable conditions for life to thrive.
Methane has also been detected in the atmosphere of Mars, further hinting at the presence of biological organisms there. But at present, NASA only has one future mission planned to the Red Planet to collect Martian soil. If alien life is ever discovered, then, it may be down to the work of private companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX.