KATU: PSU scientist's mantra: 'Just look' for extraterrestrial life
Author: Steve Benham
Posted: May 16, 2019

To read the original story, visit KATU News.

In the 2013 sci-fi movie “Europa Report” there’s a huge creature living in an icy ocean on Jupiter’s moon Europa.

While no one knows if alien sea monsters exist in the real universe or, for that matter, any life at all beyond Earth, evidence points to a large ocean existing on Europa beneath a shell of ice, a place that could harbor life.

Maybe giant sea creatures do swim there, as the movie imagines. But absent big things, if life exits at all, maybe it’s smaller, much smaller.

Jay Nadeau, a physicist at Portland State University, has designed a one-of-a-kind microscope she wants to send to Europa (and other places like it) to peek into its icy world in the search for bacteria.

Europa presents scientists with many challenges. For one, the ice shell is at least two-thirds of a mile thick, so drilling to a place to see any large sea creatures that may exist will be difficult. Nadeau says it’s unlikely we’ll access Europa’s global ocean during our lifetimes.

But a microscope may be the perfect way to find out if life exists in such extreme and alien environments. Nadeau notes there’s no chemical definition of life. We can’t just plug numbers into an equation and compute what life is. A microscope, Nadeau says, could help us see tiny creatures doing what we recognize as life: moving around.

But why go to the trouble?

“We have no idea how likely life is to evolve,” she said last week in her PSU laboratory while sitting next to ELVIS — Extant Life Volumetric Imaging System — her latest microscope funded by the National Science Foundation. “We don’t know if what happened on Earth if unbelievably rare and we’re one planet in a billion.”

Are we alone in the universe and how did we get here are two of the great questions our species has asked, and finding life outside of Earth is what drives Nadeau and other scientists like her. But answering those questions is incredibly difficult. Space is vast. It takes a lot of money. There are also competing interests and ever-changing political currents at work here on Earth.

Last year Nadeau submitted her microscope proposal to NASA’s Instrument Concepts for Europa Exploration 2 program to get her microscope on a lander that would set down on Europa. It wasn’t accepted.

But there may be a larger difficulty.

Europa had been the favorite target for the search for life of former U.S. Rep. John Culberson, a Republican from Texas. He had helped infuse NASA with money and the drive to develop a lander concept and mission.

But he was defeated in last November’s election. With his defeat, Nadeau says any hope of a lander on Europa in the near future essentially died.

Officially, the lander is still a “concept for a potential future mission,” according to NASA. But the lander’s webpage is sparse on specifics.

There is the Europa Clipper mission, which NASA plans to launch in the 2020s. But that spacecraft will only conduct flybys of Jupiter's moon.

So, for now, Nadeau is working to get people interested in her ideas while looking for funding and other opportunities to land not only on Europa but other potential places for life.

“It would be great if there were some eccentric billionaires who really wanted to find life on Mars,” she said. “You know, I wish Elon Musk cared more about finding bacteria than sending people.”

Musk, the founder of SpaceX, has been busy launching rockets to resupply the International Space Station, and he announced last fall his intention to send the first private citizen around the Moon. Ultimately, his goal is to colonize Mars and even other celestial bodies in the solar system.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is also focused on exporting life from Earth with his rocket company Blue Origin.

As for NASA, it has plans to send astronauts back to the Moon by 2024.

There hasn’t been a specific life-detecting mission to another world since NASA’s Viking landers visited Mars in the late 1970s.

The Viking landers found nothing. Not finding life, of course, is Nadeau’s greatest fear if another life-detecting mission happens.

“That’s when everybody would sort of be embarrassed, because if you don’t see anything, it really doesn’t prove that much,” she said. “It’s very hard to prove something negative.”

How Will We Know It’s Life?

Nadeau’s microscope is unique in that it’s a holographic interferometer. It can create 3-D images and movies of whatever is in a liquid sample.Importantly, her microscope allows organisms to swim freely in samples and not be smashed between two microscope slides, as happens with traditional microscopes. This will allow scientists to observe the fundamental characteristics of the bacteria’s movement.

It’s also relatively maintenance free. Unlike a regular microscope, there’s no need for someone to physically turn knobs to focus on objects; instead, the microscope will take a snapshot of an entire sample and, using complex algorithms, interpret what it sees.

She says her microscope will be able to see things as small as half a micron, far smaller than a grain of sand or the width of a strand of human hair, and a little smaller than the waste of a dust mite.

If she ever gets her microscope on an alien world, one of the things she’ll be looking for is movement -- motility -- in her samples. She says movement is fundamental to life and is one indicator scientists will use to verify its existence.

“(Movement) is how organisms that don’t need to eat get away from things that are trying to eat them, and how things that need to eat other organisms find stuff to eat,” she said.

Nadeau also expects life will be forming structures or a “bacterial society.”

Even if scientists see something that appears to be life, Nadeau says that doesn’t mean everyone will be convinced.

“I think any claim of finding extraterrestrial life is probably going to be controversial for a hundred years,” she said. “It’s going to be tough to find anything conclusive unless you see a sea monster take a bite out of your instrument.”

First Mission: Earth

Before ELVIS, there was SHAMU, which was funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. It’s smaller than ELVIS, but it has gone somewhere. In spring of 2015, Nadeau and her team took SHAMU -- officially known as Submersible Holographic Astrobiology Microscope with Ultraresolution -- to Greenland, a place on Earth that could resemble the extreme conditions found on other worlds, like Europa and Mars. The scientists think if life can live in extreme environments on Greenland, maybe it can live in alien environments, too.

There is indeed life in Earth ice. Specifically, her team found bacteria and microalgae. They wrote a paper about the trip. In it, they said some bacteria that SHAMU saw didn’t move by themselves, but some did. In other cases, bacteria didn’t start swimming around until the scientists added nutrients or warmth.

The study of the movement of bacteria is in its infancy. Nadeau says that’s mostly because the technology to study it hasn’t been around for long.

She says she plans to show off her technology, ELVIS, at this year’s Microscopy & Microanalysis conference in Portland Aug. 4 through Aug. 8 at the Oregon Convention Center.

But as far as the search for life beyond Earth is concerned, her pitch is simple: “Just look.”

There could be sea monsters out there.