Aliens Among Us?
A young girl looks at an exhibit that features a large picture of a spiral-shaped galaxy.
Wouldn't it be exciting to be the first person to discover life on another planet? Scientists feel that it's entirely possible this explorer is in school right now.

Those same scientists also remind potential explorers that the first alien life we discover will most likely not be slimy green creatures with googly eyes and big antennae. So what should you expect? An exhibit called "Alien Earths" has some clues.

Image to left: Future scientists may find life beyond Earth in the universe. Credit: Space Science Institute

The exhibit was developed by the Space Science Institute and sponsored by NASA and the National Science Foundation. It travels the country, often appearing at local science centers, and sheds light on what it will take to discover new life forms, how planets and stars are formed, and how they are located and identified.

When you walk through the doors into Alien Earths, you'll find a wide array of interactive activities that illustrate the real problems scientists face, such as how to find planets orbiting stars too far away to be seen from Earth or reached by spacecraft, and the solutions they’ve come up with. You'll also learn that, chances are, the first forms of life we discover on another planet will not be scary monsters, but germs and bacteria.

A view of the colorful exhibits at Alien Earth Exhibit
Image above: The Alien Earth Exhibit is a traveling exhibit that will visit museums across the country. Credit: Space Science Institute

"Microbes are the most common life form on Earth, and it's highly likely that microbes are what we'll discover on another planet," said Lisa Curtis, exhibits manager for the Space Science Institute.

Visitors to Alien Earths learn how to make a "Winogradsky column," a self-contained ecosystem used to study microbial communities. The bacteria that develops in one of these columns -- a mixture of mud, shredded newspaper and water -- is similar to that which was responsible for evolving Earth's early atmosphere and creating conditions necessary to support life.

A young girl looks into a small window in the side of a silver metal sphere
Image to right: Visitors to the Alien Earth Exhibit get an up-close look at the search for life in the universe. Credit: Space Science Institute

"Based on what we know about life on Earth, scientists hope to examine the atmospheres of distant planets for evidence of microbes and possibly other life forms," Curtis said.

Alien Earths has several other activities as well, including:
  • Setting planets in motion around a star and watching what happens;
  • Feeling the difference in density between three known planets;
  • Listening to sounds from space and finding out what signals from intelligent beings might sound like;
  • Exploring the methods used to search for distant planets; and
  • Comparing the life cycle of the Sun to other stars.
The exhibit, developed with direct input from researchers and scientists, provides a fun, hands-on way for the public to see cutting-edge discoveries that may significantly influence our future, according to Curtis.

"This is a wonderful resource for communities without large museums or access to NASA centers," said Curtis, who notes that students on school field trips are the exhibit’s largest audience. "This is the age of space exploration, but it's a multigenerational task."

Venues with at least 3,000 square feet of space and 10-foot ceilings are encouraged to apply to host the exhibit.

Related Resource
Information on the Alien Earths exhibit:
+ View site

Maggie Griffin/NASA Educational Technology Services