Earth’s location in space is perfect: not too close to but not too far from the Sun, it gives our planet the balmy temperature that helps supports life. However, a new study suggests that it might be even more difficult than previously expected to find a celestial body that falls within this ‘Goldilocks zone.’
The habitable zone of any given star is the area where planets can maintain a temperature that allows liquid water to be found on its surface. Too close to the star, and that water will turn to vapor — too far away, and it’ll turn to ice.
However, stars like our sun gradually get more luminous over time, which changes the parameters of their habitable zone. This means that icy planets can feasibly reach a point where their conditions are warm enough to support life — but according to a recent study in Nature Geoscience, that’s not always the way the situation will pan out.
Too Hot to Handle
A planet’s ability to support life-sustaining temperatures hinges on at least two factors: the amount of ice on the surface, and the amount of greenhouse gases being released into its atmosphere. Yet many icy planets don’t have the volcanic activity needed to contain any greenhouse gases besides water vapor.
So this study’s team, led by Jun Yang of Peking University, developed a model that could simulate how the climate of an ice-covered planet with only water vapor in the atmosphere would change over time. The results suggested it would take 10 to 40 percent more energy than the Earth receives from the sun before they began to melt.
Without ice to reflect incoming heat, this heat-intensive process was often followed by a speedy uptick in temperature that caused the planet’s oceans to boil off. And without water, these worlds wouldn’t be able to support life after all.
This isn’t necessarily bad news. Thanks to increasingly sharp-eyed instruments, the number of known exoplanets has skyrocketed in the past two decades, from a mere handful in the mid-90s to nearly 2000 today. In February 2014 alone, NASA announced a “planet bonanza” discovery of 715 new planets, found by the Kepler satellite. But identifying which of these distant worlds might be friendly to life is still tricky.
Scientists are able to infer the atmospheric content of a planet based on the way light passes through it, a process that’s already been used to detect water on a distant Earth-sized planet. However, this method doesn’t tell scientists what else is happening on the planet — such as whether it’s in the runaway, ocean-boiling cycle Yang’s team identified.
If we’re on the search for a planet that humans can live on, having this information at hand gives us more insight into which worlds are in contention.
Frank Drake is a world-renowned astronomer and astrophysicist who is responsible for founding the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) and inventing the Drake equation, which estimates the likelihood of finding intelligent life in the Universe.
On July 16th, Drake hosted a Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) and gave some interesting responses to the community’s questions, which can roughly be split into questions on Drake’s own works and theories, and more abstract questions concerning space and aliens.
Drake on Drake
Reddit user murikansk asked, “What was the main hope when creating the Golden Record and the Pioneer plaque? That is, was it simply hoping that it would be understood that it is nonrandom data and the location of the origin of the spacecraft deciphered, or did you also believe in the possibility that the extraterrestrial civilization would learn something about our cultures? How much of the plaque, record, and the Arecibo message did you believe would realistically be understood if intercepted?” The question refers to his collaboration with Carl Sagan and NASA, when he helped design the Golden Record, a record on board both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 that contains the sounds of the diversity of life on earth, and the Pioneer Plaques, which were attached to Pioneer 10 and 11 as a universal message about Earth to extraterrestrial life.
Drake responded: “These may be the only records that we ever existed [sic], and this meant a great deal to us in a very deep and emotional way.” Responding to a question from Zaphus, he said he would update them by making “use of the much greater capabilities we now have to send huge amounts of information quickly. I would send 3-dimensional movies, I would send sounds, and in this way much more accurately show what we are like and what we are capable of.”
Drake also gave an answer to a question concerning his own Drake Equation — a formula that attempts to show the likelihood of finding intelligent life in the Universe.
Senno_Ecto_Gammat asked, “Do you think we will nail down good values for the variables in the Drake equation before we make contact with intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations, or will we only get good values for those variables after we make contact?”
Drake answered, “We’ll get good numbers for the variables except for f (sub i), and L.” These necessitate contact with other alien life. F (sub i) refers to the fraction of life bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges, while L — which he later referred to as “the most important parameter” — is the length of time over which such civilizations release detectable signals into space.
While we have suspected that we have received such signals, with the WOW! Signal being the most notable, none have, as-of-yet, proven to be genuine communications from another civilization.
Drake on Space
He also provided responses to questions that the entire space community is asking. One of the first, from DevinDTA — which is what we would all ask to an expert on the extraterrestrial — concerned when he thinks we will meet alien life. He responded that he believes “we will detect evidence of non-intelligent life on another planet of our solar system within the next 50-70 years” and that “it’ll probably be microbial.”
YoureGratefulDead2Me asked, “If you could communicate with an alien civilization and language barrier were not an issue, what would you tell them/ask them?” Drake responded, in part, “If they are like us we would ask them what steps they take to support an ever growing population; for example is the colonization of other planets in their solar system advantageous or too costly and dangerous.” Drake, then, like Elon Musk, believes that the world’s population — which is set to hit 9.7 billion by 2050 — is one of the most challenging obstacles we face in our continued development; and that colonizing other planets could be a solution.
SailingSmitty asked where Drake sat on the spectrum of trying to contact aliens vs awaiting contact from them — essentially, whether he is currently aligned with the Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) or SETI, which searches instead. In response, he stated, “I believe it is a waste of time and resources to transmit messages to alien life until we have actually detected alien life and know something about them.”
Perhaps more interestingly, though, he continued, “Also, I do not believe it is dangerous to transmit signals because there is not a very great benefit for them to attack us.” This contrasts with other expert views.
Stephen Hawking advises against first contact by predicting the meeting would be like the first encounter between Columbus and the Native Americans — which “didn’t turn out so well” for the latter party. At the other end of the spectrum is Alexander Zaitsev, founder of METI, who thinks we should “not want to live in a cocoon, in a ‘one-man island’” and therefore should take every possible opportunity to communicate with whatever (or whoever) is out there.
The search for life elsewhere in the universe is one of the most compelling aspects of modern science. Given its scientific importance, significant resources are devoted to this young science of astrobiology, ranging from rovers on Mars to telescopic observations of planets orbiting other stars.
The holy grail of all this activity would be the actual discovery of alien life, and such a discovery would likely have profound scientific and philosophical implications. But extraterrestrial life has not yet been discovered, and for all we know may not even exist. Fortunately, even if alien life is never discovered, all is not lost: simply searching for it will yield valuable benefits for society.
Why is this the case?
First, astrobiology is inherently multidisciplinary. To search for aliens requires a grasp of, at least, astronomy, biology, geology, and planetary science. Undergraduate courses in astrobiology need to cover elements of all these different disciplines, and postgraduate and postdoctoral astrobiology researchers likewise need to be familiar with most or all of them.
By forcing multiple scientific disciplines to interact, astrobiology is stimulating a partial reunification of the sciences. It is helping to move 21st-century science away from the extreme specialisation of today and back towards the more interdisciplinary outlook that prevailed in earlier times.
By producing broadminded scientists, familiar with multiple aspects of the natural world, the study of astrobiology therefore enriches the whole scientific enterprise. It is from this cross-fertilization of ideas that future discoveries may be expected, and such discoveries will comprise a permanent legacy of astrobiology, even if they do not include the discovery of alien life.
It is also important to recognise that astrobiology is an incredibly open-ended endeavour. Searching for life in the universe takes us from extreme environments on Earth, to the plains and sub-surface of Mars, the icy satellites of the giant planets, and on to the all-but-infinite variety of planets orbiting other stars. And this search will continue regardless of whether life is actually discovered in any of these environments or not. The range of entirely novel environments opened to investigation will be essentially limitless, and so has the potential to be a never-ending source of scientific and intellectual stimulation.
The Cosmic Perspective
Beyond the more narrowly intellectual benefits of astrobiology are a range of wider societal benefits. These arise from the kinds of perspectives – cosmic in scale – that the study of astrobiology naturally promotes.
It is simply not possible to consider searching for life on Mars, or on a planet orbiting a distant star, without moving away from the narrow Earth-centric perspectives that dominate the social and political lives of most people most of the time. Today, the Earth is faced with global challenges that can only be met by increased international cooperation. Yet around the world, nationalistic and religious ideologies are acting to fragment humanity. At such a time, the growth of a unifying cosmic perspective is potentially of enormous importance.
In the early years of the space age, the then US ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, said of the world: “We can never again be a squabbling band of nations before the awful majesty of outer space.” Unfortunately, this perspective is yet to sink deeply into the popular consciousness. On the other hand, the wide public interest in the search for life elsewhere means that astrobiology can act as a powerful educational vehicle for the popularisation of this perspective.
Indeed, it is only by sending spacecraft out to explore the solar system, in large part for astrobiological purposes, that we can obtain images of our own planet that show it in its true cosmic setting.
In addition, astrobiology provides an important evolutionary perspective on human affairs. It demands a sense of deep, or big, history. Because of this, many undergraduate astrobiology courses begin with an overview of the history of the universe. This begins with the Big Bang and moves successively through the origin of the chemical elements, the evolution of stars, galaxies, and planetary systems, the origin of life, and evolutionary history from the first cells to complex animals such as ourselves. Deep history like this helps us locate human affairs in the vastness of time, and therefore complements the cosmic perspective provided by space exploration.
There is a well-known aphorism, widely attributed to the Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, to the effect that “the most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world”. Humboldt was presumably thinking about the mind-broadening potential of international travel. But familiarity with the cosmic and evolutionary perspectives provided by astrobiology, powerfully reinforced by actual views of the Earth from space, can surely also act to broaden minds in such a way as to make the world less fragmented and dangerous.
I think there is an important political implication inherent in this perspective: as an intelligent technological species, that now dominates the only known inhabited planet in the universe, humanity has a responsibility to develop international social and political institutions appropriate to managing the situation in which we find ourselves.
In concluding his monumental Outline of History in 1925, HG Wells famously observed: “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” Such an observation appears especially germane to the geopolitical situation today, where apparently irrational decisions, often made by governments (and indeed by entire populations) seemingly ignorant of broader perspectives, may indeed lead our planet to catastrophe.
The Universe is full of noises — and Earth now also contributes to the cacophony. The first time we called out to the stars was on November 19, 1962 with The Morse Message. This message was sent in Morse code from the Evpatoria Planetary Radar to Venus. What did we say? “MIR” — the Russian word for both world and peace. This was followed a few days later on November 24 by “LENIN” and “SSSR” (Russia’s leader and the abbreviation for the Soviet Union, respectively). Later, in 1999, a team headed by Alexander Zaitsev, a rogue Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) member, beamed Cosmic Call 1 to four nearby suns from the Yevpatoria RT-70 radio telescope in Crimea. He called his system Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI).
He argued that his decision was due to the SETI Paradox, which he characterized as “This paradoxical disparity of effort, a passionate desire to receive and no corresponding attempt to give.” He also stated that he did “not want to live in a cocoon, in a ‘one-man island.’”
Similar messages were subsequently sent out in 2001 (Teen Age Message), 2003 (Cosmic Call 2), and 2008 (A Message From Earth). These messages caused fierce debate within the scientific coommunity, prompting multiple meetings by the Royal Society in 2010 on the topic of “Towards a Scientific and Societal Agenda on Extraterrestrial Life.”
SETI has sent authorized messages into the cosmos, including the Lone Signal in 2013 and A Simple Response to an Elemental Message in 2016. Other messages not related to or verified by SETI have also been sent, such as the the Hello From Earth message in 2009.
In response, we have heard very little back, causing some to dub the universe “The Great Silence” — David Brin told Phys.org that the most obvious possibilities have now been ruled out, “including gaudy tutorial beacons that advanced ETCs would supposedly erect.”
A particularly exciting narrowband radio signal from space was detected by the Ohio State University’s Big Ear radio telescope in 1977, which many have since dubbed the Wow! Signal, although it has now been shown to probably be caused by comets. A less notable example is Radio source SHGb02+14a, which was detected in 2003. The radio source was 1420 MHz and lasted for a minute each time it was observed, although the signal was extremely weak.
How do we Speak to Aliens?
There are two aspects of our communication with aliens: how we send it, and what we say. There has been vigorous discussion about both facets of inter-galaxy communication.
The main means we currently have of broadcasting ourselves across the universe is through radio signals. Frequency modulated radio waves were used when we projected a message from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico in 1974: it contained, in binary, pictorial representations of humanity, formulas for the elements and compounds that make up DNA, as well as representations of the Solar System. Other systems have been more manual: for example, the Pioneer 10 and 11 probes bolting ‘Pioneer Plaques’ to their doors.
Douglas Vakoch, the former director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute and president of METI, said to Forbes, “It’s too late to conceal ourselves in the universe, so we should decide how we want to represent ourselves.” But how can we know how what we choose to represent is what will be received when we have no comprehension of the technology aliens may be using, or of their specific culture?
The central debate over what we send to aliens stems from what they would think if they received a signal. Opinion is split among scientific heavyweights over whether aliens would be benevolent or malevolent. Carl Sagan believes that any contact would be benign because, as he stated in his novel Contact, written in 1985, “In the long run, the aggressive civilizations destroy themselves, almost always.” On the other hand, Stephen Hawking believes that “if aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.”
Other specialists such as Seth Shostak, an astronomer at SETI, think that if we truly believed in a threat, we would be more careful about all radio use; he told phys.org, “We cannot pretend that our present level of activity with respect to broadcasting or radar usage is ‘safe.’ If danger exists, we’re already vulnerable.”
An encounter with aliens is a real possibility, and one that would have earth-changing consequences. When we will meet them is anyone’s guess — it may be in ten years, it may be never — but it is important to have discussion surrounding how to deal with an encounter to prepare for every possible outcome.
From highly trained scientists toiling away at research institutes to amateur enthusiasts gazing upward from their backyards, humanity boasts no shortage of people looking for life beyond Earth. Add to that the massive size of the universe — estimates range in the trillions of galaxies — and probability dictates that we should have already encountered another species by now.
And yet, we still have no evidence that we aren’t alone in the universe.
However, according to astronomy researcher Chris Impey, this hunt for life beyond Earth may soon yield results. In an interview with Futurism, he revealed that he believes that we are less than two decades away from finding extraterrestrial life…but it may not be the kind of life we were hoping for: “I put my money on detecting microbial life in 10 to 15 years, but not at all detecting intelligent life.”
Hide and Seek on a Cosmic Level
While Impey is skeptical that intelligent life is within our sights, he does have a couple of suggestions as to where we should focus our search for extraterrestrial lifeforms, intelligent or not. The first is our own backyard, or, more accurately, our own solar system.
While Impey tells Futurism he doesn’t rule out the possibility that life still exists on Mars, he says that those lifeforms are likely below the surface and are, therefore, much harder to detect. As such, he asserts that we have a better chance of finding evidence of life that used to exist on the Red Planet: “If we actually get Mars rocks back here to Earth from a place that we think could have been habitable in the past, then we might find evidence of prior life.”
Other bodies in our solar system could potentially host life as well, according to Impey, including the water world Europa (one of Jupiter’s several moons). He thinks future missions targeting the satellite could yield helpful—if not entirely conclusive—results, asserting that they should at least give us “some better idea if that ocean could have life in it.”
Of course, our solar system is just one very small corner of a very massive universe, so we’d be remiss if we didn’t look beyond it for signs of life. To narrow down the scope of our search, Impey suggests targeting the many exo-Earths we’ve already uncovered. Instead of focusing on the planets’ surfaces, though, we should research their atmospheres.
In the next few years, we’ll be able to use the James Web Space Telescope and other detection devices to look for biomarkers such as oxygen and methane in the atmospheres of these Earth-like planets, says Impey. “This biomarker experiment…could find evidence of microbial life indirectly,” he explains. The research should help us pinpoint the planets that are “the closest to Earth as possible, not in distance, but in character,” he adds, and since Earth is the only place we know life exists, finding the most Earth-like planets is our best bet for finding life.
Any Life Is Better Than No Life
Even if Impey is right, and humanity is still decades away from finding intelligent alien life, the discovery of microbial life on Mars, Europa, or one of the thousands of exoplanets we’ve identified would still be a huge development. It would mean Earth isn’t unique, that something else living is out there.
We could use the knowledge we glean from studying this microbial life to narrow down our hunt for other, more complex organisms. By providing valuable insights into how other living beings are able to survive on worlds far different from our own, this microbial life could help in our quest to become a multi-planetary species. Even the discovery of past microbial life would be helpful, as it could serve as something of a cautionary tale, providing us with the opportunity to learn and ensure we don’t meet the same fate.
As Impey notes, thanks to dramatic advances in technology, we’ve never been better equipped to discover life beyond Earth than we are right now: “Every new SETI experiment done now is about as good as the sum of all previous SETI experiments put together.”
However, even if all of the currently planned experiments and missions came up short, Impey doesn’t envision humanity giving up the hunt for extraterrestrial life any time soon: “The first SETI experiment was in 1959, so obviously it has been going on for over half a century without any success. The people who do it don’t seem put off by failure.”
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity and brevity.
In 1977, the sound of extraterrestrials was heard by human ears for the first time — or so people at the time thought. The Wow! Signal was detected by astronomer Jerry Ehman using Ohio State University’s Big Ear radio telescope. It is a radio signal detector that, at the time, was pointed at a group of stars called Chi Sagittarii in the constellation Sagittarius.
When scanning the skies around the stars, Ehman captured a 72 second burst of radio waves: He circled the reading and wrote “Wow!: next to it, hence the signal’s name. Over the last 40 years, the signal has been cited as evidence that we are not alone in the galaxy. Experts and laypeople alike believed that, finally, we had evidence of alien life.
These comets, known as 266P/Christensen and 335P/Gibbs, have clouds of hydrogen gas millions of kilometers in diameter surrounding them. The Wow! Signal was detected at 1420MHz, which is the radio frequency hydrogen naturally emits. Notably, the team has verified that the comets were within the vicinity at the time, and they report that the radio signals from 266/P Christensen matched those from the Wow! signal.
Other Extraterrestrial Communications
While this discovery is a disappointment to alien enthusiasts everywhere, as the Wow! Signal is the strongest signal we have ever received from space, it is a testament to our ability to accurately interpret signals and sounds from the cosmos. This gives us hope in our attempt to decode the hundreds of “strange, alien” signals coming from other stars that have been observed recently.
We have several weapons in our cosmic detection arsenal, most of which are used by the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI). Their main means of detection is using radio-telescopes, and their most ambitious project to date has been ‘Project Phoenix’; the “world’s most sensitive and comprehensive search for extraterrestrial intelligence.”
For this project, they used three of world’s biggest radio telescopes: the Parkes radio telescope in Australia (210 feet in diameter), the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in West Virginia (140 feet in diameter), and Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico (the world’s largest at 1,000 feet in diameter). They have also built The Allen Telescope Array with financial backing from Paul Allen.
While the technology for detecting alien messages is remaining relatively static, ideas for communicating better with our own satellites is advancing rapidly, with possibilities including communicating by a laser beam and establishing a space satellite network.
On the 20th of April, it was announced that the study of exoplanets and extra-terrestrial life had taken a huge leap forward. Worlds similar to Earth, with high likelihoods of surface water, are far more common than we had previously thought and so we are now questioning how to find life on them. Olivier Guyon, of the University of Arizona, announced at the Breakthrough Discuss Conference that “As far as we can tell, they’re everywhere. We’re transitioning into life-finding. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”
What tools are we using to ascertain if exoplanets have life on them?
There are three main technologies in our current space toolbox that will help us to detect life, all set to launch in the near future:
The Breakthrough Starshot project aims to launch a spaceship the size of a postage stamp to Alpha Centauri, Earth’s nearest star system, within the next two decades. The miniature spaceship will reach Proxima-b 20 years from its launch date and will be equipped with cameras, thrusters, navigational tools and communications equipment — as well as a light sail to help it achieve the speed required to travel space’s vast distances.
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), is capable of unprecedented resolution and sensitivity in recording various wavelengths. Among many other features, it will have a segmented 6.5-meter-diameter mirror which is massive compared to the Hubble Space Telescope’s 2.4-meter mirror. It is scheduled for launch in October 2018.
The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (Tess), will monitor over 200,000 stars simultaneously, looking for temporary drops in brightness caused by planetary transits. No current earth-bound transit survey is capable of performing this task. This satellite will embark no later than June 2018.
These tools may be the proverbial thread that unravels the wool ball of other life other in the Universe. Caltech’s Courtney Dressing said at the Breakthrough Discuss Forum “I think there’s a good chance that a planet that has life on it orbits one of the nearby M dwarfs we’ve already heard about today” referring to Proxima-b, TRAPPIST-1, and LHS 1140.
From the beginning of time, human progress has been driven by our need to understand how and why all things happen. The more we come to understand our surroundings, the deeper we desire to understand them further still. As our ancestors were presented with challenges, they innovated solutions using whatever knowledge and resources were available to them. When we think about how little our earliest ancestors had to work with, it seems all at once marvelous that they achieved anything at all, and almost somewhat boring — as the problems of the past seem so simple when examined through our present gaze, millennia in the future.
Even just a few generations ago, our parents and grandparents found the technology of The Jetsons and Star Trek to be fantastical and purely science fiction. Many of those clever gadgets — whether it be subservient robots or handheld computers — are already so commonplace as to be considered mundane by the newest generation. A generation that has never lived in a world with smallpox, or without an iPhone. As science and technology advance at seemingly warp speed, it may feel as though we know practically everything there is to know. Or, at least, that we are getting very close.
In an op-ed for Scientific American, physicist and author Daniel Whiteson implores us to not become complacent. To not be satisfied by all that we have come to know about the universe around us and within us and beyond us because there is still so much left to learn. “When we teach science to children,” Whiteson advises, “we should certainly describe what we do know, but there should also be a strong emphasis on what we don’t know, to inspire the next generation of explorers.”
What are, then, some of those things we don’t yet know that could serve as inspiration for the next Einstein or Curie? The next Stephen Hawking or Katherine Johnson?
The Mystery of Dark Matter
One of the universe’s greatest tricks, a most profound irony, is that the very evidence that makes physicists and astronomers certain that “dark matter” exists also makes it nearly impossible for anyone to prove its existence. We don’t even recognize dark matter for what it is, because we don’t know what it is — we only register the impact it seems to have on gravity. In other words, we deduce that it’s real because we can see the effect it has on its surroundings. Kind of like a poltergeist moving furniture around in the dark.
The cosmic frustration of these elusive particles is made more challenging because those interactions are so infrequent that we’ve rarely witnessed them. It may also be that these particles are their own matter and anti-matter partners, rendering them invisible to us. And in fact, when it comes to thinking about dark matter, it isn’t simply one problem. The “problem of dark matter” is actually a bunch of problems that all must be solved — which is difficult when you’re not even sure what you’re looking for.
The Deep Blue Sea
As vast and therefore intriguing as the outer limits of our universe may be, here on Earth there are numerous mysteries left to be solved in our oceans. The entire landscape of the deep sea — the world underwater — is as varied as the one above: there are waterfalls, volcanoes, and even lakes, yet we have yet to truly explore the majority of them. And we understand even less about the creatures that live there. We may well understand the topography of the moon better than we do our oceans, strange as that seems. We’ve been looking up when perhaps it would have been just as interesting to look down.
In the deepest, darkest parts of the ocean there are species we’ve barely caught glimpses of and therefore have not thoroughly studied. It’s the stuff of legends — except it’s all real. The “final frontier” may not be the far reaches of space, but the unfathomable depths of our oceans.
The “Hard Problem” of Consciousness
One of the most fascinating, perplexing, and often frustrating unanswered questions is that of consciousness. The human brain continues to be one of the most question-filled foci of science and philosophy alike, and many of those quandaries are based in the question of what it means to be conscious. While we can glean some answers about brain function by using technology like MRIs, consciousness is far more nuanced than even our most refined medical imaging can detect. We know quite a bit about the structure and function of consciousness, but the feeling of it – and the why — have proven so subjective that the challenge of measuring them remains unsolved.
The paradox is that consciousness is, perhaps, the one human experience that each of us knows intensely and intimately — yet to explain it to someone else and have them understand it and share in it seems, at this point anyway, next to impossible.
Are Aliens Out There?
Considering how old and enormous our universe is, the expectation is that there simply must be other lifeforms out there. The question is, why haven’t we made contact with them? Potential solutions to this question, known as Fermi’s Paradox, include everything from “aliens exist and know about us, but think we’re boring and therefore aren’t bothering to say hi” to “aliens don’t know about us at all because we’re located in the universal equivalent to the boondocks.”
As technology advances and allows us to not only see into space farther and more accurately — largely in the form of advance telescopes and satellites — but also allows us to travel into space, if there’s life out there to be found (and that wants to be found), it seems reasonable to think we’ll get there eventually.
Where Did We Come From (And Where Are We Going?)
The question of evolution has plagued humanity since the beginning of time. Our desire to definitively know how we got to where we are now isn’t just important because we care about our own evolutionary history, but because it could give us incredible insight into where we’re headed as a species. It could also, potentially, reveal important information about how evolution could be altered.
It may be that the key to understanding some of the most pressing issues in health and medicine — such as cancer and other illnesses, regenerative medicine, and even longevity — could be lurking in our evolutionary development.
It may well be that these and other greatest mysteries of the universe may not be solved in our lifetime. But our grandparents likely never imagined living in a world where they could put a computer in their pocket or ride in a self-driving car. It may be that in our twilight years, we will try to remember what life was like before we met aliens, colonized Mars, or cured cancer.
Ridley Scott has built himself a rather formidable career in Hollywood. He’s directed some of the biggest titles in science fiction, including the Oscar-nominated films “The Martian” and “Blade Runner,” and he was responsible for beginning the successful “Alien” franchise. Now, in anticipation of the next installment of that series, “Alien: Covenant,” Scott is adding Apocalypse Speculator to his list of job titles.
In an interview with Sky News, the director stated that he does think intelligent aliens are out there in the universe. “I believe in superior beings. I think it is certainly likely,” he explained. He went on to say that our only appropriate response to visiting extraterrestrials is to run and hide. “So when you see a big thing in the sky, run for it,” he said. “Because they are a lot smarter than we are, and if you are stupid enough to challenge them, you will be taken out in three seconds.”
First and Final Contact
Scott is not alone in this sentiment. Several experts agree that any alien lifeforms intelligent enough to make it to Earth are not likely to take too kindly to us measly humans.
To that end, Stephen Hawking doesn’t think we should be attempting to make first contact. “One day we might receive a signal from a planet like Gliese 832c, but we should be wary of answering back,” says Hawking in the short film “Stephen Hawking’s Favorite Places.” He goes on to compare aliens coming to Earth to Europeans coming to the New World. In short, Hawking asserts that it “didn’t turn out so well” for the native inhabitants.
Even without alien contact, some experts believe that we will sow our own destruction. Both Lord Martin Rees and Hawking see the development of artificial intelligence (AI) as a greater threat to the survival of our species. In Rees’ mind, “The period of time occupied by organic intelligence is just a thin sliver between early life and the long era of the machines.” If that’s the case, we might as well enjoy the time we have with a good sci-fi flick.
When many people look at the stars, they see a vast, unbound infinity that fills them with a feeling that’s difficult to describe but impossible to forget. That feeling pushes humanity to want to explore the great unknown reaches of space in the hopes of discovering that we aren’t alone in it.
But let’s assume for one moment that extraterrestrial life does exist. Should we really be trying to contact it?
Some view the idea of reaching out to extraterrestrials as dangerous. In fact, Stephen Hawking made a strong point against the idea of making contact by comparing it to the Native Americans’ first encounter with Christopher Columbus and the European explorers, a situation that “didn’t turn out so well” for the former civilization. Hawking went on to note that advanced alien life could be “vastly more powerful and may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria.”
While that does sound like it could be a possibility, not everyone agrees with Hawking. In fact, many have equally convincing arguments in support of contact with aliens.
Initially, the organization focused on passively looking for signals indicating signs of intelligent life, but now it is taking action in the form of METI (Messaging Extra Terrestrial Intelligence). METI International sends greetings to specific locations in space in the hopes of alerting alien astronomers of our existence.
Though Hawking and others worry that our interstellar friendship search will lead to the annihilation or subjugation of our species as a whole, Douglas Vakoch, the president of METI International and a professor in the Department of Clinical Psychology at the California Institute for Integral Studies, strongly disagrees with this assertion. He believes that claims that we should hide our existence as a species are unfounded. After all, we have already leaked nearly 100 years of transmissions from radio and television broadcasts as electromagnetic radiation.
Vakoch goes on to note an inconsistency in Hawking’s reasoning. He asserts that any civilizations able to travel between stars will absolutely have the ability to pick up our “leaked” signals. By that logic, they must already be aware of our existence and are simply waiting for us to make the first move. Vakoch urges us to test the Zoo Hypothesis and the Fermi Paradox through standard peer-review methods, insisting that we target nearby star systems 20 or 30 light-years away with repeat messages to generate a testable hypothesis within a few decades.
NASA estimates that there are 40 billion habitable planets in our galaxy. While he strongly urges caution in making first contact, even Hawking is curious as to whether any of those planets beyond our solar system host life. To that end, he has launched a $100 million initiative to seek out life. If we ever do find extraterrestrial life, either through Hawking’s search, SETI, or any of the number of other projects in the works, we might just want to take a beat before saying “Hello.”
Lucky fans of the “Alien” franchise were given a special treat before a screening of the original film at the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference this weekend: clips from the next movie in the series, “Alien: Covenant.” We won’t go into the treasure trove of spoiler-ific material gleaned from the new clips, but you can find the gory details elsewhere on the net.
The action of this film commences after the events of the previous film in the series, “Prometheus.” From what is described of the footage, the film seems to be going back to its roots in horror while still peppering in the action that director James Cameron brought to the franchise with his sequel, “Aliens.”
Take a look at the horrifying red band trailer below:
The “Alien” films do not paint a pretty picture of humanity’s first brushes with extraterrestrial life. While many movies, including the upcoming star-studded “Life,”tend to see aliens as antagonistic, some also imagine them as friendly, such as ’80s blockbuster “ET.”
No one knows if we will ever discover life outside of the confines of our planet, but many experts, including the illustrious Stephen Hawking, advise caution in making contact. Even if they aren’t acid-bleeding, chest-bursting, robot-fighting beings with super strength, seemingly harmless organisms could subject us to unimaginable dangers, too.
The origin of life has long been contentiously debated, often because researchers are trying to understand events that occurred billions of years ago. Adding to the debate is a recent discovery from deep in the exotic landscape of the Nuvvuagittuq (nuh-vu-ah-gi-took) belt in Canada where scientists have uncovered fossils they believe to be 3.77 billion years old. If they’re right, that would make their discovery the oldest fossil evidence on record.
Claims that speculate the age of ancient fossils always set the science world ablaze, mainly because very old rocks often undergo geological deformations. Everything from erosion to weathering can remove signs of life, making it highly unlikely we’d find anything thousands, let alone billions, of years later. However, lead researcher Matthew Dodd is confident that his team’s Canadian discovery will hold up to the scrutiny.
The straw-shaped “microfossils” uncovered by the team were found in a part of Canada that once was a hydrothermal vent on the ocean floor. The microscopic microbes that created these fossils would have germinated around the vents to take advantage of their volatile chemistry to create fuel. When the microbes died, iron in the water would latch onto their decaying bodies, eventually replacing their organic structures with stone that the researchers can now study.
After proper analysis, the youngest estimate of the microbes is around 3.77 billion years. However, the microbes may be as old as 4.28 billion years — that’s only about 260 million years after the Earth was formed. The research is published in the journal Nature.
Life, Aliens, and the Pursuit of the Unknown
Our current understanding of the origin of life on Earth is that it dates back to 3.4 to 3.5 billion years ago. The present findings suggest that the first incidence of life occurred 300 million years sooner than that, so if the age of the microbe fossils is verified, the implications would be tremendous.
In addition to the findings by Dodd’s team, the discovery of reportedly 3.7 billion year old fossils in Issua, Greenland is awaiting verification as well. Those fossils indicated the existence of a photosynthetic bacteria, while Dodd’s team is suggesting their discovery is of a chemosynthetic bacteria’s fossil. The age and apparent diversity of these organisms suggests a much more profound outlook on the origin of life in the universe.
These fossils would challenge our fundamental understanding of the origin of life. We would have to revisit what we thought we knew about the potential for organic matter to flourish during a time when the Earth was bombarded by asteroids, the environment was changing radically every hundred years, and the planet’s surface was sodden with molten lava. If life was able to develop under those conditions, we’re left with more questions than answers.
What we believed to be a steady process that required time and caution might just be something more sporadic, which would in turn suggest that life might be more of a cosmic phenomenon than just an Earth-based one. This could change how we think about the potential for life on other planets, or even Mars, which was teeming with oceans and warm 3.77 billion years ago. Not finding life on the Red Planet would tell us a lot, too, namely that life on Earth is due to some fluke or a phenomenon unique to our planet.
Now, all that’s left to do is wait to find out if these ancient fossils are as ancient as their discoverers hope.
Galilean moons. Recently, NASA has kickstarted plans to send a lander to the icy exoplanet in search of extraterrestrial life within its crust.
A 264-page report published by the space administration details their plans for the lander to drill approximately 4 inches (10 centimeters) into Europa’s crust and use its specially designed onboard instruments to test the moon’s chemical composition and capacity to breed organic life.
Despite information from past fly-bys, there’s still not much that we know about Europa. But with this alien mission, NASA hopes to, at the very least, improve our quality of understanding about the moon. They will release the lander into space by 2024, arriving on Europa by 2031.
Jonathan Lunine, an astronomer with NASA’s Science Definition Team (SDT), is hopeful about the mission. He states:
I was skeptical that we could in fact design a payload with a reasonable technological maturity and relative simplicity. Thanks to the engineers, a very practical solution was found and the payload we put together is not overly ambitious. The bottom line is, I became much more of a believer that this is a mission that can be done in a time frame I’d be interested, in the next 20 years or so.
Why Europa Could Contain Life
The lander’s onboard instruments will specifically be testing for biosignatures, which are signs of present or past life hidden within elements found on the moon. It will also assess the potential for the moon to become habitable in the future, and whether or not future missions could be successfully conducted.
NASA’s hope is that if there are future missions to Europa, a lander would be able to drill down far enough to reach the moon’s immense subterranean ocean, which is around 11.8 miles (19 km) below the surface.
But that’s not all that this mysterious moon touts. “Europa is provisionally a great place to go,” adds Lunine. “It has a very large amount of rocks, it’s got a lot of heat [at its core], so at the base of the oceans there are undoubtedly hydrothermal systems. Everything we know about it makes this a good [place] to look for life.”
Scientists aboard the International Space Station (ISS) recently ran an experiment where they let algae loose into the vacuum of space for a full 16 months. And, surprisingly enough, the simple plants survived the harrowing journey. Despite extreme temperature variations, UV radiation, cosmic radiation, and incredible length of time, the algae were brought back aboard still alive.
The researchers aboard the ISS are currently running experiments as part of the Biology and Mars Experiment (BIOMEX) project. Within this experimental algae portion of the project, they tested the durability of algae species that are known to love freezing temperatures. Since the mixture of extreme conditions found in space is impossible to replicate in a laboratory environment exactly, the crew on the ISS used their location to put these cold-loving species to the test. However, despite knowing what these plants will endure on Earth, the scientists were astonished at how much they can really take.
Cold Loving Aliens
Post-experiment, the researchers aboard the ISS will send these algae samples back to Earth. There, they will be rigorously tested to see the actual extent that the temperatures and combined radiation impacted them. This information could be crucial to future human missions to Mars. It could help to ensure the safety of humans and any plant-based food to be consumed.
However, beyond the positive benefits that this research could have on future missions of humans in space, it could also potentially tell us a little bit more about alien life. According to many, including famed astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson, thinking that we are somehow the only living creatures in the universe would be “inexcusably egocentric.” And, while previously, few would have thought that any plants could survive such an extended stay in space, we now know better. And so, while certain environments in space may seem inhospitable, we now know that life could exist in places we never before would have suspected.
For most of human history we’ve looked at the stars and wondered if there’s life beyond our galaxy. As technology has rapidly advanced, it feels possible that even our more esoteric questions about aliens could be one day be answered. The real question is: are we ready for the implications of those answers?
While science fiction narratives often rely on the “government denies knowledge” trope, several groups around the world have invested time, effort, and resources into developing scientific protocols for assessing the probability of alien life. Of course, no nation in the world has formally adopted them…but they do exist.
The Drake Equation, proposed by an astronomer for which it was named in 1961, essentially provides a template that mathematicians could use to determine the likelihood that life exists elsewhere in the universe. Drake chose seven variables to include, such as “the formation rate of stars suitable for developing intelligent life.” The problem is science currently has no firm data for any of those variables. Therefore, attempting to actually calculate a probability from the equation (which is: N = R* • fp • ne • fl • fi • fc • L) provides only a hypothetical estimate.
If Aliens Do Exist, Are We Ready To Meet Them?
Let’s say that technological advances give us the ability to fill in the variables in The Drake Equation. Scientists then not only figure out the probability of extraterrestrial life is high, but that an alien visitation is imminent. What would happen next?
The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) League has an abundant list of protocols concerning contact with life on other planets, including something called The Rio Scale. The scale is concerned with three variables: the phenomenon itself, how it was discovered, and how far away it is, to provide an objective indicator of the events’ credence. In other words, the Rio Scale is a decent metric for sussing out alien hoaxes. This isn’t an insignificant application, either: as the video below points out, if the media reported that aliens had communicated with us before scientists had all the facts, something akin to mass panic would probably ensue.
The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies — otherwise known as simply The Outer Space Treaty — actually states that the Secretary-General of the United Nations be the one to formally communicate such a finding, having presumably received the information through proper channels.
Of course, this is all still largely hypothetical. Much of what we think we know about aliens comes not from hard evidence, but our fictional renderings of them and their interactions with us. We can’t know for sure what to expect if, and when, aliens make contact, but our attempts to prepare give us fascinating insight into our own hopes and fears. When we look to the sky we may not get the answers we’ve been looking for about aliens, but we’re likely to find answers about ourselves we didn’t even know we were looking for.
Every so often, we hear about a strange radio signal winging its way Earthward from the cold, lifeless depths of outer space. Suddenly, bored news personnel around the world come alive and begin churning out sensational stories with lurid headlines promising that this is really it—our first contact with alien minds.
In fact, radio astronomers have a long history of detecting mysterious signals that just don’t seem to fit into their carefully ordered vision of the universe. For instance, pulsars were initially thought to be intelligent signals from beyond the solar system. When discovered by astronomers in Cambridge, England, the first pulsar signals were dubbed “LGM”—that’s “little green men,” in case you didn’t know.
And who could forget the famous “Wow!” signal of 1977, detected by astronomer Jerry Ehrman at Ohio State University’s “Big Ear” radio telescope. It was a 72-second anomalous transmission in the 1,420 MHz range—the natural frequency of neutral hydrogen emissions, which physicists Philip Morrison and Giuseppe Cocconi speculated might be the medium of ET communications, given its cosmic ubiquity. The “Wow!” signal is still unexplained, and its like has never been seen again.
These instances were hardly the first—Nikola Tesla and Guglielmo Marconi, those indefatigable pioneers of technology and radio, claimed to have heard interplanetary transmissions in the early years of the 20th Century.
“The changes I noted were taking place periodically,” Tesla wrote of the “signals” he detected during his work in Colorado Springs, “and with such a clear suggestion of number and order that they were not traceable to any cause then known to me…The feeling is constantly growing on me that I had been the first to hear the greeting of one planet to another.”
Alas, we are still awaiting that momentous day when the announcement of such a communication will be verified as true.
It Ain’t Aliens, Folks
The alien “signal” in question needn’t be restricted to radio or other electromagnetic transmissions encoding deliberate messages; it could be something as innocuous as the absence of a signal—repeated or arranged so as to arouse a suspicion of intelligent origin. For instance, there’s the controversy surrounding the mysterious “Tabby’s Star” (KIC 8462852), which has been amply reported in Futurism. Scuttlebutt has it that Tabby’s Star might be surrounded by some sort of alien megastructure that’s causing the astonishing dips in the star’s bolometric luminosity—at least, that’s what some astronomers have suggested, with tongues at least partially planted in cheek.
But let’s not deceive ourselves. Invoking extraterrestrial intelligence to explain a mystery that, for the moment, confounds us to no end and monkeys up our cherished understanding of things is a bit of a deus ex machina—like the god swinging down from on high in the old Greek plays, happily arrived at just the right time to resolve all the unspliced threads of the plot.
The truth is, a mysterious signal is just that—and nothing more. To say it must be of extraterrestrial origin is to say precisely nothing at all; sure, it could be an alien signal, because intelligence could be responsible for virtually anything. In a universe that doubtless has many more surprises in store for us, it’s safer to search for alternative explanations.
As for Tabby’s Star? It’s probably just surrounded by a swarm of comets, asteroids, and planetary debris—that, or some equally prosaic and entirely dull explanation.
Now, if a giant alien mothership lands atop Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, pukes out some abducted WWII airmen, and beings playing strange musical tones, well that’s probably an extraterrestrial signal…
The need to reach out and make contact with another, complementary mind—whether in our personal lives or collectively, as a species—is a powerful human urge. And now the dream—no matter how remote—of opening up a line of communications with a nonhuman intelligence is entering a new, more systematic phase.
A San Francisco-based organization is now preparing to send continuous messages to those nearby planets thought most likely to harbor alien life. Messaging Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (METI) has already set its sights on dispatching coded signals to a rocky planet that orbits Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to our Sun, by 2018.
Douglas Vakoch, the former director of Interstellar Message Composition at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute and president of METI, believes that passively scanning the cosmos for messages betraying the existence of intelligent life elsewhere is simply not enough. In an interview with Forbes, he explains: “It’s too late to conceal ourselves in the universe, so we should decide how we want to represent ourselves. Extraterrestrials may be waiting for a clear indication from us that we’re ready to start talking.”
According to Phys.org, the program involves beaming deliberate, repeated signals into space over long periods of time toward suspect stars and planets—and by “suspect,” we mean possessing a configuration approximately similar to our own Solar System and planet. As far as the signals are concerned, scientists plan to send information that transcends language, such as mathematical proofs or scientific concepts. The message is planned to be just a simple “hello,” but the rather significant problem of how it is to be constructed still remains.
A Shot in the Dark
METI’s efforts are merely the latest iteration of a long tradition of attempts to more actively communicate with potential alien neighbors. The most famous instance is the “Arecibo Message,” which was dispatched in the general direction of the globular cluster M31 in 1974. The binary signal, which was encoded in radio waves, contained pictorial representations of humanity, formulae for the elements and compounds that make up DNA, and representations of the Solar System and the Arecibo transmitter—a remarkably information-dense message that was crafted by Frank Drake and Carl Sagan, both leading physicists of the time.
Other attempts at interstellar communication took a more pedestrian approach—something like a cosmic “message in a bottle.” The first of these involved the creation of the Pioneer Plaques—gold tablets with representations of humans, hydrogen, and a diagram of the Solar System—which were bolted to the frames of the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 probes in the early 70s. Since it was known beforehand that the eventual trajectory of the probes would carry them out of the Solar System altogether, it was sensibly concluded that—although the very definition of the proverbial long-shot—attaching a message for any possible extraterrestrials who might happen upon the probes in the distant future was worth the limited investment in time and money.
Similar efforts include the famous Voyager Golden Records, which are simply low-tech phonograph records (that’s 1890s technology, folks) with a playback stylus and instructions for how to play the thing. More recent attempts include The Last Pictures—a micro-etched disc carried by a geostationary satellite—and a myriad of radio messages.
For better or worse, we’ve had no replies. But that won’t stop the dreamers from trying.