Are we alone in the universe? It is a question that humans have been asking since we first looked up at the stars and up until recently it has been a subject of mere speculation. However, upon the discovery of multiple exoplanets including Kepler-452b, an earth-like planet orbiting in the habitable zone of a sun-like star, it seems we may be getting ever closer to the answer we have been craving. Still, how would we actually reach this answer and what implications would this hold?
Are we alone in the universe? It is a question that humans have been asking since we first looked up at the stars and up until recently it has been a subject of mere speculation.
How likely is it that there is life within our universe? To think about that, we would have to take into consideration the size of the universe. Space.com estimates that there are about 10 trillion galaxies in the observable universe using data from the Hubble Space Telescope. Each galaxy contains a massive amount of solar bodies, but the actual amount may vary with galaxy size and density. If using the Milky Way as a galactic average, as there are many galaxies that dwarf the Milky Way and others that are just a fraction of the size, we can say that its estimated value of 100 billion stars is the galactic standard. Using these estimates, the total number of stars in the galaxy would be calculated at one septillion (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000). Each of these stars may be the center of a solar system that contains life. In another Space.com article, it is estimated that one-fifth of solar systems with a sun-like star contain planets in its habitable zone which could harbor life.
To clarify, the search for planets that support extraterrestrial life does not have to be restricted to looking for Earth-twins, meaning to say the planets that have the singularly defined conditions we know firsthand are capable of supporting life.
To clarify, the search for planets that support extraterrestrial life does not have to be restricted to looking for Earth-twins, meaning to say the planets that have the singularly defined conditions we know firsthand are capable of supporting life. It also doesn’t mean that we are looking for intelligent life such as Martians, Vulcans or the occasional Wookie either. If we were to look for extraterrestrial life the best places to start looking are within our own little solar neighborhood. Two of the most promising, yet less traditional places that may contain findings many will nerd out over for years to come are Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Titan. Europa has an icy surface, and scientists think that below that ice is liquid water ocean that could contain life, as there are possible hydrothermal vents similar to the ones at the bottom of Earth’s oceans. Titan, with an air pressure similar to Earth, has lakes of methane that some scientist think are possible of supporting life reliant on methane instead of the majority of oxygen based life on Earth.
Discovery of life not as we know it would flip the world of biosciences on its head.
Great—let’s say we find life outside of Earth. Now what? Discovery of life not as we know it would flip the world of biosciences on its head. Firstly, finding extraterrestrial life, if they share similar characteristics to lifeform on Earth, may validate ideas such as Panspermia, the theory that life on Earth began from microorganisms or chemical precursors of life from space, leading to further inquiry regarding our own origins. Knowing Earth isn’t a closed system of life, it may very well be possible that resilient lifeform from Earth traveled through space to populate these planets. Secondly, if they were in the early stages of evolution, analyzing the physiology of these lifeforms surviving on methane or on the minimal resources acquired from hydrothermal vents would be a dream for any comparative biologist. The field of astrobiology would expand almost as rapidly as the universe (okay they’re still not positive about this so let’s just say that it would expand pretty dang fast). Not only that, but interest in science in general would skyrocket. I know that I am a fan of when science fiction becomes reality. There was a time when the ability to communicate instantly across the globe was considered pure fantasy, as well as having access to anything we want to know at our fingertips. But as there was a tech boom upon the realization of these fantasies, I think there will be a science boom upon the realization of extraterrestrial life.
One thing to consider is if we find that extraterrestrial life does exist, will society freak out? Will everyone start wearing aluminum foil hats and will the abduction story my Uncle Jimmy keeps telling everyone be taken seriously?
One thing to consider is if we find that extraterrestrial life does exist, will society freak out? Will everyone start wearing aluminum foil hats and will the abduction story my Uncle Jimmy keeps telling everyone be taken seriously? There is a large difference between finding microbial life and intelligent life. Within our solar system, unless there are Martians that have managed to evade detection there is not much of a chance intelligent life is within our reach. The next closest solar system is Alpha Centauri located 4.37 light-years away, which is quite a hike. So unless we can find a plausible way to achieve interstellar travel, it is unlikely that we will interact with life, intelligent or not, outside of our solar system. Even if we do find life within our means of discovery, I do not think it brings us any closer to “Independence Day.”
nvestment into scientific inquiry is one of the greatest investments that society can make. Its returns include economic, civic, and cultural development that far surpass the cost it took to get there.
None of this can happen if we do not fund it, however. Investment into scientific inquiry is one of the greatest investments that society can make. Its returns include economic, civic, and cultural development that far surpass the cost it took to get there. Our first forays into space allowed for developments such as satellites to become possible which allowed for technology such as cellphones and the internet to take hold of our society. After all, what would our lives be like without instant access to cute cat videos? But in all seriousness, space truly is the final frontier. We can only expand out, and learning about the possible life that surrounds us is seriously exciting business. Finding life outside of Earth is possible, as well as all of the advancements that will follow in its footsteps, but only with prioritizing the funding of space exploration. The time is here. The time is now. Now who’s with me (looking at you, Congress)!
Lewis, Tanya. “Habitable Earth-Size Planets Common Across the Universe, Study Suggests.” Space.com. Purch, 4 Nov. 2013. Web. 26 Aug. 2015.
Howell, Elizabeth. “How Many Stars Are In The Universe?” Space.com. Purch, 31 May 2014. Web. 26 Aug. 2015.