In general, humans have always thought there is life out there beyond our own, but over the past few decades scientists have dedicated an increasing amount of effort to find alien life. Thanks to a massive number of discoveries, the possibility of finding alien life seems more likely than it has ever been. But when we do find alien life, what’s going to happen? That’s precisely what a recent NASA- and Library of Congress-sponsored symposium attempted to answer.
Humans first tried to establish contact with alien life in 1960. It involved a radio telescope being pointed at two
stars similar to our sun found at a distance of 11 light years. Francis Drake, the astronomer whose experiment it was, hoped he would be able to pick up a signal indicating the existence of intelligent life. Despite the fact that his SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) experiment didn’t get an answer, humans have learned a significant amount in the half-century since.
First of all, recent studies have discovered that even on Earth life can exist in some of the harshest conditions. For example, there is life half a mile under the thick ice sheet of Antarctica where there hasn’t been any form of sunlight for millions of years, while certain microbes that feed on methane live in rocks at the bottom of the ocean, where there is little oxygen. So, if life is able to survive in such harsh conditions, who says we won’t find alien life on other planets?
Another discovery scientists made is that liquid water, which is considered a guaranteed sign of life, is not something that’s unique to Earth. Europa and Ganymede, two moons of Jupiter, have massive oceans under the ice that are quite like the ones on Earth. Even some of Saturn’s myriad moons present thrilling potential of life. For example, Titan has a methane sea while Enceladus features water vapor and ice particle geysers no one can explain. Only last month it was reported in Nature World News that Mimas could join the list of moons that should habitation potential because there are some hints the moon could be harboring a hidden sea beneath the surface.
The symposium also refers to the identification of more than 1,800 exoplanets outside of our solar system, with estimates of our galaxy holding as many as one trillion planets, of which 22 percent could be similar to earth. An exoplanet is simply a planet that doesn’t orbit our Sun, ergo the term refers to any planet outside of our solar system.
As Carl Sagan, a famous American astronomer, said: “The Universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”
According to Seth Shostak, a SETI astronomer, our generation could be the first to know about life beyond our planet after ten thousand generations of humans.
The Library of Congress’ second annual Chair in Astrobiology, Steven J. Dick, was the host of the symposium.
Three Scenarios of What May Happen
Shostak stated there were three scenarios in which life beyond our planet could be found, or as he calls them “horse races,” in his talk entitled “Current Approaches to Finding Life Beyond Earth, and What Happens If We Do.”
One possibility is that we’ll find life in our solar system, relatively close to our home by comparison. Mars is being searched meticulously by the Curiosity Rover from NASA for signs that life exists or once existed on the Red Planet. For example, there are indications that water once existed on Mars as areas with ancient soil present cracks and hollows.
Shostak went on to say that powerful telescopes will be able to determine whether an exoplanet has methane or oxygen in its atmosphere just by seeing how light is reflected off it. One such telescope is the James Webb Space
Telescope slated for a 2018 launch.
The final scenario, Shostak posits, is for scientists to keep up with Francis Drake’s SETI experiment and make sure they are listening for any radio signals originating on other planets. Regardless of how it is done, Shostak is certain that we will find alien life sooner than we think.
According to Discovery News, in May, during a House Science and Technology Committee hearing, Shostak said that our solar system alone holds six other bodies that could have life, besides Earth, which is why he feels the chances of locating alien life are good. He believes that if it will happen, it will likely occur within the next two decades.
How Will Time Scale Affect What We Find?
We are in the middle of a highly advanced generation from a technological standpoint and progress is being made on a daily basis. Shostak feels that this should be taken into account when scientists are attempting to establish contact with alien life. He opines that since we aren’t far from the development of artificial intelligence, there’s a good chance other planets aren’t attempting to achieve the same thing or might have already done so.
Referred to as the “time scale argument”, the theory is that once we do locate aliens, they might not be biological. Many scientists think that by 2050 artificial intelligence will be a reality, which is only one century after computers were invented and one and a half centuries after radio communication was invented.
Shostak explains that the timespan between inventing radios and inventing machines that think is only a few centuries, which is a short timeframe, which is why he says the dominant form of intelligent life in the universe might potentially not be biological.
It might seem implausible, but Susan Schneider, a professor of philosophy from the University of Connecticut, upholds the same theory in a talk entitled “Alien Minds”. She opines that once we do find alien life, we could be contacting a race of beings that are supremely intelligent and could have achieved immortality and capabilities like “mind uploading.”
Another speaker, Lori Marino, who is the current director of the Kimela Center for Animal Advocacy and a neuroscientists, pointed out that there is a massive difference between locating microbes on other planets and finding intelligent life.
The Philosophical Impact of Finding Alien Life
If we do locate life on another planet sometime beyond the middle of this century, regardless of whether it is biological or non-biological, it will likely have a significant philosophical impact on us.
Robin Lovin, a theologist, says that according to the traditions from the Bible, humans were created in God’s image, or, more abstractly, that people have a human dignity, that we all share a position that demands we be treated equally and differently than how other life is treated. He explains considering human life in that context is completely different to what science does when it considers human life in terms of biology.
In other words, scientists looking to prove alien life exists also need to take into account that their discoveries could have a philosophical and religious impact on society, which might determine how such a discovery is handled.
However, until such time as this becomes an issue, scientists are moving forward, focusing on the fact that finding life isn’t just so they can brag about it, as it is the very key to humanity’s survival. This is why NASA has been so focused on Mars in the past few years.
In April, at the Humans to Mars Summit, Charles Bolden, the chief of NASA, explained to attendees that if humans are to survive as a species, then we need to “become a multi-planet species.” He further stated that humans needed to go to Mars, as the Red Planet would be a stepping stone to the rest of our solar system and other systems.
He also stated that we would gain more insight into the past and future of Earth by studying Mars, which will also help us figure out whether there really is life beyond our planet.
Steven J. Dick, the conference’s host, concluded by saying that the way to prepare is by continuously questioning our notions and beliefs in relation to life and intelligence and their nature.