News from SETI: We’re Going to Find Aliens This Century

aliens“We are going to find life in space in this century.” This was the bold prediction made by Dr. Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer at the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) at this year’s European Commission Innovation Convention. As part of the European Union’s strategy to create an innovation-friendly environment, the ECIC brings together the best scientific minds from around the world to discuss what the future holds and how we can make it happen.

And this year, Dr. Shostak and other representatives from SETI were quite emphatic about what they saw as humanity’s greatest discovery, and when it would be taking place. Sometime this century, they claim, the people of Earth will finally find the answer to the question “Are we alone in the universe?” Like many eminent scientists from around the world, Dr. Shostak believes its not a question of if, but when.

ECIC_2014As he went on to explain, given the sheer size of the universe and the statistical probabilities, the odds that humanity is far more unlikely than the reverse:

There are 150 billion galaxies other than our own, each with a few tens of billions of earth-like planets. If this is the only place in the universe where anything interesting happening then this is a miracle. And 500 years of astronomy has taught us that whenever you believe in a miracle, you’re probably wrong.

As for how we’ll find that life, Dr Shostak sees it as a ‘three-horse race’ which will probably be won over the next 25 years. Either we will find it nearby, in microbial form, on Mars or one of the moons of Jupiter; or we’ll find evidence for gases produced by living processes (for example photosynthesis) in the atmospheres of planets around other stars; or Dr Shostak and his team at SETI will pick up signals from intelligent life via huge antennas.

exoplanet_searchDr. Suzanne Aigrain – a lecturer in Astrophysics at Oxford University and who studies exoplanets – represents horse number two in the race. Dr. Aigrain and her research group have been using electromagnetic radiation (i.e. light) as their primary tool to look for planets around other stars. The life ‘biomarkers’ that she and her colleagues look for are trace gases in the atmospheres of the exoplanets that they think can only be there if they are being produced by a biological source like photosynthesis.

Speaking at the Convention, Dr Aigrain noted that, based on her studies, she would also bet that we are not alone:

We are very close to being able to say with a good degree of certainty that planets like the Earth, what we call habitable planets, are quite common [in the universe] … That’s why when asked if I believe there’s life on other planets, I raise my hand and I do so as a scientist because the balance of probability is overwhelmingly high.

fractal_dyson_sphere_by_eburacum45-d2yum16Dr. Shostak and SETI, meanwhile, seek evidence of life in the universe by looking for some signature of its technology. If his team does discover radio transmissions from space, Dr. Shostak is quite certain that they will be coming from a civilization more advanced than our own. This is part and parcel of searching for life that is capable of sending out transmissions, and assures that they will have a level of technology that is at least comparable to our own.

At the same time, it is entirely possible that an advanced species will have existed longer than our own. As the Kardashev Scale shows, the level of a race’s technical development can be measured in terms of the energy they utilize. Beginning with Type 0’s, which draw their energy, information, raw-materials from crude organic-based sources, the scale goes on to include levels of development that draw energy of fusion and anti-matter to our host star, or even stellar clusters and even galaxies.

halosphereConsidering that size of the universe, the realm of possibility – and the fact humanity itself is still making the transitions from Type 0 to Type I – the odds of us meeting an extra-terrestrial that is more advanced than us are quite good. As Shostak put it:

Why do I insist that if we find ET, he/she/it will be more advanced than we are? The answer is that you’re not going to hear the Neanderthals. The Neanderthal Klingons are not building radio transmitters that will allow you to get in touch.

“Neanderthal Klingons”… now that’s something I’d like to see! Of course, scientists have there reasons for making such bold predictions, namely that they have a vested interest in seeing their theories proven correct. But not surprisingly, they are hardly alone in holding up the numbers and insisting that its a numbers game, and that the numbers are stacked. Another such person is William Shatner, who in a recent interview with the Daily Mail offered his thoughts on the possibility of alien life.

william_shatnerAs he explained it, it all comes down to numbers, and the sheer amount of discoveries made in such a short space of time:

I don’t think there is any doubt there is life in the universe, yes. I don’t think there is any question. The mathematics involved — what have they just discovered, 730,000 new planets the other day? — mathematically it has to be.

He was a bit off on the number of planets, but he does have a point. Earlier this month, NASA announced the discovery of 715 new exoplanets thanks to a new statistical technique known as “verification by multiplicity”. By observing hundreds of stars and applying this basic technique, the Kepler space probe was able to discover more planets so far this year than in the past few combined. In fact, this one batch of discovered increased the total number of exoplanet candidates from 1000 to over 1700.

alien-worldAnd while the discovery of only four potentially habitable planets amongst those 715 (a mere 0.0056% of the total) may seem discouraging, each new discovery potentially represents hundreds more. And given how little of our galaxy we have mapped so far, and the fact that we’ve really only begun to explore deep space, we can expect that list to grow by leaps and bounds in the coming years and decades.

Naturally, there are some fundamental questions that arise out of these predictions. For example, if we do find life on other planets or intercept a radio signal, what are the consequences? Finding a microbe that isn’t an earthly microbe will tell us a lot about biology, but there will also be huge philosophical consequences. Even more so if we are to meet a species that has developed advanced technology, space flight, and the means to come find us, rather than us finding them.

In Dr Shostak’s words, ‘It literally changes everything’. But that is the nature of


News From Space: Eyes on Europa

europa-landerIt’s one of Jupiter’s four largest moons, named the Jovians by the famed astronomer – Galileo Galilee – who first discovered them. And from all outward appearances, the moon is an icy, inhospitable place, with surface temperatures never reaching above -160º C (-256º F). Yet, beneath that frozen outer shell is believed to be a liquid, saltwater ocean, one that draws warmth from its orbit around Jupiter.

If this should indeed be the case, then Europa would be about the best candidate for extraterrestrial life in the Solar System, albeit in microbial form. For decades now, NASA has been working under that assumption and preparing for the day that it might be able to send an expedition or probe to confirm it. And it now seems that that day may be on the horizon.

europa-lander-2According to NASA, this would likely take the form of a robot lander. Much like Curiosity, Opportunity, and other robotic research vehicles, it would packed with a variety of sensors and analytical equipment. But of course, the nature of that equipment would be specifically tailored to answer a series of unknowns pertaining to Europa itself.

Overall, the lander would have three priorities: discover the makeup of minerals and organic matter present on the moon; examine the geophysics of the ice and the ocean underneath; and determine how the geology looks (and therefore how it might have evolved) at a human scale on the surface. Basically, it would all boil down to looking at chemistry, water and energy – in other words, the conditions necessary for life.

And though NASA has not announced any official dates, it has begun to speak of the idea an indication of intent. A new article by NASA scientists published in the peer-reviewed journal Astrobiology entitled Science Potential from a Europa Lander set out their research goals in more detail, and speculated how they might be practically achieved.

europa-lander-4One area of focus would be Europa’s distinctive linear surface cracks which are believed to be the result of tidal forces. Europa’s eccentric orbit about Jupiter causes very high tides when the moon passes closest to the gas giant, so it is thought that this process would generate the heat necessary for simple life to survive. NASA thinks the cracks could contain biological makers, molecules indicating the presence of organic life, which have come from the ocean.

But of course, plotting a mission is not as simple as simply launching a robot into space. To ensure that such a mission would maximize returns requires that a “scientifically optimized” landing site be identified, and to do that, Europa’s surface must be thoroughly surveilled. Thus far, the little we know and think about Europa is based on a handful of flybys by Voyager 2 in the 70s and the Galileo probe in the 90s.

europa-lander-3Lead author Robert Pappalardo of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory summed up the situation as follows:

There is still a lot of preparation that is needed before we could land on Europa, but studies like these will help us focus on the technologies required to get us there, and on the data needed to help us scout out possible landing locations. Europa is the most likely place in our solar system beyond Earth to have life today, and a landed mission would be the best way to search for signs of life.

At the present time, NASA’s exploratory itinerary is quite packed. In addition to wanting to tow an asteroid closer to Earth to study it, launching two more rovers to Mars, constructing a settlement on the far side of the Moon, and conducting a manned mission to Mars, it’s safe to say that a robot lander on Europa won’t be happening for some time.

converted PNM fileBut of course, the plans are in place and moving forward with every passing year. NASA is certainly not going to pass up a chance to examine one of the Solar Systems best candidates for extra-terrestrial life, and we can certainly expect more deep-space probes to be launched once Cassini is finished shooting pictures of Saturn.

I am willing to bet good money that any future probe sent into the outer reaches of the Solar System will be tasked with taking high-resolution photos of Europa as part of its mission. And from that, we can certainly expect NASA, the ESA, and even the Chinese, Russians and Indians to start talking turkey within our lifetimes.

What do you think? 2035 seem like a safe bet for a Europa lander mission?