We could find alien life, but politicians don't have the will

Aug 13, 2014 by Seth Shostak, The Conversation
The same question again and again. Credit: howardignatius, CC BY-NC-ND

While alien life can be seen nightly on television and in the movies, it has never been seen in space. Not so much as a microbe, dead or alive, let alone a wrinkle-faced Klingon.

Despite this lack of protoplasmic presence, there are many researchers – sober, sceptical academics – who think that beyond Earth is rampant. They suggest proof may come within a generation. These scientists support their sunny point of view with a few astronomical facts that were unknown a generation ago.

In particular, and thanks largely to the success of NASA's Kepler space telescope, we can now safely claim that the universe is stuffed with temperate worlds. In the past two decades, thousands of have been discovered around other stars. New ones are turning up at the rate of at least one a day.

More impressive than the tally is their sheer abundance. It seems the majority of stars have planets, implying the existence of a trillion of these small bodies in the Milky Way galaxy alone. A deeper analysis of Kepler data suggests that as many as one in five stars could sport a special kind of planet, one that is the same size as Earth and with similar average temperatures. Such planets, styled as "habitable", could be swathed by atmospheres and awash in liquid water.

In other words, the Milky Way could be host to tens of billions of Earth's cousins.

Sterile universe?

It is hard to accept that all these worlds are sterile, a circumstance that would make us, and all the flora and fauna of our planet, a miracle. Miracles have little status in science.

Of course, just because there is a lot of attractive, cosmic real estate doesn't mean finding inhabitants would be easy. There are only three ways to do that, and they all depend on sophisticated and expensive experiments.

First, we could find life nearby. There is real effort to do that, particularly in our reconnaissance of Mars. So far, most of the search has been indirect: deploying rovers whose job is to locate the best places to dig into the red planet, and possibly uncover either fossilised or extant microbes beneath the sterile surface. These are not attempts to find life. They are attempts to find places where life could be found. Progress is deliberate, and it is sluggish.

Without doubt, Mars remains the favourite bet for biology. Nonetheless, some experts prefer to wager on the moons of Saturn and Jupiter. At least five of these satellites seem to be home to some sloshy environments – mostly , although in the case of Titan, natural gas.

Again, the type of life that could best thrive on these moons would be microscopic. Sensing its presence might be accomplished in several ways, ranging from simple flyby missions that nab effluvia from natural geysers, to sending elaborate drilling rigs to penetrate the ten miles of ice that separate the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa from the mammoth seas that lie below.

Sadly much of this reconnaissance hardware is still on the drawing boards, not in space. Progress is slow, mostly because funding is low.

A second scheme for sniffing out evidence of biology is to assay the atmospheres of planets around other stars. This is done using a time-honoured technique of astronomy, spectroscopy – an approach that would allow researchers to learn the composition of an atmosphere at many light-years' distance. While an experiment to find oxygen or methane in someone else's air is straightforward to describe, it is hard to do. That is because planets are dim, and the stars they orbit are bright.

Various solutions to this problem have been imagined, including multi-element, orbiting telescopes and giant light blockers, or occulters, in space. It is rocket science, but it is not as hard as curing the common cold. Engineers could build this stuff within a dozen years, but only if they had the money.

The third approach to finding biology beyond Earth is looking beyond microbes for intelligent life by eavesdropping on radio signals or flashing laser lights. More antennae and better receivers could speed up this search, but once again, funding is the limiting factor.

For perspective, consider that the proposed 2015 NASA budget has about US$2.5 billion for planetary science, astrophysics and continued work on the new James Webb space telescope – categories that encompass all the planetary searches described above and more. That is considerably less than one-thousandth of the total US federal budget. The budgets for SETI, which takes the third approach, are a thousand times less.

So it boils down to this: we don't know for certain that there is life in space, but the circumstances of the universe certainly suggest that this is a plausible idea. Finding it would be extraordinarily exciting, but because the payoff is uncertain, the investments in searching have been modest.

Of course, if you don't ante up, you will never win the jackpot. And that is a question of will.

Explore further: Red dwarf stars might be best places to discover alien life

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User comments : 13

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The Singularity
3.9 / 5 (7) Aug 13, 2014
Many more pressing issues down here on Earth. Such as looking after the amazing planet we already inhabit & trying not to destroy it or damage it beyond repair. If we dont wake up, the human race could be heading towards an extinction event within the next 500 years.
Osiris1
1 / 5 (9) Aug 13, 2014
Politicians flex "Won't Power"......that is the 'will' to 'not' want to look, simply because they KNOW or know someone that does KNOW that there IS life outside our little provincial nest of religious fanatics. And our stellar neighbors are treating us like early 'white folks' treated the 'Indians'...probably eventually with the same results unless we wake up and smell the coffee. A lot of real stellar neighbors probably do not really want to talk to our unwashed herds anyway. As long as they can get away with taking resources they want from the planetary patrimony of the whole population of the world by buying the cooperation of a few of our 'in crowd' politicians with a little technological trinket once in a while...then they can get the 'milk' of our world without 'buying the cow' (actually acknowledging us as a co-sentient species). Racists exist off world too! Our lying hypocrite politicians are selfish fools! They are sellling all of us out!
Toiea
2 / 5 (8) Aug 13, 2014
Many more pressing issues down here on Earth
To be perfectly honest, when the geopolitic map gets dissipated with various fights for the rest of oil (Middle East, Oil fields at Crimea, Senkaku Islands) and when the devastation of life environment continues each day, then it becomes increasingly apparent, our dependence on fossil fuels is much more dangerous for future of civilization, than anything else. Under such a situation the research of alternative energy sources (cold fusion, magnetic motors) is much more important, than the attempts for contacting of extraterrestrials. If some scientists still call for it, it just means, they have no better things to do and they should be fired (it generally applies to much wider group of researchers, but we have to start somewhere).
Psilly_T
5 / 5 (5) Aug 13, 2014
Osiris...no! bad! stop. We can worry about the boogy men from outer-space when we fix our energy problem and resource thefts on planet....
this article kinda sucked... i want money too? I'm not crying about it or making excuses though??? That being said the US budget could use some work.
=x
Andrew Palfreyman
4 / 5 (4) Aug 14, 2014
It's the boogie man right here that costs the US taxpayer about $600 Billion per year. This really has to stop. The military-industrial complex is now completely out of control and operating as a income generator for the one percenters.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) Aug 14, 2014
Yes boogie people like this

"The Yazidis are the latest minority group the ISIL has targeted in its campaign of religious persecution and killings against anyone different and unwilling to convert to Islam. The other minorities who face danger from the ISIL are the Shabaks (who are religiously similar to the Yazidis), the Turkmens and the Christians... IS had kidnapped 400 Yazidi women in Sinjar to sell them as sex slaves. On 10 August 2014, the IS militants buried alive an undefined number of Yazidi women and children in an attack that killed 500 people in what has been described as an ongoing genocide in northern Iraq."

-should be allowed free reign to do whatever they want. They should be allowed to establish an oil-rich terrorist state replete with million-man armies and nuclear weapons because after all they are boogie men and they don't really exist.

"I'll see you guys in New York,' ISIS terror leader told U.S. troops upon his release."

-Maybe we should wait and find out?
Modernmystic
1.3 / 5 (3) Aug 14, 2014
Spectroscopy is our best bet for finding the kind of life we're actually likely to find....that is single celled.

Anyone spending millions or billions looking for radio signals is throwing good after bad. Even IF there is intelligent life within a billion light years of us they're probably not using radio anymore.
field_gareth
5 / 5 (2) Aug 14, 2014
How about we say it like it is: politicians don't have the *courage* to engage with science.
btb101
1 / 5 (3) Aug 16, 2014
technological alien life is just 35 light yrs away...
ryggesogn2
5 / 5 (1) Aug 16, 2014
The movie Contact did a good job of showing what will happen when intelligent life is found outside our solar system.
Some people won't accept it and politicians will fear losing their power.
Toiea
1 / 5 (2) Aug 16, 2014
The scientists should search for cold fusion and magnetic motor replications and they should do it fast, or we all will face a deep sh*t in future - and we will face it soon. We are too many & dense at this planet for to afford some deeper energetic crisis without civil and global wars.
Watebba
1 / 5 (1) Aug 20, 2014
Asteroid 1999 RQ36 with some hollow pyramid on it. The scientists have many indicia of E.T. intelligence already - but they ignore these observations and continue in blind search with using of radiotelescopes as it nothing did ever happen. In another words, they're using the search for alien life as an job generator - not public service for people, who are paying it from taxes.
yyz
5 / 5 (1) Aug 20, 2014
"Asteroid 1999 RQ36 with some hollow pyramid on it. The scientists...ignore these observations..."

Is this some weak attempt at humour Zeph? Your linked video claims that the images of "1999 RQ36" were taken, from a distance of 127 miles, by the NEAR spacecraft on March 3, 2000. Really?

In March of 2000, NEAR was in orbit around the asteroid 433 Eros: http://en.wikiped...nsertion

During NEAR's mission to rendezvous with Eros the spacecraft made a close approach to only one other asteroid, 253 Mathilde, coming within 1200 km on June 27, 1997 and most importantly, came nowhere near 1999 RQ36 at any time during the mission: http://en.wikiped..._to_Eros

But I know you prefer faked Youtube fantasies over science.