Opinion: We Could Find Life on Another Planet. Do We Have the Will?

Jun 25, 2014

By Bill Nye

 

Every one of us has wondered if we’re alone in the universe. Are there living things elsewhere? Is the Earth the only place we’ll ever know that has life? That’s the question posed by this month’s cover story in National Geographic. It’s one I think we can answer, and maybe sooner than you think.

Many of us think of alien life the way it’s depicted in science fiction—creatures that look quite a bit like humans in makeup and that all speak English with a non-American accent. These made-up aliens hail from distant star systems. But there’s a place right here in our own solar system that may be teeming with life. It’s Europa, a moon of Jupiter, one of the four that you can see with an inexpensive telescope, just as Galileo Galilei did.

If you have a telescope and an evening, you can chart the position of the Galilean moons on a note card, as I used to do with my dad. They’ll appear as bright dots next to the larger disk of Jupiter. Observe them just a couple of hours later, and you’ll see how fast they’re moving in their orbits. Europa is unique among these four—it has an enormous ocean. In fact Europa’s ocean has twice the volume of seawater that we have here on Earth.

In astrobiology, the study of extraterrestrial life, it’s generally agreed that living things need a solvent to move their chemicals around. So far, no one can come up with any solvent that’s better for life than liquid water. Europa is inundated, even more than Earth is.

Out there, hundreds of millions of kilometers from the sun, you might expect the water to be entirely frozen. But Europa orbits Jupiter, and the giant planet’s enormous gravity stretches and compresses Europa like a rubber ball squeezed in your palm. That motion becomes heat. It’s like rubbing your hands together to keep warm, only on a planetary scale.

So while the outer core of Europa’s ocean is a shell of ice some 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) thick, what’s below is liquid. Shielded from radiation by solid ice and with plenty of internal heat, the sea of this alien world could well harbor life. Many investigators think it’s certainly worth investigating, because a discovery of living things on another world would utterly change this one.

Sniffing Europa’s Geysers

For the first time in history we have the chance to send a spacecraft out there to see if something is swimming around in all that water. Even better: Because of a remarkable feature of Europa, this mission would not be wildly expensive. We discovered it last year with the Hubble Space Telescope: Europa has geysers that continuously shoot Europa’s extraterrestrial seawater into outer space. They shoot hundreds of tons of the moon’s ocean to an altitude four times the height of our own Mount Everest. Can you imagine what such a thing would be like here on Earth? It would be astounding. It would be the number one wonder of our world.

24 comments on “Opinion: We Could Find Life on Another Planet. Do We Have the Will?

  • I read this excellent article earlier in a hard-copy of the National Geographic Magazine.

    My personal view, is that statistically we should expect life somewhere in the galaxy, and universe; – probably in areas of high metalicity, well away from the galactic centre and hot star forming areas.

    However, due to the rare conditions on Earth which led to the only example we have of possible life, and especially any intelligent life, it is likely to be in high metalicity patches in places very distant from each other.

    Galactic Habitable Zoneshttp://astro.unl.edu/naap/habitablezones/ghz.html

    Within solar-systems there will be a basic “Goldilocks Zone” plus any local niche areas such as those on Europa where the chemistry and temperatures make it a possibility.



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  • Let’s go! I too would love to find extraterrestrial life during my lifetime, and I for one wouldn’t mind paying my fair share for such an expedition to become reality.



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  • Another interesting question which I don’t know the answer to but perhaps someone here has a rough handle on:

    Using radio telescope arrays already in existence, how far away could a technological civilization be to be detected by our gear if it was transmitting signals of the same order of magnitude and frequency distribution as those our civilization routinely transmits?



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  • toroid – Using radio telescope arrays already in existence, how far away could a technological civilization be to be detected by our gear if it was transmitting signals of the same order of magnitude and frequency distribution as those our civilization routinely transmits?

    I don’t know, – but the key factor (apart from transmitter power) over long distances is the accuracy of the aim and the tightness (lack of scatter) of the energy beam transmitted. The odds against a tight beam accurately randomly targeting Earth from across the galaxy, are errr …. astronomical.



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  • The point I’m trying to make is whether under the most favorable of circumstances it’s reasonable to think SETI has a real chance of coming up with evidence of an extraterrestrial technological civilization at approximately our level of sophistication? (Humankind is the only intelligent species we know, it’s a good starting point for a reference.)

    Regarding a tight beam and aim, I’d not go there at all. IMHO, it’s way too improbable. I’m talking about random propagation like ours is.

    The Local Group, us, Adromedia and a bunch of other smaller galaxies, is about 10 million light years across, so even half that distance is probably way too far out.

    The most reasonable search distance is, (if we’re so lucky) around 50,000 light years, to approximately the edge of the Milky Way. If SETI can’t achieve even half that, we’re probably SOL. I bet we’re totally SOL, but what I seek is an informed opinion, and hope I’m wrong!



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  • @ toroid Regarding a tight beam and aim, I’d not go there at all. IMHO, it’s way too improbable. I’m talking about random propagation like ours is.

    Even if we can calibrate the Drake Equation, that range and time slot make detection of random propagation very improbable.

    The relevance of a tight beam – (possibly enhanced by gravitational lensing and relays), is that that is the limit from which a probe or directed message can communicate.

    The Local Group, us, Adromedia and a bunch of other smaller galaxies, is about 10 million light years across, so even half that distance is probably way too far out.

    Even if we detected a message from 10 million light years away, there may be no reason to believe such a source is still certain to exist when the message arrives 10 million years later.

    It is doubtful if we will even be able to communicate across the Milkyway, but we may (if we are not extinct and have mastered inter-stellar flight before the Sun fries the Earth), be in contact with parts of the Andromeda galaxy when the two galaxies meet head-on in 4 billion years and then merge.
    http://www.nature.com/news/andromeda-on-collision-course-with-the-milky-way-1.10765

    As I said earlier, the most likely possible locations of life will be in areas of high metalicity, resulting from a history of supernova explosions. This means that while possible life may be vast distances apart in the universe, high metalicity stars with their planets tend to occur in clusters. Furthermore, because of gravity being associated with mass, a high proportion of heavy elements in accretion disks, is more conducive to planet formation in general, and rocky planet formation in particular.



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  • I agree.

    If SETI actually found signals providing evidence of a technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilization it’s very unlikely we’d be able to communicate with it. SETI probably won’t be successful though. Too bad!



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  • toroid Jun 26, 2014 at 12:08 pm

    If SETI actually found signals providing evidence of a technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilization it’s very unlikely we’d be able to communicate with it. SETI probably won’t be successful though. Too bad!

    I think it is worse than that!
    For example, if 1940s radio listeners had a signal from a modern SAT-Nav or digital television, they probably would not recognise it!
    Move it forward or back by a century or millennium, let alone millions of years, and it looks very unlikely.

    I think it is more useful to look at planets/moons/asteroids, as potential bases for humans or Earth life, rather than in the expectation of finding alien civilisations.



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  • I think it is more useful to look at planets/moons/asteroids, as
    potential bases for humans or Earth life, rather than in the
    expectation of finding alien civilisations.

    The reward for finding evidence of an extrterrestrial civilization wouldn’t necessarily be to communicate with it, or move to attractive real estate next door, but we’d significantly increase our understanding of how reality operates.

    BTW, although casual listeners wouldn’t have been aware of digitally formatted radio signals WWII radar or radio techs likely would have been, in their quest to keep up with unknown enemy technology.



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  • toroid – The reward for finding evidence of an extrterrestrial civilization wouldn’t necessarily be to communicate with it, or move to attractive real estate next door, but we’d significantly increase our understanding of how reality operates.

    Finding evidence of even primitive life on Mars or Europa, which has arisen independently from life on Earth (rather than been transported across the Solar-System between planets from a common source), would imply a range of levels of complexity of life throughout the Universe. – Simply on the basis of the statistics of billions of stars and planets.



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  • Finding evidence of even primitive life on Mars or Europa, which has
    arisen independently from life on Earth (rather than been transported
    across the Solar-System between planets from a common source), would
    imply a range of levels of complexity of life throughout the Universe.
    – Simply on the basis of the statistics of billions of stars and
    planets.

    Such a discovery would indeed have major implications. Life and (by inference) intelligent life would be much more common than previously considered.

    Finding even the alternative (simple living organisms which arrived by hitchhiking from earth on a gawknowswhat) would be an important find (assuming the gawknowswhat wasn’t the same spacecraft sent to collect and test the high flying water samples!)

    Fortunately, if evidence of living organisms exists on Europa, such evidence isn’t likely to disappear for the foreseeable future. These are times of tight budgets and even if not ‘wildly expensive’ funding another NASA mission might have to wait awhile, if for no other reason than funding for climate change projects.



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  • @ toroid – Finding even the alternative (simple living organisms which arrived by hitchhiking from earth on a gawknowswhat) would be an important find (assuming the gawknowswhat wasn’t the same spacecraft sent to collect and test the high flying water samples!)

    Here is one of my comments from a 2012 discussion of Earth organisms surviving unprotected in the vacuum of space:

    http://old.www.richarddawkins.net/comments/936101

    It also had a link to this article.

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn14690-water-bears-are-first-animal-to-survive-space-vacuum.html#.U63SE0Cm7PU

    To further test their hardiness, Ingemar Jönsson of Sweden’s Kristianstad University and colleagues launched two species of dried-up tardigrades from Kazakhstan in September 2007 aboard ESA’s FOTON-M3 mission, which carried a variety of experimental payloads.

    After 10 days of exposure to space, the satellite returned to Earth. The tardigrades were retrieved and rehydrated to test how they reacted to the airless conditions in space, as well as ultraviolet radiation from the Sun and charged particles from space called cosmic rays.

    The vacuum itself seemed to have little effect on the creatures. But ultraviolet radiation, which can damage cellular material and DNA, did take its toll.

    In one of the two species tested, 68% of specimens that were shielded from higher-energy radiation from the Sun were revived within 30 minutes of being rehydrated. Many of these tardigrades went on to lay eggs that successfully hatched.

    But only a handful of animals survived full exposure to the Sun’s UV light, which is more than 1000 times stronger in space than on the Earth’s surface.

    As meteorites from impact craters on the Moon and Mars have been found on Earth, it is very probable that material from impact craters on Earth is orbiting the Sun and impacting other planets and moons. It is possible that some Earth organisms may survive on or in them.



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  • Less expensive than getting a space probe to a nearby star anytime in the next 1000 years, which would be a project that would involve inventing technology that doesn’t even exist yet.

    Sending a probe to Europa is something we’ve technically already done, except that we never bothered to actually land there.



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  • Ernie Jul 1, 2014 at 1:47 pm

    Less expensive than getting a space probe to a nearby star anytime in the next 1000 years, which would be a project that would involve inventing technology that doesn’t even exist yet.

    Actually much of the technology does exist and with a little further development could send a probe to nearby stars within decades, if for example some of the money spent of silly wars, was diverted to the science and technology shown on my earlier links.
    VASIMR rocket engines for example could be powered by solar, nuclear, or fusion power.

    There is also:-
    http://100yearstarshipstudy.com/

    http://www.space.com/11200-nasa-100-year-starship-interstellar-travel.html



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  • 18
    Promethean Entity says:

    According to Gilbert Levin, the chief designer of the Labelled Release experiment on the Viking space craft, life was detected on Mars in 1976. The focus for astrobiology should be Mars, not Europa. While it would be super cool to find life on Europa (and I hope that one day we will), NASA’s political bullshit and its fear of losing funding if one of its missions returns ambiguous results shouldn’t get in the way of rechecking the original Viking experiments for ways of improving and repeating them. This would yield far better bang for the buck, science-wise, than a Europa mission. NASA, unfortunately, has notified Levin that if he sends them any more proposals for Mars life-detection experiments, they’ll be rejected without consideration. Do media darlings like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson even know about the details of the Viking experiments, or do they just fall in line with the ‘consensus among scientists’? Can we see these guys just for once go against the mainstream of scientists rather than just the politicians?



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  • Moderator Jul 2, 2014 at 6:31 am

    Hi Alan / Promethean Entity

    Thanks!
    One issue I have been meaning to raise, is that instances of my rubbish typing have remained unedited, because the 10 minute edit window has closed before the post has been approved and appeared.



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