Alien search won’t doom planet Earth, say scientists who want to contact ET

Mar 10, 2015

Photograph: T. Pyle/JPL-CALTECH/NASA

By Ian Sample

Fears that a major program to contact alien life could spell disaster for planet Earth were dismissed as “paranoid” on Thursday by scientists who hope to beam messages to distant worlds from powerful radio telescopes.

Researchers at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Seti) Institute in California want to broadcast greetings to potentially habitable planets in the hope of receiving a reply, but the proposal has met with serious objections from critics, including the cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who claim that yelling into space is reckless.

Astronomers have listened for signals from alien civilisations since 1960, when the Cornell University astronomer Frank Drake co-opted the national observatory at Green Bank, West Virginia, to launch Project Ozma. In more than 50 years since, no convincing signals have been picked up.

Faced with half a century of silence, Seti astronomers have decided it is the time to change tack. They propose to use radio telescopes, such as the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico, to beam repeated signals at nearby planets selected for their odds of harbouring life. They claim the approach is more promising than earlier attempts to gain alien attention, such as the plaques attached to Pioneer probes launched in 1972 and 1973 that depicted a naked couple waving hello.


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57 comments on “Alien search won’t doom planet Earth, say scientists who want to contact ET

  • Habitable planets are probably very scare and far apart, so aliens capable of space travel would be highly likely to be looking for such places to exploit as resource bases.

    To suggest that evolved competitive species would automatically be benign or would not come to the conclusion that humans are an irrational pest species destroying our planet (or any we expanded on to), – would be very naive.

    The history of races and species encountering alien invasive species, councils caution.



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  • Professor Brian Cox at the end of the third episode of Wonders of the Universe, which dealt with extra terrestrial life and SETI issues, crunched the maths and concluded we may be the only intelligent self aware life in the universe. I can’t remember the details of the formula he used, but given the numbers of stars / galaxies / planets out there, we should be bathed in intelligence produced electromagnetic radiation. If I can find a YouTube of the rationale, I will post it.

    If we are the only ones, then maybe we need to all stop and look up for a while, instead of looking sideways at each other.



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  • We are counting on Einstein stopping pretty well anyone from visiting.

    They could destroy us the same way we destroy ourselves, by sending plans for superweapons.

    A society that much ahead of us without blowing themselves up, would be considerably more benign than we are.

    I suspect advanced civilisation will use very focussed beams, extreme compression and encryption for communication. These would be quite hard for us to detect. These will just look like noise.



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  • Fact is whether we like it or not, if aliens sophisticated enough to travel the vast distances between stars who would be motivated to cause us harm (why do they always want our water, or the alternative it makes them explode in sci-fi?) I image would be also capable of hearing the messages we send every night on the airwaves, I image alien civilisations waiting for the latest episode of our televised history (Game of Thrones) or the vagaries of our economic models (Breaking Bad). The horse I think, has already bolted, may as well say hello I think, then patiently await messages from our new alien overlords.



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  • One just needs to look at ourselves. If humans encountered an intelligent but less technologically advanced species, do we trust that we wouldn’t be a disaster for them? I for one do not, and I see no reason to assume that any intelligent aliens out there are significantly “better” then us as a species to trust that their arrival would be wholly benign. So not paranoia, just pragmatism.

    That said, I’d still be thrilled if they showed up.



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  • I somehow doubt that a race of beings capable of interstellar travel would need to conquer us for our planets’ natural resources. These are more easily found in interplanetary space. As for the conquering, remember the prime directive….. The formula for other races ? Look up the Drake Equation.



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  • What if they already know we are here and are just waiting for the deliciously tasty long-pigs to have sufficient bio-mass to make the human-protein collection mission profitable? – Maybe the hunter-killer and factory ships are already in-transit!!!



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  • M27Holts Mar 11, 2015 at 8:19 am

    What if they already know we are here and are just waiting for the deliciously tasty long-pigs to have sufficient bio-mass to make the human-protein collection mission profitable? – Maybe the hunter-killer and factory ships are already in-transit!!!

    Or what if their illegal mining corporations have spotted chemical fuel sources for launching rockets carrying Solar-System minerals to orbit, so are planning to scoop hydrocarbons from the atmospheres of the outer Solar-System and are looking for a planet where they can scoop oxygen from the atmosphere to react with it in their rocket engines?

    (BTW: Interstellar and inter-planetary drives are likely to use different fuel)



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  • I’d rather we know there is advanced life, and potential dangers out there, than being caught with our proverbial pants down. Not that we could do much about it anyway. We’d be either too primitive, or too far away. The irony is, for any sufficiently advanced alien civilization that would want to do us harm, one of the easiest and most efficient way of getting rid of humanity is going neanderthal and pelting earth with neighboring giant space rocks. We wouldn’t even be able to cope with that.

    But it’s a bit too low tech and slow for Hollywood. I predict space lasers, cackling Insectoids, ground invasion, and we’ll win in the end.



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  • To suggest that evolved competitive species would automatically be benign or would not come to the conclusion that humans are an irrational pest species destroying our planet (or any we expanded on to), – would be very naive.

    True. However, none of that really matters when you consider the distances involved and the improbability of any other intelligent species (even a hostile one) living anywhere close enough to us to matter. From an intellectual standpoint, it would be fantastic to know if there were other intelligences out there, but from a purely practical standpoint it’s rather silly to worry about ever meeting them in person.



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  • 12
    Tintern says:

    If we did detect a signal and were able to verify it, it would be a great show here, sitting and watching the religious scramble to fit it into the belief systems. And, if the signal said “See you guys next week” – man, would that be an interesting week.



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  • Aliens are like God. They can’t hurt us because they are not there. How do we know Aliens are not there?
    How do we know God is not there? …No evidence.

    I highly recommend the 1953 movie “War of the Worlds” loosely adapted from the H.G. Wells classic. (See article in Wikipedia). Though very dated, the color film incorporates production values- special effects, scale of destruction, disturbing scenes that qualify it as the the seminal Big Screen ancestor of the current sci-fi alien disaster genre.



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  • I don’t see how any responsible scientist can “crunch the numbers” and come up with any conclusion either way. There are just so many variables in the Drake equation that are completely unknown right now. For example, how probable is it that an Earth like planet will develop life? Since we have nothing but informed speculation about how abiogenesis happened here on Earth we certainly have no idea how likely it might be to occur elsewhere. So whatever number you plug into that variable is nothing but a guess, and that is just one variable there are several others that are equally unknown. It amazes me that people who are much smarter than me in other respect such as Stephen Hawking and now apparently Brian Cox seem to ignore what seems to me to be this obvious argument and still pontificate about how extraterrestrial life must be highly probable or improbable. The real answer, what a good scientist would say, is we just have no clue right now.



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  • Ignoring the highly limiting required conditions for life to evolve at all, then further for it to be intelligent, then finally for it to be technically manipulative, to add to this for “it” to be in existence, in say 10,000 years or more, when our signals reach them is stretching coincidence to absurdity.

    Then, they respond, and we receive their response in another 10,000 years or more, will we even remember SETI?

    The limit on alien contact is not evolution, despite all the requirements, it obviously does happen, the limit is light travel time, and the requirement that our, and other civilizations occur in exactly the right chronological circumstances.



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  • I agree faster than light travel right now is just science fiction and will be for the indefinite future. But consider that some intelligent species may live for millions or even billions of years. Just in the last few centuries we’ve seen many things that people labelled impossible to be overcome (e.g., faster than sound travel). I realize that breaking the sound barrier is not in the same league as breaking the speed of light barrier. The first was just a hard engineering problem the second is a theoretical limit. We would need either things like worm holes or completely new theories to enable faster than light. I’m just saying I wouldn’t rule anything out when we think of the time span of geological rather than conventional human time. It is at least conceivable that some new theoretical model or some advancement that made creation of worm holes possible would enable faster than light travel.



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  • Hi, Melvin-

    In the case of god(s) and aliens, for all practical purposes it may well be that “absense of evidence is indeed evidence of absense”, but I still cannot get completely comfortable with that conclusion (or that reasoning).



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  • Yes, but we can in principle look for evidence of aliens, we have some idea of what we could look for and some idea about the possible conditions required to find it, to listen for it. We can even have a stab at calculating the odd via the Drake Equation (as limited as our current knowledge is) and begin to get an understanding of the possibilities. If we do ever get contact we will have verifiable evidence for their existence, that can be studied with caution and evaluated. The situation with god is somewhat different, no two religions can agree to a definition of god and when any non-believer points to the lack of evidence we get the reply you just have to have faith. So we don’t know God is not there but have zero reason to believe there is one. We have life all over this little planet so we have at least one alien civilisation. That’s infinitely better than zero.



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  • I think we have to hope that someone else cares enough to send out a message. This is ultimately why I think we should. If there is other life in the universe we won’t find each other unless someone says hi.



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  • 20
    Niranjan says:

    Looking at human, found that fungi is the parent of all organisms. In the beginning planet had not covered with fungi as fungi we see now a days. Decomposition is the property of fungi, It means everything is decomposing, By the law of Evolution Good adapatation and good atmosphere is enough for creation of fungi and that only happening on the planet Enough water, gases and solid substances are good for fungi management. We are fungi. We need to find fungi on the other planets.



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  • Niranjan Mar 12, 2015 at 1:16 am

    Looking at human, found that fungi is the parent of all organisms.

    I am not sure if you have the wrong word,or have misunderstood.

    LUCA is the earliest ancestor of all modern life on Earth.

    Abiogenesis is the process of life first arising from simple chemicals.

    In the beginning planet had not covered with fungi as fungi we see now a days. Decomposition is the property of fungi, It means everything is decomposing,

    Fungi branched off the tree of life shortly after plants did.

    I put a link to the tree of life on two comments on theis discussion.

    https://www.richarddawkins.net/2015/03/darwin-day-2015-questions-2-is-evolution-a-fact/#li-comment-171953

    By the law of Evolution Good adapatation and good atmosphere is enough

    The early Earth’s atmosphere was very different to the modern one.
    There was no free oxygen then, but it was nitrogen, methane, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and some other gasses.



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  • rod-the-farmer Mar 11, 2015 at 5:27 am

    I somehow doubt that a race of beings capable of interstellar travel would need to conquer us for our planets’ natural resources.

    As with mining on Earth, I think concentration of required elements and molecules is the key issue.

    These are more easily found in interplanetary space.

    They are much more concentrated on planets, moons, asteroids and comets, that in the interplanetary space between them.



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  • I think rod the farmer meant asteroids with his comment.. If I had said it, I would have meant that.. water for instance is found abundant out there.. no need to travel outside your own oort-cloud for that.. same goes for metals.. not so sure about fossil fules though, but any advanced alien life form which can travel at great speed, would need fossil fuel anyhow..

    I am certain there is intelligent life out there.. maybe not in our own galaxy, but there are quite a few others which may, and I think, certainly do, harbour (intelligent) multicellular life..
    would love to know of their existance and maybe even meet them.. so beam it out there, scotty..



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  • Anti-theist preacher Mar 12, 2015 at 7:13 am

    I think rod the farmer meant asteroids with his comment.. If I had said it, I would have meant that.. water for instance is found abundant out there.. no need to travel outside your own oort-cloud for that.. same goes for metals.. not so sure about fossil fules though,

    There is hydrocarbon rain and seas of it on the moon Titan.

    but any advanced alien life form which can travel at great speed, would need fossil fuel anyhow..

    I suggested in my earlier comment. that chemical rockets would only be used for boosting loads to orbit.

    Inter-planetary or inter stellar flight would minimally use nuclear-electric plasma rockets or fusion drives. (VASIMR or ion drives)

    I am certain there is intelligent life out there.. maybe not in our own galaxy,

    If it is not in our galaxy (or possibly Andromeda in the billions of years time-scale), it is irrelevant to us, because of distances.

    Even within our galaxy many areas are hostile to life or just too distant. Fortunately high metalicity stars and planets come in clusters – with the Solar-System in one of them, so there could be habitable planets which could be reached within a few decades using near future technologies.



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  • in the case of the dog, it’s a clear cut case.. there ain’t one (or more…)
    in the case of aliens… there is life out there, but (maybe) not as we know it..
    intelligent life!?.. what is intelligence? are we talking about ourselves?? we may have a computing brain, but many of us alive are far from intelligent. dolphins seem to be percieved as intelligent, but they don even bother to fly a jet, so if life forms like them were to inhabit another planet.. they would be intelligent, but we would never know about them, unless we go there and have a gander for ourselves 😉

    live long and prosper



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  • bonnie Mar 12, 2015 at 8:00 am

    Pioneer X and XI / Voyager X and XI, do they qualify.

    Despite the media hype about crossing the heliopause, it will be hundreds of years before they even leave the Solar-System!



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  • Doug Mar 11, 2015 at 10:38 pm

    In the case of god(s) and aliens, for all practical purposes it may well be that “absense of evidence is indeed evidence of absense”, but I still cannot get completely comfortable with that conclusion (or that reasoning).

    In the case of gods which claim to interact with people on Earth, absence of evidence IS evidence of absence. – along with positive evidence of god-delusions in various locations in human brains.

    In the case of aliens in places beyond the range of our instruments, we don’t know.



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  • From Wikipedia: The two current ecological approaches for predicting the potential habitability of the Martian surface use 19 or 20 environmental factors, with emphasis on water availability, temperature, presence of nutrients, an energy source, and protection from Solar ultraviolet and galactic cosmic radiation.

    Mars, Europa a moon of Jupiter, and other celestial bodies show evidence of water now frozen in polar ice caps or sheets. It is possible that warmer conditions persisted long enough in ancient times under optimized conditions when water flowed freely in “oceans” and provided a habitat suitable for the emergence of microorganisms. To date no clear evidence has been found of fossilized remains or currently living organisms. (I could be wrong about this. Information welcome.)

    It seems reasonable in the search for “life on other planets” to look first for planets which show evidence of water and the likelihood of geologic periods with temperature ranges consistent with life. Life also requires the right mix of nutrients in land and water, and, indispensably, a minimal atmosphere that protects against cosmic radiation.

    The current aerospace/astronomer establishment seems plausibly focused on this microorganism-up approach rather than contacting “intelligent life” from the top down.

    Adapting an old joke. SETI scientist at atheist convention: “I’ve got some good news and some bad news for you. First the good news. We’ve contacted intelligent life. Now the bad news. He’s Jesus and really, really pissed!”



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  • Yes they do, but 2 objects floating in space for 10 000 years before they come anywhere near the neatest star (and they are not pointing at the nearest stars). Amazing to think any alien finding us would find a record play – (so 1970’s). But I’d be putting some plaque on every space craft we send out into the solar system – just in case we screw up and it goes tottering off into deep space, or even for future archaeologists mapping Mars. So in that sense they may never be found (but worth doing anyway for the reasons I stated above- wouldn’t we like to find such an artefact?). We did send a short coded message from Arecibo some decades ago. This is probably the sort of thing we’d need to do even to all close candidates and then for good measure everywhere else. I think it is worth doing even if you cannot hope to get a message back before the human race is gone.

    Brain Cox mentioned that the square km array (split between Australia and South Africa) will be sensitive enough to pick up an aircraft landing radar from some ridiculous amount of light years away – sorry cannot find the exact amount – probably on one of the infinite monkey cage podcasts. So certainly sensitive enough to pick up signals transmitted from a transmitter of any significant power. Although with cable Internet and such our planet is getting quieter from the outside. Still I’m hopeful.



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  • Consider the red rain in India that appeared to be some sort of life without DNA. We have DNX molecules of various sort capable of doing life-like things. The age of the first life on earth keeps getting pushed back and back. All those things would indicate life appears fairly easily either because it gets seeded from elsewhere or being in spontaneously forms.

    Given how fast we developed from chimps, it can’t be that big a deal. The biggest problem is not developing intelligence, but keeping it alive without self-destruction. Look at the time. Biggie is developing multicellular, then evolution takes off.



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  • We already know of one species of alien life, US. Uniqueness is a very rare. Our very existence screams there are probably others like us, especially give how much room for them to hide in there is, and how feeble the search we have done and the probability that any long-lived species probably stays under cover.

    It is a bit like finding one dandelion and proclaiming it is unique in the universe after a quick look in the surrounding meter. Uniqueness is far less probable than non-existence.



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  • I’m pretty sure his “would need need fossil fuel anyhow… ” was a brainfart typo. ‘Should have read “wouldn’t need fossil fuel anyhow…”



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  • “In more than 50 years since, no convincing signals have been picked up.” Huh? Does the author have any idea how very small the total area searched really is? my goodness. I say go for it. According to D equation we may find one. Go SETI. If Hawkings warnings are meritorious, Earth could use the wake up call. If we paid more attention to our stellar origin and its uniqueness in local space we may yet have a chance at that wake up, prior to needing it.



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  • Bah, pretty pointless stuff… if they’re not gonna send a nano farm into local space to propagate self replicating transmitters, propulsions systems and network nodes, they’re wasting their time and resources.



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  • 42
    Robert Firth says:

    We are thinking on similar lines. I too look up at those “billyuns and billyuns” of stars, and think about the innumerable worlds that circle them, and the wonderful creatures that might have evolved. And I wonder, might we one day visit them, and might they, might they just possibly, be … tasty?

    I guess it’s my selfish carnivore genes talking.



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  • I’m not sure why alien species’ exploitation of earth’s resources is highly likely. There’s nothing to say that an alien species wouldn’t evolve an entirely different set of ethics/morality from our own, there’s nothing to say that earth has any specific resources that aren’t readily available throughout the universe that could be easily procured without having to decimate a species (e.g. if piles of gold/silver were sitting on an island off Spain there would have been no reason to conquer and exploit the Americas), there’s nothing to support the thought that an alien species would obviously conclude that humans are an irrational pest species, and there’s nothing to say that an alien species wouldn’t covet discovery and exploration as much or more than we do. Plus, regarding the topic of resource exploitation, the technology and vast amounts of energy required for any type of interstellar or intergalactic travel is so immense I think it is relatively safe to assume that any alien species would already have a working knowledge of how to harness much more efficient methods than anything we have to offer. Our fears are more anthropomorphic and self deprecating than objectively sound. The reality is there is no way to anticipate what an encounter would be like, positive, negative or indifferent.



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  • Jim Mar 13, 2015 at 8:59 am

    I’m not sure why alien species’ exploitation of earth’s resources is highly likely.

    Plus, regarding the topic of resource exploitation, the technology and vast amounts of energy required for any type of interstellar or intergalactic travel is so immense I think it is relatively safe to assume that any alien species would already have a working knowledge of how to harness much more efficient methods than anything we have to offer.

    It is also probable that they would be locally resourcing their starships from available planetary material as they went along.



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  • but any advanced alien life form which can travel at great speed, would need fossil fuel anyhow..

    I meant to type wouldn’t need fossil fuel.. must read before I post 🙂

    And of course you are right about the hydrocarbons on titan..



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  • Melvin Mar 12, 2015 at 2:18 pm

    Mars, Europa a moon of Jupiter, and other celestial bodies show evidence of water now frozen in polar ice caps or sheets. It is possible that warmer conditions persisted long enough in ancient times under optimized conditions when water flowed freely in “oceans” and provided a habitat suitable for the emergence of microorganisms.

    It seems some of it in liquid form is still around.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-31855395

    .There is further, compelling evidence that Ganymede – the largest moon in the Solar System – has an ocean of water beneath its icy crust.

    The new data comes from the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been studying how auroral lights dance around the satellite of Jupiter.

    The presence of a sub-surface ocean would heighten interest in Ganymede as a potentially habitable world.

    Europe’s robotic Juice probe is being sent to orbit the moon in the 2030s.

    Nasa’s Galileo mission returned information in the early 2000s that suggested the 5,300km-wide moon had a hidden sea. The new insights from Hubble deepen that impression.

    Ganymede’s great distinction among moons – apart from its size – is that it has its own magnetic field.

    Ganymede is just one of a large list of objects in the Solar System now thought to hide an ocean deep below the surface. These include the dwarf planets Pluto and Ceres; other Jupiter moons – Europa and Calisto; Saturn’s moons Enceladus, Titan and Mimas; and possibly Neptune’s moon, Triton.



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  • In the case of gods which claim to interact with people on Earth…

    I’d say if any gods have made any claims, then you’ve got some pretty good evidence of their existence!

    In the case of aliens in places beyond the range of our instruments, we don’t know.

    Yet somehow we “know” there are such places. Hmmm.



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  • Doug Mar 14, 2015 at 6:35 am

    I think you are being rather obtuse here!

    “In the case of gods which claim to interact with people on Earth…”

    I’d say if any gods have made any claims, then you’ve got some pretty good evidence of their existence!

    We both know that claims are made in proxy by their followers under the directions of their god-delusions. .

    “In the case of aliens in places beyond the range of our instruments, we don’t know.”

    Yet somehow we “know” there are such places. Hmmm.

    Yes!
    Instruments can be quite accurate enough to identify places exist, without giving sufficient detail to know if there are inhabitable planets in those locations.
    That is the basic science of locating exoplanets by examining planetary transits, or gravitational wobbles of stars in relation to their barycentres.

    It’s how science makes claims based on evidence, rather than the incredulity and fantasy of mythologies!



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  • Just having fun with words, there, Mr. 4discussion!
    I was aiming for humor (with a subtle hint about the importance of precision in language), but I should’ve anticipated that you wouldn’t be amused.



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  • Doug Mar 14, 2015 at 8:08 am

    Just having fun with words, there, Mr. 4discussion!
    I was aiming for humor (with a subtle hint about the importance of precision in language), but I should’ve anticipated that you wouldn’t be amused.

    I’ve got nothing against amusement, but some of us are trying to have a scientific discussion about exoplanets and the possibilities of life – using precise language.



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  • Thank you Alan 4 for the corrective. Almost certainly there are “oceans” or liquid water bodies under many meters of frozen ice on the Ganymede moon; and probably on other moons and planets in our galaxy.

    The presence of a sub-surface ocean would heighten interest in Ganymede as a potentially habitable world.

    This timid, tentative sentence implies: Probably no life on Ganymede outside the slim possibility of finding fossilized micro-organisms from a more temperate geological era.

    I recommend the sci-fi flick “Europa” which tells the story of a manned space vehicle that lands on Europa’s frozen surface. The crew sets out, encased in bulky space suits through murky darkness, to investigate what life forms might found under the ice-capped ocean. The film, loaded with drama, suspense and foreboding while almost devoid of special effects, ends masterfully with a shocking subliminal discovery.



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  • Melvin Mar 14, 2015 at 3:37 pm

    This timid, tentative sentence implies: Probably no life on Ganymede outside the slim possibility of finding fossilized micro-organisms from a more temperate geological era.

    If life did evolve, it could persist in these “subterranean” seas, if conditions remained stable enough.
    Warming on these moons comes from tidal friction, so temperatures and currents, could be big issues, with magnetic forces involved in radiation belts.

    I recommend the sci-fi flick “Europa” which tells the story of a manned space vehicle that lands on Europa’s frozen surface.

    If you want something a bit less sci-fi, have a look at these articles.

    http://www.space.com/14997-jupiter-europa-ocean-submarine-robot.html

    http://news.discovery.com/space/alien-life-exoplanets/nasa-wants-to-send-a-submarine-to-titans-seas-150212.htm



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