Are we ready to meet ET?

Once only science fiction, astronomers are now finding hundreds of planetary systems beyond our own. Given recent discoveries through space exploration, it is entirely feasible that we may soon discover the existence of extra-terrestrial life (ET) forms on other planets.

The idea of extra-terrestrial life forms fascinates some and terrifies others. And even though our search for ET never quite panned out, we never stopped looking.

However, could this all be about to change following the discovery of hundreds of exoplanets (planets outside our Solar System), and thousands of candidate exoplanetary systems, some of which might be habitable for life.

 

Speaking about these momentous discoveries at the Cambridge Science Festival on March 16, NASA’s Dr Jennifer Wiseman will reveal how these exoplanets may provide evidence of biological activity, and discuss the profound invigoration of scientific and related religious and philosophical thought this might inspire if we find that life could thrive beyond Earth.

In a recent interview, Dr Wiseman said: “It’s a very exciting time for astronomy; we are finding a plethora of planets around other stars, including some that may be similar to Earth in size and temperature. The question that humans have had for centuries – whether or not there are planets similar to our own around other stars – seems more and more to be best answered as, ‘Yes!’”

It is expected that there is at least one planet, on average, orbiting around each star in our Milky Way galaxy, resulting in hundreds of billions of exoplanets, some fraction of which are the size of Earth at similar distances from their parent stars as Earth is to the Sun. These staggering numbers means there is a real possibility that we are on the verge of discovering our twin. If so, could this also mean the discovery of alien life forms similar to humans? And, what could this mean for humanity’s self-image if we were to discover that we are not unique or alone in the universe?

As Senior Project Scientist for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and Director of the Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Dr Wiseman is uniquely placed to provide both insights into the latest developments in the search for inhabitable exoplanets, as well as reflections on philosophical and religious implications of finding life on another planet.

From identifying seismic wave activity and colour patterns on these other worlds, to the use of enormous telescopes that could potentially hunt for evidence of alien life by their atmospheres, astronomers are continuing to find new ways to look for that tantalising hint of life.

In January this year, astronomers announced the discovery of an Earth-like exoplanet candidate orbiting a star similar to our Sun in the ‘habitable zone’ – the area around a star within which it is theoretically possible for water to exist on a planet’s surface (and therefore also the possibility of supporting life). And in February, Harvard researchers identified three planets as ‘objects of interest’ – meaning they could also be potentially habitable.

Harvard astronomer and lead author Courtney Dressing, who presented the findings at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said: “We thought we would have to search vast distances to find an Earth-like planet. Now we realise another Earth is probably in our own backyard, waiting to be spotted.”

In addition, the World Economic Forum Global Risks report for 2013 states that, “Given the pace of space exploration, it is increasingly conceivable that we may discover the existence of alien life or other planets that could support human life. … In 10 years’ time, we may have evidence not only that Earth is not unique, but also that life exists elsewhere in the universe.”

The report continued, “The discovery of even simple life would fuel speculation about the existence of other intelligent beings and challenge many assumptions that underpin human philosophy and religion.”

Professor Meric Srokosz, Associate Director of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, Cambridge (the organisers of the event) said: “This is a unique opportunity to hear a genuine expert in her field, and to learn and think about one of the questions that continues to fascinate: is there life out there in the universe?”

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