In its haste to become the first newspaper to print the “NASA: Evidence of Life on Mars” headline, the UK’s Sun website caused a stir last week. Not only was this headline incorrect, it was a wee bit irresponsible.
For starters, no evidence for life has been found on the Red Planet. Second, NASA has not proclaimed such a discovery. In fact, The Sun riled the U.S. space agency so much, this headline prompted NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown to issue the following statement:
“This headline is extremely misleading. This makes it sound like we announced that we found life on Mars, and that is absolutely, positively false.”
So where did it all go so wrong?
This story stems from an astrobiology conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the search for alien life. At this conference, findings by NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity were reviewed. One of these findings was the tantalizing discovery of sulfates by the rover in 2004. Where there’s sulfates, water once existed. Where there’s water, life might have existed.
In an exciting twist to this discovery, scientists studying sulfate deposits on Earth (known as gypsum) were asked by scientists in the Mars Program to investigate terrestrial gypsum deposits more closely. Up until now, it was thought that gypsum contained no fossils, but on closer inspection it turns out that ancient gypsum deposits from the Mediterranean Sea (dated to about 6 million years old — when the sea was actually dry) are stuffed full of microscopic fossils of algae and phytoplanktons.
So, on Mars we have sulfates. On Earth we have sulfates (gypsum) full of fossils of aquatic microscopic life. If we know the terrestrial deposits of gypsum contain fossils of basic life forms, perhaps sulfate deposits on Mars would be a good place to start looking for basic ancient extraterrestrial life.
Of course, for the tabloid newspaper, these Martian sulfate deposits became “pond scum” and therefore “evidence” for life on Mars.
In actuality, the text of The Sun article wasn’t that misleading and actually did a good job of reporting the science (apart from the “pond scum” bit). Unfortunately, the title of the article let the rest of the article down, ultimately undermining the journalists’ work.
But, coming from the same publication that printed the silly “Pictures show life on Mars” article from 2008, the “Evidence for life on Mars” headline is pretty tame.
It would appear that scientists have confirmed that the outer edge of the Milky Way is a bad location for life to even think about existing.
This research reminded me of the “Galactic Rim” in the 90’s sci-fi TV series Babylon 5. The Rim is the mysterious region of space right at the edge of our galaxy where only the hardiest of explorers dared to venture. As explained in the season 2 episode of B5, “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum,” Captain Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) discovers that his wife (when exploring The Rim) went missing on a planet called Z’ha’dum. It turns out that an angry ancient alien race — called the Shadows — lived on this mysterious world and their discovery led to them being used in all kinds of plots during the latter four seasons of this awesome sci-fi show.
However, the existence of any kind of life (let alone life as complex as the evil Shadows) in the badlands of the Milky Way is looking very unlikely.
Located some 62,000 light years from the core of our galaxy (over twice the distance of the Earth from the galactic centre), two very young star clusters in the constellation of Cassiopeia have been studied. Chikako Yasui, Naoto Kobayashi and colleagues at the University of Tokyo, Japan, found these clusters in a vast cloud of gas and dust called Digel Cloud 2. The stars inside these clusters are only half a million years old, and the majority of them should possess proto-planetary disks (which is characteristic of local star-forming regions). However, it would appear that these stars contain very little oxygen, silicon or iron (i.e. they have very low metallicity) and only 1 in 5 of the 111 baby stars analysed in both clusters have disks.
If proto-planetary disks are rare, this means there will be a rarity of planets. This is an obvious bummer for life to form. After all, Life As We Know It™ is quite attached to evolving on Earth-like planets.
So why are these young stars lacking proto-planetary disks, when local star forming regions don’t seem to have this affliction? The authors of the paper, soon to be published in the Astrophysical Journal, suggest that these stars did have disks, but some mechanism is rapidly eroding them.
The most likely scenario is that low metalicity proto-planetary disks are more susceptible to photoevaporation. Simply put, these disks evaporate when exposed to EUV and X-ray radiation from their parent stars far more rapidly than disks that are metal-rich.
Therefore, if an alien race was able to form, they’d be very rare or they’d be very different from what we’d expect “life” to be like (i.e. they thrive in low metalicity star systems). Sounds like the mysterious Shadow homeworld of Z’ha’dum would be a very rare sight on The Rim of our Milky Way after all.
On reading an article in The Daily Galaxy today, I was interested by what the author had to say. In a nutshell, the article pointed out that it is a big mistake to believe we are the only intelligent life in the Milky Way.
Why is that?
The only reason given was that there are billions of stars, it is therefore foolish to think we are the only example of an advanced species. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to suggest that we aren’t the only intelligent life form in our galaxy. Just because there are hundreds of billions of stars possibly with billions of habitable planets does not constitute evidence that we’re not alone. That’s what science is all about, formulating a theory and then gathering the evidence. Simply saying, “There’s lots of stars, therefore there must be an intelligent species out there,” doesn’t cut it.
Dr Frank Drake toiled with this idea to eventually arrive at the famous Drake Equation, a concept I have never felt at ease with:
How can you arrive at the conclusion that we are not the only intelligent life in the galaxy simply because there are a lot of stars?
It is true that the Milky Way contains billions of stars, of which a high percentage probably have exoplanets not dissimilar to Earth orbiting them. There’s every chance that a smaller percentage of those Earth-like terrestrial exoplanets have some kind of basic life form slivering around (or indeed swimming, flying, walking or ‘talking’). Also, there’s the chance that some of these exoplanets have nurtured something that we’d consider to be ‘intelligent.’
Now this is where things start to get a bit tricky.
There are massive international efforts under way to find any kind of extraterrestrial life. We’re toasting soil samples on Mars in the hope of finding the biological signature, and we’re using full-blown antennae scouring the skies for any organized signal from an intelligent alien species. However, whether we are looking for microbial life in the Solar System or something a little more sophisticated beyond, our search for extraterrestrial life is based on only one model: Earth.
It’s all very well saying that we should be looking for other possible forms of life, but if we have no experience of it, how do we know what to look for?
It’s a similar question to, “What is beyond a black hole’s event horizon?” We have no idea, because we cannot experience it, the physics of our Universe simply do not apply beyond an event horizon.
There are a lot of ideas, theories and conjecture but at the end of the day, we have to assume ET will have some trait we are familiar with.
When looking for intelligent extraterrestrials we make the assumption that these civilizations have progressed in a similar way to us, eventually transmitting radio signals (perhaps even laser beacons) to communicate on their home world, between planets with their own kind, or even reaching out into the cosmos, signalling their presence to other life forms capable of receiving interstellar signals.
We’ve been leaking radio signals into space for the last century and we are constantly communicating with our planetary probes. There’s every chance that if there’s an intelligent alien (with a radio receiver) within 100 light years, we may have already been detected. We are also being a bit more proactive these days, using programs such as Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) to make our presence known. (But what should we be saying?)
SETI, METI, SETA… SETT?
Unfortunately, apart from one isolated case, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has drawn up blanks, we don’t think we’ve heard anything in the cosmos that’s originated from an alien.
The Milky Way is very old, in fact, the oldest star in our galaxy has been burning for 13.2 billion years (compare that with the age of the Universe at 13.74 billion years); you’d logically think that something resembling an intelligent civilization would have popped into existence in that time. If they did, surely we’d have detected them by now, wouldn’t we?
Actually, this spawns yet another debate: Have ancient interstellar alien civilizations come and gone? Was there a frenzy of intelligent life popping up all over the galaxy in the billions of years that our Sun was a proto-star surrounded by a proto-planetary disk? If old alien intelligence has since become extinct, our few thousand years as an evolving civilization is a mere spark in universal time scales. Could it be that we’ll have to wait until we can actually visit interstellar destinations first-hand to do the SETI equivalent of an archaeological dig, looking for alien artefacts? Perhaps SETI should be changed to the Search for Extraterrestrial Artefacts (SETA), where we’d have to look for evidence of alien civilizations past.
There’s another factor to consider. What if an advanced extraterrestrial civilization simply isn’t transmitting? If this is the case, perhaps we should consider a Search for Extraterrestrial Technology (SETT). In this case we could look for alien megastructures, searching for the stuff of science fiction. These structures could include examples of Dyson Spheres, huge alien-made hollow spheres containing a star; a means to harvest all the stellar energy for a vastly advanced civilization.
These are all options, and we shouldn’t close any possibility, no matter how extreme they may be.
There’s a reason why we haven’t received a signal via SETI, but we have no idea about what it could be. We really could be alone in the Milky Way. But then again, there’s a huge number of reasons why we might not be receiving a message from an intelligent species.
SETI may not be an interstellar switchboard, but the reasons for this are far from obvious. The theory that we are alone is just as valid as the theory that we are actually a part of a vast interstellar ecosystem. Until we have scientific evidence, we can’t say either way.
This is probably one of the biggest questions that hang over science fiction story lines: Will extraterrestrials have any resemblance to Life As We Know It™? To be honest, to toy with the thought of anything other than carbon-based life is pure conjecture, just because there might be some other form of life (such as silicon-based creatures), doesn’t mean there is (doesn’t mean there isn’t, either). So, here we are with the only form of life we know and understand, carbon-based life that was somehow spawned via a crazy mix of amino acids and some astronomical or terrestrial event that sparked the formation of prokaryotes (a.k.a. the simplest single-celled speck of life) some 4 billion years ago.
So we have an understanding of what formed life on Earth, perhaps if we look for the traces of evidence that evolved into Life As We Know It™ we can gauge whether extraterrestrial life has-formed/is-forming/will-form elsewhere in the observable Universe. From simulations of Earth evolution, scientists have predicted that 10 types of amino acids should form with the planet. These 10 amino acids are found inside the proteins of all living things on Earth. The same 10 amino acids have been found inside meteorites. Therefore, we already have a connection with the amino acids we find here on Earth and amino acids found in chunks of rock from elsewhere in the Solar System.
Now, a group of Canadian researchers have found that the same 10 amino acids are readily available elsewhere in the cosmos. Does this mean the components for life are common, not only on Earth, in the Solar System, but also in the Milky Way (and beyond)? It looks like it… Continue reading “Could Extraterrestrial Genes Be Like Ours?”