Space and Technology: The Search for Extraterrestrial Life

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Does life exist beyond Earth? Scientists have a few reasons to be optimistic.

For one, there are an estimated 100 billion billion Earth-like planets in our universe. That should get most people’s hopes up. Further, we're finding evidence of liquid water all over the solar system, and the one thing we know about life on Earth is the need for water.

This post explores the probability of extraterrestrial life and what we’re doing to find it.

This is Part 4 of our Space GGC Series focused on important issues facing us now:

Part 1: Our Home Among the Stars
Part 2: The Race to the Moon and Mars
Part 3: Asteroid Detection and Mining
Part 4: The Search for Extraterrestrial Life

The following information was curated from excerpts of previously published Singularity Hub articles on space exploration. Though this series isn't intended to be all-inclusive, we hope collecting a few key developments and insights in one place will deliver a broader view on the field. Special thanks to Aaron Frank, Jason Dorrier, and Peter Diamandis for their works quoted here.


space-and-tech-review-search-life-1Where Are the Aliens Already?

(Excerpted from “We Can’t Find Any Aliens and Virtual Reality Might Be to Blame” by Aaron Frank)

“Within just a single generation, powerful telescopes, satellites, and space probes have given us tools to explore the structure of our universe. And the more we find; the more we discover how fine-tuned it could be for life. At least in our own solar system, organic compound-glazed comets drift everywhere. Some scientists suggest that one of these life-triggering ice balls crashed into Earth billions of years ago, delivering the conditions for chemistry and biology to take root. If the rest of the universe is similarly structured, we should be inside a life-spawning factory of a universe.

Just consider the mind-boggling numbers.

Even the most conservative NASA estimates say our universe has 500 billion billion stars like our own, and orbiting those suns are another 100 billion billion Earth-like planets. That is 100 habitable planets for every grain of sand on Earth. That’s trillions of opportunities for some other planet to grow life.

For argument’s sake, if even just a tenth of a percent of those planets capable of supporting life harbored some version of it, then there would be one million planets with life in the Milky Way Galaxy alone. A few might even have developed civilizations like our own, and cosmically thinking, if even just a handful of alien civilizations have advanced beyond our current level of technological progress, humanity should be waking up to a universe like the world of Star Trek.

But so far, no Ferengi, Klingons, Vulcans, Romulans—nobody.

Enrico Fermi, an Italian physicist, pointed out all of this weirdness in an observation that was later named for him: “the Fermi Paradox.” The paradox highlights the contradiction between the high probability that life would emerge in our universe, and the utter lack of evidence that advanced life exists anywhere else.”


space-and-tech-review-search-life-2Scientists Say Follow the Water

(Excerpted from “Our Solar System’s 9 Extraterrestrial Oceans in One Surprising Infographic” by Jason Dorrier)

“When scientists looked at Mars through early telescopes, they saw a fuzzy, rust-colored globe scored by mysterious dark gashes some believed were alien canals. Later, armed with sharper images, we scoffed at such naiveté. Mars is obviously dry as a bone and uninhabited. Now, with a great deal more information from rovers and satellites, we believe Mars was once wet. As for life? The jury's still out.

It shows how much we still have to learn (and are learning) about our solar system. Not too long ago, we only suspected one ocean of liquid water beyond Earth (on Europa). Now, thanks to robotic explorers, like NASA's Dawn and Cassini missions, we're finding evidence of oceans throughout the solar system.

Why do astronomers care so much about water? As far as we know, water (especially liquid water) and life go hand in hand. This is one reason our hunt for exoplanets focuses on the "Goldilocks zone." This orbital area is at just the right distance from a host star to allow liquid oceans like those found on Earth.

But life, at least the simplest forms, may survive in more environments than once believed. Indeed, even on Earth, life is ubiquitous, from scalding volcanic vents to frozen wastes. And we may not, as it turns out, need to travel light years to find extraterrestrial oceans or observe our first alien life forms. The proverbial backyard may suffice.

Scientists say there may be subsurface oceans on dwarf planet Ceres and a number of outer solar system moons, including Jupiter's Europa, Saturn's Enceladus, and Neptune's Triton. Some even suspect a subsurface ocean on Pluto. [Editor’s note: NASA's New Horizons mission visited Pluto last July. Astronomers are still analyzing the data, but on a related note, there are hints Pluto’s moon Charon may once have had a subsurface ocean—though it’s long since frozen.]

The potential for so much liquid water in our solar system recently led NASA's chief scientist to declare, "I believe we are going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth in the next decade and definitive evidence in the next 10 to 20 years." She isn't expecting complex life. But news of even a few nearby alien microbes would expand the number of nooks and crannies life might inhabit throughout the galaxy.”


space-and-tech-review-search-life-4 The $100 Million Search for Extraterrestrial Life

(Excerpted from “Are We Alone in the Universe? The $100 Million Search for an Answer” by Peter Diamandis)

“Launched in 2009, Kepler is a NASA space observatory designed and managed by NASA Ames (Mountain View, CA) as the first step to discovering life in our universe.

The Kepler mission was "designed to survey our region of the Milky Way galaxy to discover hundreds of Earth-size and smaller planets in or near the habitable zone and determine the fraction of the hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy that might have such planets."

The mission has been wildly successful and is still imaging the sky as we speak, despite the fact that Kepler was only commissioned to last until 2013.

One of the heroes of Kepler, responsible for making it a success, is now responsible for searching for intelligent life in our universe (SETI).

Pete Worden, former director of NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, has been tapped by Russian billionaire investor Yuri Milner (founder of mail.ru), to run the Breakthrough Prize Foundation — with the assignment of running a $100 million effort to find extraterrestrial life.

In 2015, alongside Professor Stephen Hawking and an esteemed board of scientists, Yuri Milner announced an unprecedented $100 million global Breakthrough Initiative to reinvigorate the search for life in the universe.

The initiative, called "Breakthrough Listen," seeks to answer three fundamental questions:

  1. How did life begin?
  2. Where else is it in the galaxy and universe?
  3. What’s the future of life here on Earth?

It is the biggest scientific search ever undertaken for signs of intelligent life beyond Earth.

It is 50 times more sensitive than previous programs dedicated to SETI research, will cover 10 times more of the sky than previous programs, and will scan at least five times more of the radio spectrum — and 100 times faster. Finally, in tandem with a radio search, it will undertake the world's deepest and broadest search for optical laser transmissions.”

That wraps up Space and Technology Review Part 4. If you haven’t read them, check out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.


Image credit: Shutterstock.com

Megan North

Megan North

Megan is director of Content Marketing for Singularity University. Before moving over to the Digital Media dark side, she was known as the marketing engine at SU. She brings the same strength and stamina to Singularity Hub to create engaging learning experiences.
Megan North

Discussion — 19 Responses

  • ideasware February 26, 2016 on 9:51 am

    You know, it get’s kind of tiresome to be saying again and again, “wait, what does this have to do with the singularity, for heavens sake,” but you force me to do it. But the one point beyond that is that the Fermi Paradox is explained quite nicely if one presumes that there is no one beyond the solar system. That it’s just fake, just for show, and really there is nothing beyond our one little solar system. That is a little scary (maybe more), and of course it’s not known either, but still, it’s one possibility that should not be overlooked.

    • horseshoe7 ideasware February 27, 2016 on 3:23 am

      Well, this article beats Diamandis’ “Global Warming” and other “politically correct” anti-American nonsense, hands down, as far as being interesting.

    • Sine Arrow ideasware March 1, 2016 on 7:14 pm

      “You know, it get’s kind of tiresome to be saying again and again, “wait, what does this have to do with the singularity, for heavens sake,” but you force me to do it.”

      Then you encourage the rest of us, again, to be weary with your narrow-minded view of the world post-singularity. The majority of the rest of us are not computer jocks, and have little interest in the details of which A.I. is in what relation to the singularity. We are, however, interested in what people will do with the capabilities of a post-singularity technology level. I’m quite happy with Megan expounding on some of the things this series is about. Post-singularity technology will allow us to do more in spaceflight, and in examining where we might want to go before we get there.

      Is it that you think Singularity Hub should be *only* about computers and software? That is not my view. While life off Earth is hardly certain, the ability of post-singularity technology to help search for it is a worthwhile topic, for which this article sets up the discussion quite nicely. The same is true about asteroid mining and other topics in this series.

  • bobdc10 February 26, 2016 on 10:08 am

    I know for a fact that Mongo is inhabited.

    Ming

  • DSM February 26, 2016 on 4:50 pm

    An intelligent life-form that evolved with photosynthesis as part of it’s metabolism my have also evolved other systems that use quantum phenomena thereby jumping directly to quantum communications without going through the photo transmission stage. http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110615/full/474272a.html

    What if humans are just the only local life-form that is a photon transmitter and we are the oddity in (our visible part of) the universe?

    You have to prove the above is impossible or unlikely (and quantify it) or throw away all of your previous assumptions and start again.

  • Quantium February 27, 2016 on 6:57 am

    Maybe the problem is increasing complexity. In the days of BASIC programming it was very easy to program computers, however if a BASIC program extended beyond a certain size it became very difficult and almost impossible to maintain. This was known as “spaghetti programming”. Computer languages may be harder to use these days, but they are designed to reduce this problem.

    As civilisations become more complex, running them becomes more difficult. This is seen in failing health care systems, and the legal profession becoming more like the extortion gangs it was originally intended to fight. Increasing inefficiency brings more profits to any enterprise run under that capitalist system that does not have physical objects as its purpose. This is clearly unsustainable.

    • Dan Vasii Quantium February 28, 2016 on 5:29 am

      Sorry, I am afraid I did not understand. An efficient economic system must have the production of physical objects as purpose? And I thought inormation is the superior stage of matter. That means that Apple is a ruthles exploiter, and all profits must go to China, because there the physical object is made. All the efforts to design the product, to build programmes, are not to be rewarded with profit, since there are imaterial. Is it so?

      • Quantium Dan Vasii February 28, 2016 on 8:07 am

        Thank you for the opportunity to correct or elucidate.

        Endless debate, arguing and scoring personal points as sold to the public by the legal profession isn’t creating wealth, even though it may be fun for the practitioners.

        Of course design and software development increases the value of physical objects such as computers. The writing of novels or composing music is another example of non physical wealth, as opposed to painting pictures or making fine bone china or sculptures.

        The availability of health care services is wealth of a sort. But the complexity of these services is proving a problem in sustaining them. For those with New Scientist subscriptions, there is an interesting article about the logic (or lack of it) behind statistics used by the medical authorities to authenticate products on page 34 of the 27 February 2016 issue.

        I still think the complexity issue may be a problem that civilisations need to address if they want to survive for sufficient time to develop the technology colonise a galaxy.

        • Quantium Quantium February 28, 2016 on 8:20 am

          Although it is framed slightly differently, this again shows how increasing complexity in health care is failing to deliver the service to the American people:
          http://www.lifeextension.com/magazine/2016/3/new-england-journal-of-medicine-exposes-generic-price-scandal/page-01

          • Dan Vasii Quantium February 28, 2016 on 2:09 pm

            I understand (or I think so) what you mean. But complexity is not the issue here. It is morality. No matter the complexity, if someone wants to cheat society, that one will do it. See the less complex societies that run into this problem. Therefore the key is the solution for a moral society, not better management. No matter how good a manager/management solution is, if the manager is a thief, it will not work. And a society that allows mottos like ”greed is good” to be adopted, does’n have many chances to get rid of its problems. But physical objects will loose their economic value due to two conjoint evolution: cheep renewable energy and robo-3D evolution. That means the first level of Maslow’s pyramid will be secured for anyone. Basic needs will be provided, but to reach this stage in the evolution of humanity, many difficulties will arise, caused by greed for money and power.

            • Quantium Dan Vasii February 28, 2016 on 2:44 pm

              The trouble I see with that is that “morality” is too loose a concept and is all things to all men. I have recently been watching the BBC series “Blood and Gold the Making of Spain” and I am sure all the atrocities depicted there by authorities were done for what they thought were thoroughly godly, honest and moral reasons. (It is on You Tube for anyone interested.)

              The only thing the universe reacts to is logic, and if there is really a society that has a motto “greed is good” then the concept has to be shown not to work by way of logic, not appeals to religion or morality or faith in the Leader.

              It can be turned on its head with “theft is good” (at least in the style of Robin Hood) and use that as an excuse to “tax the rich until they howl with anguish” as was used as a rallying cry by a British politician in the 1960s. I suspect that suitably advanced logic could demolish either concept and produce a middle road that would be far more productive. The New Scientist article I referred to earlier hinted at this towards the end.

  • Dan Vasii February 28, 2016 on 5:24 am

    The triple filter when searching for the alien civilization: 1. Life. We do not know how life was created on our own planet, and therefore cannot know if the process may/might have been replicated on other planets as well. 2. Survival beyond extraplanetary/solar system stages -meaning that a civilzation may destroy itself by planetary or intrasystem wars before reaching capabilities to spread to other solar systems. 3. Strange evolution. Meaning that after spreading to many solar systems/other stars, using quantic entanglement to communicate (therefore useless to search the radio waves for them aliens), such civilization may reach to another dimensions or singularity, making for us very difficult to detect/communicate with them.

  • Dan Vasii February 29, 2016 on 3:04 am

    @ Quantium: I changed position because the progresively narrow postings. Morality isn’t something undifenible, and in fact whatever the quonchistadors did in South and Central America was NOT moral, in accord with the Bible, their Holy Book, so the argument doesn’t stand a bit (as proof, later on, a Catholic priest tried to save the cultural heritage of Maya). The essential difference between humans and animals is that animals progress by competition between themselves and human by cooperation. So the moral standard is that anything goes against cooperation and mutual plus common good and general wellfare is actual egotistic and imoral. Let’s take a drastic example: incest. Personal pleasure between two persons gets beyond general interest, which is a better genetic pool. So morality is no something that cannot be defined, but something that is ever better defined, as human society grows in its complexity. And that is why self-sacrifice is so highly regarded: because it contains the very quintessence of our humanity.

    • Quantium Dan Vasii February 29, 2016 on 5:03 am

      Thanks for that.

      I agree that self sacrifice is highly regarded, but I am not sure how good a thing this is.

      The current waging of war by terrorism relies heavily on this, mainly since 9/11. Someone who has self sacrificed to kill the enemy has put himself beyond punishment. JB Priestly wrote a novel called “Saturn Over the Water” in which a group of scientists decided to blow up the entire world because they regarded life as pointless. Obviously they would be sacrificing themselves as well as others.

      The Bible, and no doubt other holy books, contain the idea that killing people who worship differently is a good, moral, godly thing to do. It isn’t, of course a logical thing to do unless one takes the viewpoint that your own set of beliefs must compete and win against all others. It goes against common good and general welfare if the system being considered is, for example, both Israelites and Philistines. Obviously if the system being considered is the entire world any conflict between beliefs can never be beneficial. (Unless I suppose the universe is really being ruled by a god as tyrannical and intolerant as the character in parts of The Bible.)

      So actually I could turn this back to the subject of the original article, by suggesting that any civilisation that venerates self sacrifice is unsustainable.

      • Dan Vasii Quantium February 29, 2016 on 5:31 am

        I guess you misconstrue the meaning of self sacrifice. It doesn’t mean that someone just kill oneself. It means one give up something belonging to oneself in exchange for something that bring more value to the community/humanity. The human bombs of DAESH/ISIS make no sacrifice. they are selfish, wanting a better place in paradise for themselves, in exchange of more suffering for the rest of humanity – self-aggrandizement, exactly the opposite of self-sacrifice. The case you mentioned is again a case of selfishness, when some people decide that their own opinion must prevail against the existence of the entire humanity – another case of megalomaniac selfishness.
        So you are right when you state “any civilisation that venerates self sacrifice is unsustainable”, but here you wrongly understand self sacrifice as simple annihilation of a person, without the actual sacrifice – meaning that you give up something in exchange for another higher goal. There is a quote from the House of Justice, the guiding institution of Baha’is, the newest religion of the world: “To build a prosperous society free from the scourges of injustice and misery, we must all be generous and giving, and transcend the patterns of accumulation and utilization of material means only for the satisfaction of one’s own needs and desires. Generosity is an attribute of the human soul and is independent of the degree of wealth or poverty. A generous soul gives continually for the service of others, —whether of time, energy or material resources.”

        • Quantium Dan Vasii February 29, 2016 on 8:46 am

          I am not sure that a “better place in paradise” is the sole motive. That idea could just be infidel propaganda.

          But I think we may be drifting too far off topic as to whether civilisations can persist long enough to colonise a galaxy or even just communicate across it.

          I think there could be many barriers to this and complexity could be one and a cult of the individual resulting in stagnation another (if it exists).

          Complexity certainly does exist and I think is the much bigger issue.

          • Dan Vasii Quantium March 3, 2016 on 1:04 am

            For certain human society has grown more complex along the ages, but also able to deal with complexity. Now, with both intelectual apparatus and soft/hardware, it seems to me that we, humans, are in a better then ever position to deal with complexity. Can you give me an example, theoretical, ofcourse, or practical if you can, of complexity adversely affecting society?

  • Quantium March 3, 2016 on 7:18 am

    The legal profession is an example. Originally the lawmen came to resolve problems that hired gunmen resolved in a rather unsatisfactory and unproductive manner. The litigious society now is getting so complex that it often costs more than it is worth to resolve a problem. Zoning (planning) enquiries can cost more than it costs to build the project. Whatever anyone wants to do, by the sheer mass of people with an interest there are always going to be some that are adversely affected.

  • horseshoe7 March 7, 2016 on 3:02 pm

    This is basically the same point I’ve been making regarding why Google, Tesla et.al. should not be using California to develop regulations for Self-Driving cars… due to the stranglehold grip of both the tax-thieving public employees unions and the other litigious “regulators” (environmentalists, thieving lawyers, and politically-correct life-sappers)… it just isn’t worth developing such a product in CA, in the current thieving environment. I believe Texas (Austin), or Nevada are better choices (and this comes from a life-long Californian… who only remembers Ronald Reagan as the California governor, in my childhood).