Stepping Stones to Our Extraterrestrial Neighbors

Astrophysics is still a very young science. Most of the theories we have about exoplanets and the potential for life on these objects is constantly changing.

For example, Europa was discovered in 1610 by Galileo. Until the 1970s, life, at least as the concept is generally understood, was believed to be entirely dependent on energy from the Sun (Europa (moon), 2013). In 2006, Robert T. Pappalardo, an assistant professor in the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder said, “We’ve spent quite a bit of time and effort trying to understand if Mars was once a habitable environment. Europa today, probably, is a habitable environment. We need to confirm this … but Europa, potentially, has all the ingredients for life … and not just four billion years ago … but today. (Leonard, 2006)”

Recently, astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have found compelling evidence of a planet forming 7.5 billion miles away from its star, a finding that may challenge current theories about planet formation (Space News: NASA’S Hubble uncovers evidence of farthest planet forming from its star, 2013). The planet is estimated to be relatively small, at 6 to 28 times more massive than Earth. Its wide orbit means it is moving slowly around its host star. If the suspected planet were orbiting in our solar system, it would be roughly twice Pluto’s distance from the sun.

So, what does this mean for us as we scour the cosmos, seeking communication with intellegent life on other worlds? It means that we have to potentially widen our original search area.

Our search has been for planets in the “Goldilocks Zone (The Goldilocks Zone, 2003).” In a nutshell, this means that the planet has to be like earth in its distance from the Sun. Too close, it is too hot, like Venus. Too far, it is too cold, like Mars. Just right, like Earth, life develops.

Seeking contact with life existing away from Earth is just a stepping stone. Once life is found, we will learn so much that we can’t even estimate the discoveries. We might find clues to the origins of the Universe itself. We may find that the Goldilocks Zone was a faulty theory. That life does not need to evolve on Earth-like planets. Life may exist on moons like Europa.

Admittedly, Europa probably only has microbial life and that we will not be looking for communications streaming out from that moon. However, why does intelligent life have to exist like mankind? Can so called “lower” life forms also develop high levels of intelligence.

We don’t know much about the potential for even life on other planets and moons. We are currently only theorizing based upon our brief studies of the planets in our own star system. Studies that are less than 40 years old in a universe that is billions of years older.

Finding life outside of Earth is more than just communications. It is exploration and discovery. Those people who think it is just ancient astronaut theories driving us to seek life in the Universe don’t understand that we are not looking for ETs that might have visited Earth in the past or who crashed in Roswell. No, the search for life is about finding out that we are not alone, we are not unique. It is about taking another step in our journey to learn more about the Universe and consequently, learn more about ourselves.

Works Cited

The Goldilocks Zone. (2003, October 2). Retrieved June 16, 2013, from NASA Science: Science News: http://science1.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2003/02oct_goldilocks/

Europa (moon). (2013, June 3). Retrieved June 16, 2013, from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Europa_(moon)#Exploration
Space News: NASA’S Hubble uncovers evidence of farthest planet forming from its star. (2013, June 16).

Retrieved June 16, 2013, from Lake County News: http://www.lakeconews.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=31695:space-news-nasas-hubble-uncovers-evidence-of-farthest-planet-forming-from-its-star&catid=1:latest&Itemid=197

Leonard, D. (2006, February 7). Europa Mission: Lost In NASA Budget. Retrieved June 16, 2013, from Space.com: http://www.space.com/2022-europa-mission-lost-nasa-budget.html