Astronomy has always been an important part of my life. Growing up on a farm gave me many nights of fantastically good views of the stars, planets, and the Milky Way. I remember paying attention to the IGY (International Geophysical Year) in 1957-1958 when I was 10. It was especially exciting to see Sputnik go over and pass through the constellations.
Walt Disney teamed up with Werner Von Braun to produce a 3 part series about space flight in the mid-50s. They were Man in Space, Man and the Moon, and Mars and Beyond. I loved those shows. They fueled my imagination. Multi-staged rockets, lunar landscapes, and Martian myths and legends planted the seeds of the possibility that alien life existed on some worlds out there in space.
Imaginations have been fueled for thousands of years. I offer you this famous space pootie, Leo. But, the life I am imagining is real.
There is more to this story.
As of this writing, NASA announced that 2,740 planet candidates have been observed by Kepler, a telescope on a space satellite. Of those, 115 are confirmed planets. Kepler is staring at a patch of over 100,000 stars. By measuring the brightness of each, it can perceive the passage of a planet in front of the star by a slight dimming of the signal. It has even recorded one star with six planets. Five of them orbit closer than our Mercury orbits our Sun. From measurements of their masses and sizes, we can infer if some of these worlds are made of gases, ice, or rocks.
The crux of the search is to identify planets that orbit in a zone of distance from their star that is considered friendly for the development of life. It is hoped that the right mix of distance, light, water, and nutrients will be suitable for life to grow.
Detecting signs of life elsewhere will not be easy. I hope it will be during the next decades. It won’t be a sensational event shown in the movies with alien invasions or crash-landing spaceships. The evidence will be indications of interesting molecules like oxygen, ozone, methane and water. It may take years of additional data-gathering to answer many questions that will arise. Will these bio-indicators mean slime or civilization? Most people will not hang around to wait for an answer. But, the scientists will get down to work.
What if we were to detect an alien radio signal? That would certainly add some excitement to the search. The possibility that intelligent life exists out there would offer this world some interesting challenges.
The first evidence of life elsewhere will be a turning point in our intellectual history. It may rival the emergence of Copernicus’s heliocentric theory or Darwin’s theory of evolution. If life can be discovered on another planet, why not on thousands or billions of others? It may be widespread. The impact of that finding would spread shockwaves in many areas of human thought and activity including biology, philosophy, religion, and art.
My dreams as a 10 year old might just come true in my lifetime. I’m optimistic. It would take decades to decode and understand the meanings, I suppose. But, it would certainly be a powerful force to drive the imaginations of millions of young kids all over the Earth to dream of what could be in their future. My discovery of the space age did that for me.
Knowing that we are not alone just might be the kick in the pants this world needs for us to grow up as a species.