I love The Daily Galaxy. I don’t browse it as much as I used to (I don’t browse anything as much as I used to) but every now and then I’ll click through a link on my Twitter feed to an interesting-sounding post. I absolutely love astronomy. The universe in all its glory is a miraculous, baffling place to exist, and as far as we know, it’s pretty much the only place to exist. So it would make sense that other entities, if they chose to exist, would have to do so in some distant corner of our own universe.
So anyway, back to the Daily Galaxy. I spotted an article a few days ago about our ongoing search for alien life. SETI, apparently, thinks that they might not be so distant after all. While the SETI that you and I know have done the bulk of their research by searching for measurable signals sent out by advanced extraterrestrial civilizations, they are planning to broaden their approach to include scrutinizing publicly-available images of the moon and other alien surfaces for evidence of technological artifacts.
Bear in mind that these aren’t the crazed words of hysterical stargazers; the Arizona State University researchers quoted in the article aren’t what you’d call confident that we’ll find any space hideouts on the Moon. Searching the Moon, however, makes sense, given its proximity to us. Not only do we currently have the technology to make an almost unlimited number of detailed observations of the surface, it also makes an excellent training grounds for us. We already know that the surface is littered with relics of space travel—our own—and so we know what they would look like if we were to stumble across more on other worlds. I suspect, too, that by practicing on the Moon, we’ll learn to streamline the process.
So yeah, that’s neat. But as much as I would love to imagine the excitement of finding something, I think it’s probably safe to assume that we won’t. The Voyager probes – the fastest-moving human-made vehicles in the universe – have been flying away from the Sun for 34 years, and they’re not out of the solar system yet. Sure, all the planets are but memories to the spacecraft, but they’ll still be locked into the heliosphere – the Sun’s sphere of influence – until 2015 or so. At its speed, Voyager 2 is expected to pass near (in galactic terms) Sirius in about 300,000 years.
300,000 years, by the way, is a geologic nothing. We’ve only been human for 200,000 years or so (dinosaurs, by comparison, reined for 160 million years). We’ve only been farming for about 10,000 years. All of the art and culture and history and mythology with which we identify have only been around for half that time. If it’s all Greek to you, remember that the Greek language has only been with us for about 2% of our time on Earth. The universe may not care about such a pitiful span of time, but to us, it’s unimaginably long. And space is big.
But let’s just assume that the technology exists to cut that interstellar journey down to, say, 100 years. We aren’t even quite sure that there are planets orbiting Sirius. Again, let’s assume that there are, and they had developed an enormously successful and curious civilization of space explorers. Would they really aim their probe for the Sun and hope to land on a planet? Would they even have a high confidence of our planetary status? Or would they instead shoot for Procyon? Procyon is closer to Sirius than we are by more than three light years.
The Truth is Out There
There is a vast, mind-boggling unlikelihood of finding anything with this venture. The no-stone-unturned approach can get results, but… only if there are results to get. I think it’s difficult to divorce ourselves from our earth-centric view of the universe, but I do wonder whether an alien civilization would have had much interest in our stretch of the galaxy given how difficult it can be to obtain solid data even for nearby stars.
I love what SETI is doing, however. Even with zero expectation of results, the exploration is awesome. We are a nation of explorers; it’s what we do. I love projects that engage the public’s imagination and encourage us to relive our childlike enthusiasm for science.
And remember, up until the 1960s we just assumed that life couldn’t withstand the sustained and extreme heat of a geyser. If scientists had never bothered looking, the sulfur-laced waters of Yellowstone’s Lower Geyser Basin might still be thought of as stinky, lifeless sludge. The discovery that life can in fact exist in those conditions opened our collective eyes to the existence of extremophiles.
It doesn’t hurt to look, that’s all I’m saying. I don’t think it’s necessary to find evidence of other life to really appreciate the wonder of the universe. Even if we’re alone out here, the unbelievable and majestic enormity of it all should give us plenty to think about. The universe is an amazing place, and I wouldn’t want to exist anywhere else!
How do you guys feel our place in the universe? Let me know in the comments. Shoot me a Spacebook message or Tweet me some fun astro-facts. And don’t forget to sign up for e-mail subscriptions if you haven’t done so yet! I don’t post often, so you don’t want to miss it when I do!
There are another hundred billion stars in the Milky Way. Odds are one or two of them have seen alien lives come and go. Maybe they haven’t. Maybe we really are a fluke. But if we are sharing this vast expanse of space with somebody else, then let the intergalactic kegger begin!