Where Are The Aliens?

As humanity continues to make heady progress in space exploration, the question of whether life exists elsewhere in the universe is naturally becoming more pertinent. Of course, by life, we generally mean organisms as sentient and advanced as us, if not more so — not that the existence of other lifeforms as simple as bacteria would not still be amazing.

The debate about extraterrestrial lifeforms is hardly a new one, even if it does have great significance now that we are making great inroads in observing an ever-expanding proportion of the universe. Perhaps one of the most famous participants in the discussion is Nobel Prize-winning Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, who in the 1950s conceived of the Fermi Paradox: If the universe was teeming with intelligent, technological civilizations, where are they?

More to the point, even if we grant that said life has simply not reached Earth yet, why have we not seen evidence of their colonization or arrival elsewhere in the universe? NPR explores the matter further:

The most important thing to understand about Fermi’s paradox is that you don’t need faster-than-light travel, a warp-drive or other exotic technology to take it seriously. Even if a technological civilization built ships that reached only a fraction of light speed, we might still expect all the stars (and the planets) to be “colonized.”

For example, let’s imagine that just one high-tech alien species emerges and starts sending ships out at one-hundredth of the speed of light. With that technology, they’d cross the typical distance between stars in “just” a few centuries to a millennia. If, once they got to a new solar system, they began using its resources to build more ships, then we can imagine how a wave of colonization begins propagating across the galaxy.

But how long does it take this colonization wave to spread?

Remarkably, it would only take a fraction of our galaxy’s lifetime before all the stars are inhabited. Depending on what you assume, the propagating wave of colonization could make it from one end of our Milky Way to the other in just 10 million years. While that might seem very long to you, it’s really just a blink of the eye to the 10-billion-year-old Milky Way (in other words, the colonization wave crosses in 0.001 the age of the galaxy). That means if an alien civilization began at some random moment in the Milky Way’s history, odds are it has had time to colonize the entire galaxy.

In other words, even if the galaxy, let alone the whole universe, is conceivably too big for even an advanced species to explore or propagate, it is not necessarily so big as to preclude any kind of mark left by an intelligent, space-faring race.

Granted, there is no shortage of explanations and counterarguments to this paradox: that the aliens have not reached space-faring capabilities, that for one reason or another they have chosen not to travel beyond their world, etc. But the article goes on to suggest a more unsettling conclusion worth at least considering: maybe we truly are alone out there, at least within our Milky Way galaxy (anything farther than that would be unfathomably unreachable and visa versa).

On the one hand, it’s possible that no other species has ever reached our state of development. Our galaxy with its 300 billion stars — meaning 300 billion chances for self-consciousness — has never awakened anywhere else. We would be the only ones looking into the night sky and asking questions. How impossibly lonely that would be.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that other species have made it to where we stand today. But no one has made it much farther. Say that like a “great filter,” something like war or environmental collapse keeps anyone, anywhere, from reaching beyond our stage of technological development. If that’s true then we, like all who have come before us, are doomed.

Personally, I still like to hold out hope that intelligent life does exist “out there”, or at the very least once did (there is no reason to believe that such a species did not destroy itself or otherwise go extinct from some sort of natural catastrophe). The probability of some sort of organism existing elsewhere in our galaxy seems high, but whether it (or they) is intelligent is apparently still an open question.

What are your thoughts?

The farthest confirmed galaxy observed to date.

Astronomers Reach New Milestone: Farthest Galaxy Ever Measured

The above photo, courtesy of the New York Times, may not look like much, but it represents an amazing achievement in the field of astronomy and in our understanding of the universe. Here’s more from the Times:

The [pictured] galaxy, more than a few billion light-years on the other side of the northern constellation Boötes, is one of the most massive and brightest in the early universe and goes by the name of EGS-zs8-1. It flowered into stardom only 670 million years after the Big Bang.

The light from that galaxy has taken 13 billion years to reach telescopes on Earth. By now, however, since the universe has continued to expand during that time, the galaxy is about 30 billion light-years away, according to standard cosmological calculations.

The new measurements allow astronomers to see the galaxy in its infancy. Despite its relative youth, however, it is already about one-sixth as massive as the Milky Way, which is 10 billion years old. And it is getting bigger, making stars 80 times faster than the Milky Way is making them today. The discovery was reported in The Astrophysical Journal by Pascal Oesch of Yale University and his colleagues.

Imagine what more awaits once even more powerful tools like the James Webb Space Telescope and the Thirty Meter Telescope come into being.

Eleven Images That Capture The Sheer Vastness Of Space

Did you know that you could fit all seven of the other planets in the solar system between Earth and the moon — with room to spare. Note that Saturn and Jupiter, are nine and 11 times as wide as Earth, respectively. It goes to show impressive our landing on the moon was.

Find other facts about how incredibly large and unfathomable space is here.

Hat tip to Vox.com.

If You Thought Hubble Images Were Breathtaking…

…wait until NASA and its international partners launch the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which will be 100 times more power than its venerable 25-year-old predecessor. More from Business Insider:

The space telescope will weigh 6.4 tons. JWST’s main mirror will be 6.5 meters (yards) in diameter, three times as large as Hubble’s.

A joint project of NASA, the European, and Canadian space agencies, JWST will carry four instruments, including cameras and spectrometers that can capture extremely faint signals.

Infra-red capability will help it observe distant celestial bodies, and its camera shutter will be able to remain open for long periods, explained Matt Greenhouse, JWST project scientist for the science instrument payload.

“The Webb will have 70 times the light-gathering capacity of Hubble. So the combination of the large size and the infra-red capabilities will allow us to observe this epic of the universe past,” he said in an interview

An official statement by NASA describes the over $8 billion telescope as a “powerful time machine with infrared vision that will peer back over 13.5 billion years to see the first stars and galaxies forming out of the darkness of the early universe.”

Indeed, it is so powerful that may even be able to detect signs of life on distant exoplanets, down to the specific composition of their atmospheres.

Moreover, unlike the Hubble Space Telescope, which circles the Earth, the JWST will be 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) away, at a place called LaGrange Point. That means it will be colder and thus suffer less interference from radiation and its own infra-red light.

The heavy telescope is scheduled to launch October 2018 atop an Ariane 5 rocket, made by the European Space Agency, from French Guiana.

Given the breathtaking images Hubble has given us over the last quarter-century, to say nothing of how much it has advanced our understanding of the universe, it is exciting to imagine what something 100 times as powerful will offer us.

And if NASA can pull something like this off, albeit with help from its foreign partners, imagine what it could do with more funding and public support…

It is also encouraging to see more international cooperation in space exploration. I have noted numerous times before how the technological and financial challenges of space travel necessitate humanity pooling together all its resources and expertise. The JWST will be a strong testimony to that.

The Launching of a Space Milestone: Mir

On this day in 1986, the Soviet Union launched Mir, the first continuously inhabited long-term research station to orbit Earth. Assembled during orbit from 1986 to 1996, it had greater mass than any previous spacecraft at the time, and remained the largest satellite in orbit until 2001, when it was succeeded by the International Space Station (ISS).

Mir

The station served as a microgravity research laboratory where crews conducted experiments in biology, human biology, physics, astronomy, meteorology and spacecraft systems. The goal was to develop technologies that would further permanent human occupation of space.

Mir set the record for the longest continuous human presence in space at 3,644 days, until it was surpassed by the ISS in 2010. It hosted the record for the longest single human spaceflight: Valeri Polyakov spent over 437 days on the station between 1994 and 1995. Mir had the capacity to support a resident crew of three, or larger crews for short term visits.

Polyakov really loves what he does.

Mir was launched as part of an effort to maintain a long-term research outpost in space. While the vast majority its crew was Russian, several international programs made it host to astronauts from the United States, Canada, Japan, and several European nations; the first Syrian and first Afghan in space were Mir visitors. These collaborative efforts were the precursor to the development of the ISS, which evolved from separate U.S., European, and Russian projects.

Following the collapse of the USSR, Mir came under the operation of the new Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos). Although the station was fairly resilient, as evidenced by its impressive lifespan, its age was showing, and Russia at the time could not afford to update it. The station was subsequently decommissioned and deorbited in 2001.

The first of many successors. 

A Persian Gulf Nation On Mars

If the United Arab Emirates has its way, it may very well beat its better-known contenders (such as the U.S., Russia, and China) in landing on Mars, which has increasingly become the accepted next step in human space exploration.

UAE Flags

Will this be the first flag planted on the moon?

Now I know what many of you are thinking: does the UAE even have a space program, much less the infrastructural and scientific capacity to do something as costly and as technically challenging as a Mars landing?  Of course, this is the country responsible for such audacious achievements as the world’s tallest structure, several immense artificial islands, an indoor skiing mall, and more — so clearly, there is no shortage of pluck and cash to make it happen.

As Jenna Kagel of Mic explains:

The country’s vice president and ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, said in a statement on Wednesday, “We chose the epic challenge of reaching Mars because epic challenges inspire us and motivate us.”

The UAE has invested $5.4 billion into space technologies, but has yet to send someone into orbit. They have been “expanding activities of Al Yah Satellite Communications satellite data and TV broadcast company, mobile satellite communication company Thuraya Satellite Telecommunications and Earth mapping and observation system Dubai Sat,” reports RT.

The Gulf state has long intended to get involved in the space race, aspiring to replicate successful space agencies like Europe’s ESA or the United States’ NASA programs. The unmanned mission to the Red Planet will concur with the country’s 50th anniversary of their independence from Britain.

To make clear the seriousness of its intentions, the UAE marked the statement with a simulation of what the Mars mission would look like (sorry, translation not available).

I for one welcome this development. In an increasingly globalized world, space exploration is to the inherent benefit of humanity, regardless of who takes the reigns. This is especially true with something as expensive and technically-challenging as a Mars mission. The more countries we have involved, the more resources we can muster and the faster our progress (geopolitical challenges and rivalries notwithstanding).

It is worth pointing out that while the UAE may be the first small nation to express such a bold aim, it is hardly the only one with an interest in space. As the following map shows, plenty of nations maintain active space programs (albeit with varying degrees of funding and ambition):

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The map legend is as follows:

  • Yellow: Manned Extraterrestrial Exploration + Operates Space Station + Manned Space Flight + Operates Extraterrestrial Probes + Launch Capability + Operates Satellite
  • Orange: Operates Space Station + Manned Space Flight + Operates Extraterrestrial Probes + Launch Capability + Operates Satellites
  • Red: Manned Space Flight + Operates Extraterrestrial Probes + Launch Capability + Operates Satellites
  • Dark Green: Operates Extraterrestrial Probes + Launch Capability + Operates Satellites
  • Light Green: Launch Capability + Operates Satellites
  • Beige: Operates Satellites

Note that this map doesn’t include the national space agencies that are either in the proposal stage or active only in research — these would include such an eclectic mix of countries as Belarus, Costa Rica, Mexico, Peru, Morocco, South Africa, Bangladesh, and many more. Of course, the growing number of private space exploration companies open up a whole other world of potential (no pun intended).

In any case, it would be interesting to see if the UAE’s ambitious plans come to fruition, and if so, whether that will spur other countries (and institutions) of all sizes to take a crack at space travel. Interesting times await, that’s for sure.

VY Canis Majoris

VY Canis Majoris is the largest known star in the universe, being around one billion times bigger than our sun — which is one million times bigger than Earth — which in turn is already pretty immense. If it were to replace our sun, the star’s surface would reach up to Jupiter or Saturn. Imagine how the individual human matches up? We could scarcely register the scale of it all in our minds, much less physically grasp it with our senses.

The following short video further emphasizes how mindbogglingly vast our universe is — and how infinitesimally small we are by comparison.

Earth Day: Celebrating Our Pale Blue Dot

In honor of Earth Day, here’s an excellent and timeless quote by the great Carl Sagan. It comes from a public lecture he was delivering at his own university of Cornell on October 13, 1994. During the speech he referenced the famous “Pale Blue Dot” photo of Earth taken by Voyager 1 in 1990 as it sailed away from Earth, more than 4 billion miles in the distance.

We succeeded in taking that picture [of Earth from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Here’s the photo in question, and how utterly insignificant our plant appears. 

Link

Life On Earth Began On Mars

Or so says one study:

Professor Steven Benner, a geochemist, has argued that the “seeds” of life probably arrived on Earth in meteorites blasted off Mars by impacts or volcanic eruptions. As evidence, he points to the oxidised mineral form of the element molybdenum, thought to be a catalyst that helped organic molecules develop into the first living structures.

“It’s only when molybdenum becomes highly oxidised that it is able to influence how early life formed,” said Benner, of the Westheimer Institute for Science and Technology in the US. “This form of molybdenum couldn’t have been available on Earth at the time life first began, because three billion years ago, the surface of the Earth had very little oxygen, but Mars did.

“It’s yet another piece of evidence which makes it more likely that life came to Earth on a Martian meteorite, rather than starting on this planet.”

All living things are made from organic matter, but simply adding energy to organic molecules will not create life. Instead, left to themselves, organic molecules become something more like tar or asphalt, said Prof Benner.

He added: “Certain elements seem able to control the propensity of organic materials to turn to tar, particularly boron and molybdenum, so we believe that minerals containing both were fundamental to life first starting.

“Analysis of a Martian meteorite recently showed that there was boron on Mars; we now believe that the oxidised form of molybdenum was there too.”

It’s a pretty interesting theory, and I’d love to see it explored further. It’s strange to think that all life on Earth might have really begun on a whole other planet (ala the concept of panspermia).