NASA announces liquid water on Mars, but life?

Today NASA announced that liquid water still flows on the surface of Mars! Well, this is the second best announcement about Mars that we could wish for – the first being of course that they found life! Hmm, perhaps a little disappointing but who knows, that announcement could come sooner than we think.

Well the fact that there is liquid water on Mars significantly increases the possibility of life on Mars and also it makes things a lot easier for humans to someday visit and colonize the Red Planet.

Actually water, which is the most important aspect for life as we know it, is not as rare as we once thought. Apart from Mars – our own moon, Enceladus (a moon of Saturn) and Europa (a moon of Jupiter) are believed to also have plenty of water. Signatures of water have also been found around planets orbiting around distant stars as well.

Where water is, life cannot be too far away. So it is just a matter of time before we discover life outside our own world. Slowly but surely most of the scientific data that we are receiving is making the answer imminent – we most certainly are not alone!

Anybody out there?

(published in The Speaking Tree, The Times of India – October 26, 2012)

etWhen NASA recently landed the Curiosity rover on Mars, the moment once again raised the age-old question, “Is there life in outer space?” The most logical answer is that there must be life out there considering the infinite nature of our known universe with its assumed 70 sextillion stars distributed across billions of galaxies.

Fermi’s Paradox
Either way you look at it – creation or evolution or both, as they are not mutually exclusive – there is no logical reason why Earth should be the only planet among hundreds of planets out there with life. Perhaps some of the 777 planets discovered so far outside our solar system have life. If so, why have we not found anybody out there yet? This question is referred to as Fermi’s Paradox. He asked simply, “If there is life out there? Where is everybody?” For life to be detected, communicated with and interacted with, such life needs to be more or less on the same rung as we are on the evolutionary ladder.

When you look at an amoeba with a microscope, the amoeba is blissfully unaware of that fact. Humans and amoebas are on two very distant rungs of the evolutionary ladder to have any kind of meaningful interaction. Other intelligent creatures on our planet like whales, dolphins, ants and bees are also promising in their forms of communication and their ability to build ‘cities’ in the form of anthills and beehives. But here again, we do not have any real way to communicate with them. Looking at these examples, if there is a lot of alien life out there in the universe and even if we find ‘them’, will we be able to communicate with them?

Then again, even if we do find other life out there, we will only be able to communicate with them if they are on the same level of evolution as us. If life outside Earth is too ahead or behind us on the rungs of evolution, we will be unable to communicate or detect each other. What if we are like amoebas for a more advanced form of life? Maybe ‘they’ are waiting for us to reach a certain level of spiritual development before they admit us into the ‘Galactic Society.’

Worlds without end

 

(published in The Times of India, Editorial Page, December 9, 2006)

Looking at stars on a clear night somewhere away from the city, one is amazed at how many are visible. The hazy band of the Milky Way stretches across the night sky and contains millions of stars, thousands of light years away, but still part of our own Galaxy. Late astronomer Carl Sagan put the number of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy at 400,000,000,000 (400 billion). There are a little more than six billion people on our planet — so a rough estimate puts it at about 60 stars in the Milky Way per human being on Earth. Imagine that, each one of us could have 60 solar systems in the Milky Way Galaxy.

Since 1995, we have discovered around 200 extrasolar planets or planets revolving around other stars. Some of these stars like 47 Ursae Majoris, only 46 light years away (a stone’s throw in terms of stellar distances), even have a system of planets like our sun has. So far we have only been able to discover larger Jupiter-like worlds because the current method of finding planets makes it difficult to find smaller Earth-like worlds.

However, NASA is planning to launch the terrestrial planet finder project in 2014. This project will be able to detect smaller Earth-like extrasolar planets. Chances are good that we are soon going to find other planets with liquid water and an Earth-like atmosphere. These other worlds will become targets for human colonisation. Going back to our 60 stars per human formula, even if we take a very modest figure of two planets per star system, this means there are 120 planets per human being and over 800 billion planets in our Galaxy alone. That is a lot of potential real estate.

As mysteries of the Universe unfold, it is important that we realise our place in the larger scheme of things. Just as we talk about being a part of the world, we need to remember that the world is only a part of a much larger Galaxy, which in itself is part of a much larger Universe (there are more than 100 billion known galaxies and an estimate made in 2003 by Australian astronomers puts the total number of stars in the known universe at 70 sextillion or 70,000,000,000,000,000,000,000).

There are now theories that even the Universe is only one out of many universes that make the multiverse — the supreme collection of universes. These other universes would exist in some other frequency or dimension and inter-dimensional travel could someday take us there. Where does it end?

Are we the only planet with life or is the multiverse teaming with life? While we have not yet found life anywhere other than planet Earth, we still have 70 sextillion stars multiplied by the number of universes to explore before we can conclusively prove that Earth is the only inhabited planet. However, even if we find a tiny microbe on Mars, we have proved the other alternative — that we are, in fact, not alone.

Either way, exploration and colonisation of space is necessary. If ours is indeed (however unlikely) the only inhabited planet in the multiverse, then we have a great responsibility. We have been given the gift of life and we need to preserve that. This would mean that we need to carry the torch of life to the stars and colonise other planets.

The Earth could be destroyed in so many ways and it would be our duty to spread the fire of life throughout the multiverse. If the other alternative is correct and there is an abundance of life, wouldn’t we want to find it and interact with it? How long can we earthlings be alone? There would then be an endless opportunity to exchange our culture, commerce, science, techno-logy, beliefs and art. What a wonderful thing it would be to find intelligent and friendly life elsewhere. Clearly, we are just in our infancy. We humans have only reached our own moon so far. Humans have not visited even Mars yet, though our probes have criss-crossed the surfaces of Venus, Mars and Titan. But our focus is too earth-centric. We need to stop abusing our planet and think of its preservation, just as we need to seriously start planning the further exploration and colonisation of space as physicist Stephen Hawking has advised.