Oh My God – It’s Full of Stars!

Posted: January 4, 2013 in Astronomy, Universe
Tags: , , , , , , ,

A favourite book of mine is Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  This is a wonderful and epic tale of human first-contact with an ancient extra-terrestrial race.  I must point out at this juncture, however, that I actually saw the Kubrick film before I read the book; in fact it was the film that spurred me onto reading the book and, indeed, the whole series.

For me, both the book and the film are wonderful examples of that ultimate mystery and intrigue that taps into the archetypal well shared by (most of) humanity: what lies beyond our cosmic shores? But more importantly, who?

I’m a keen advocate of other life existing out there, somewhere in the Universe.  I don’t think that it’s a massive leap of faith to believe this in the same way that some might believe in a God.  We have the definitive proof that life is likely to exist – us!  We exist, we are alive and we have followed a cosmic evolutionary path for billions of years to reach this point.  We are surrounded by life-forms that have evolved in some of the most extreme places on Earth, some of them more alien than even the most creative special effects wizards could imagine.

The Earth is the only inhabited planet in a solar system of eight, orbiting our star (I still miss Pluto).  It is thought that there are between 200 and 400 billion stars in our galaxy alone, and an estimated 100 billion galaxies in the observable Universe (maybe more).  As well as this, the Universe itself is 13.7 billion years old.  We can’t possibly be the only ones, can we?

We know that there are other planets that lie outside of our solar system.  In the last month, scientists discovered a planet that lies within the so-called “Goldilocks Zone” around a Sun-like star called Tau Ceti.  The planet, thought to be between two to six times bigger than the Earth, is circling its star in an orbital region that is “neither too hot nor too cold to allow liquid surface water and, potentially, life”; similar to the orbital region that Earth inhabits.  This discovery and the plethora of other planets discovered by scientists and members of the public alike, show how common these extra-solar systems are.  Scientists even go so far as to predict that practically every star in our galaxy could have multiple planets orbiting them, many of which, potentially habitable.

Astounding stuff, don’t you think?  Real, potential life, beyond the ‘Pale Blue Dot’; it’s the stuff of dreams.  Problem is, we can’t really say for sure that they are inhabited.  We don’t know if life exists there because we can’t actually see the planets.

We know that they are there and we know, roughly, their size, simply by observing the effect that they have on their parent stars.  But, sadly, despite our wondrous advancement, the technology is many years away from reaching a sophistication whereby we could actually physically observe them.  Could we visit?  Not anytime soon.  Despite being a mere 12 light years away, Tau Ceti is still much too far for any possible human mission at our current stage of space travel.

Fear not, though, young space-farers.  Our journey to an extra-terrestrial domain may be sooner, and closer, than you think.

The title of this blog refers to the last words the fictional astronaut Dave Bowman speaks before he disappears into the monolith/star gate at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  It is an inspiring and breath-taking moment.  As he travels through to an unknown star system, he sees the remnants of ancient civilisations and bizarre objects that appear to be life-forms, travelling across the surfaces of a binary star system “like salmon moving upstream”.

In the second instalment of the series, 2010: Odyssey II, there is a further moment of wonder, when the ancient aliens relay a message to all humankind:

“ALL THESE WORLDS ARE YOURS – EXCEPT EUROPA.  ATTEMPT NO LANDINGS THERE.”

The reason behind this explicit instruction is that the aliens have discovered primitive, aquatic life-forms living in the liquid water beneath the icy surface of this Jovian moon; and they deem this life to have evolutionary potential.

But this is a work of fiction, surely?  How can this have any relevance to the actual discovery of extra-terrestrial life?

Well, the possibility of life existing on the Jovian moon of Europa may be a little nearer to the truth than you might imagine.

In fact, scientists now think that several moons within our solar system could have the potential for life: the moons Europa, Ganymede and Callisto that orbit Jupiter; and the moons Titan and Enceladus that orbit Saturn.

These moons all have subsurface oceans, each of which may contain more water than is found in all of the oceans on Earth, with depths that are ten times greater than the deepest ocean: and the belief is that these oceans could harbour life.  Perhaps not the enormous, alien-dinosaur creatures that may immediately swim out of your imagination; but maybe this life could be plant-like, maybe simple and microbial, maybe resembling insects, crustaceans, cephalopods; maybe there’s nothing there.  Who knows?  But within a vast, liquid water ocean, tidally heated and left to ferment and brew for billions of years, the possibilities are breath-taking.

Moreover, these worlds are within our reach.  Enceladus is one billion miles away, Europa, just half that distance, so compared to Tau Ceti’s twelve light years, they’re practically just around the corner.

And go we shall.  The European Space Agency has a planned mission to explore the icy moons of Jupiter.  The Jupiter Icy moons Explorer (JUICE) will make a grand tour of the three Jovian moons and take samples for study.  We may have to wait a while for the incontrovertible proof that we might not be alone, as JUICE doesn’t launch until 2022 and won’t arrive at Jupiter until 2030, but provided we are all still around by then it should offer us invaluable insights into “what are the conditions for planet formation and the emergence of life, and how does the Solar System work?”

There can be little doubt that life is a wonderful and astonishing thing, but is it unique to this dark and insignificant corner of one galaxy, or is it ubiquitous throughout the cosmos.

The author of the Odyssey series Arthur C. Clarke once said: “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”  I would certainly find the latter equally exhilarating.

John

Sources: http://news.discovery.com/space/extraterrestrial-oceans-may-offer-best-chance-for-finding-genesis-ii-121227.html

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/scientists-find-habitable-tau-ceti-planet-8424912.html

http://sci.esa.int/science-e/www/object/index.cfm?fobjectid=50321

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Comments
  1. Kevin firth says:

    Arthur C Clarke gave us the imagination in all his wonderful and timeless books to believe and work toward that goal of finding the extraterrestrials.

  2. Daz says:

    How timely! I finished re-reading 2001, just last night.

    (Also, my semi claim to fame: I attended the same school as ACC, though many years later. I’m proud to report that the school (now college) has a library named in his honour.)

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