The Sky Is Teeming With Life
By Woodrow Wilson
The sky is teeming with life. Five hundred years ago, the Inquisition burned people at the stake for suggesting that the stars might be other suns with planets of their own. Today, we’ve discovered thousands of planets around neighboring stars. Is it heresy to suggest some might host alien life?
We haven’t seen an exo-planet directly yet, but we’ve seen their suns’ responses to them. Stars wobble as their planets swing around them. We measure the stagger in their step to learn about their planets. Stars dim when passing planets block their light. How much tells us how big they are. How often tells us about their orbits. Tricks like these only work when the planets cross along the line of sight between Earth and the star. Most probably orbit in some different plane. Nevertheless, thousands of planets have been identified outside our solar system. The most recent estimate I’ve read is that there may be eighty billion planets in our Milky Way Galaxy alone.
The first exo-planets discovered were hot super-Jupiters-planets many times the size of Jupiter nestled close to their suns. Those suns gyrated wildly. Initial planet detection encouraged a search for subtler effects. More planets were confirmed. Planet hunters and their satellites expanded the menagerie of exo-planets. Nearly four thousand have been cataloged so far. Increasing sophistication is detecting smaller and smaller planets out there. All sizes and conditions appear likely. With an estimated eighty billion variations in the Milky Way, everything is possible.
Life as we know it, no doubt, requires conditions similar to those here on Earth. Interest in extra-terrestrial life emphasizes Earth-like planets: those about the same size as Earth and with temperatures appropriate to liquid water. Exo-planets like that are not uncommon. A few months ago, seven Earth-size planets were discovered orbiting a nearby infrared star. Three of those were in the Goldilocks zone where it’s neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water. NASA’s Kepler telescope identified forty-nine more Earth-like planets in a narrow sky survey. Seven of Kepler’s last ten were planets orbiting sun-like stars-rather than giants or dwarfs. Earth’s twins are all over out there somewhere.
Life as we don’t know it may spring up elsewhere. Extremophiles flourishing in volcanic vents and Antarctic lakes demonstrate that life is more robust than expected. Life could have emerged on exo-planets under conditions unlike those here on Earth. The basic organic building blocks of life occur everywhere (they’ve even been detected in interstellar clouds). The planets have solar energy, minerals, and liquid solvents. A lot can happen in a place like that in a couple of billion years. Who knows what our neighbors will be like?
Woody Wilson is a retired rocket scientist, a retired Toastmaster executive, and a relapsed workaholic, He is a Caltech PhD chemist who brings creativity out of the lab and into your life. His original recipes brighten your day from brunch to dinner. His science fiction and medical fiction keep you awake half the night. His latest “Stranded on Mars” will take you there. His “Dead Astronauts” will send you into Earth orbit. His “Fish Story” will submerge you deep under water.
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