The Search for Extraterrestrial Life Rapidly Advancing with Discoveries of Earth-like Planets
By Chuck Brooks | November 20, 2017
As our technology has become more sophisticated, so has the search for other potential life in the universe. Some NASA scientists are now estimating that we may have contact with extraterrestrial contact in as little 25 years.
Last year, scientists announced the discovery of a planet, a red dwarf 12.36 light years away; only four light years away from Earth located in the Alpha Centauri system. The planet is called Proxima Centauri, and it may be habitable. This discovery, along with recent discoveries of other potential exoplanets that can harbor life has led many leading astronomers to come to the conclusion that we likely are not alone in the universe.
Just last week, A team of researchers just used the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO’s) High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) to discover a low-mass alien planet orbiting the red dwarf star Ross 128 just 11 light years away from our solar system. What makes this notable is this planet has a mass that is similar to Earth’s.
A project aimed at listening for signals of other intelligent life, SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), has been active for several years analyzing signals from outer space of intelligent sourcing. A spin-off of the SETI project is called METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is focused on designing and transmitting messages to possible life-bearing planets. METI Project Scientists recently transmitted a signal to a relatively nearby star called Luyten’s Star (GJ 273). The signal sent to Luyten’s Star incorporates “a scientific and mathematical “tutorial,'” as well as 33 short musical compositions by artists in the Sónar community, according to Space.com.
Some new factors to consider based on advanced radio telescopes and on Kepler data, (Kepler is a space observatory launched by NASA to discover Earth-size planets orbiting other stars), is that habitable exoplanets similar to Earth are much more common than originally thought, and the universe is more expansive than we have believed. We are learning more each day and NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, planning to launch between March and June 2019, will exponentially add to our understanding.
Scientists from UC Berkeley and the University of Hawaii issued a study that 22 percent of sun-like stars may harbor planets roughly the size of Earth in their habitable zones that have been overlooked because these planets are harder to detect. One of the study’s co-authors, Andrew Howard, stated “With about 100 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy, that’s about 20 billion such planets … That’s a few Earth-sized planets for every human being on the planet Earth.” Read about Earth-like exoplanets.
The estimates of potential earth-like planets vary among astronomers and exobiologists (those who study extraterrestrial life). NASA estimates conclude that there are probably more than 100 billion Earth-like planets based on the assumption that our universe has 500 billion billion stars similar to our own. That figure contemplates nearly identical conditions for life to evolve on these planets. Evidence derived from new powerful telescopes, including Kepler’s exploration of the Milky Way and various space probes in our own solar system, have shown that the water is more common place that thought and the organic building blocks of life are abundant.
These estimates are generally based upon a formula of probability created by astronomer Dr. Frank Drake in 1961. His “Drake Equation” sought to arrive at an estimate of the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy. It was based on:
N = The number of civilizations in The Milky Way Galaxy whose electromagnetic emissions are detectable.
R* = The rate of formation of stars suitable for the development of intelligent life.
fp = The fraction of those stars with planetary systems.
ne = The number of planets, per solar system, with an environment suitable for life.
fl = The fraction of suitable planets on which life actually appears.
fi = The fraction of life bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges.
fc = The fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space.
L = The length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.
In addition to radio telescope scanning, analytics in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is significantly improving. A new capability based upon machine learning and artificial intelligence was created by researchers at the University of Toronto Scarborough, Canada. The computing capability is believed to be up to 1,000 times faster at predicting whether a planet is potentially habitable. Researchers will also use the AI tool to study NASA's impending Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) which is set to launch in 2018.
Beyond the Milky Way, The numbers of planets that could support life, as we know it, are really mind-boggling. Astronomers at the University of Auckland claim that there are actually around 100 billion habitable, Earth-like planets in the Milky Way. Multiplied by the 500 billion plus galaxies in the universe, they estimate around 50,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (5×1022) habitable planets, or 50 sextillion in the universe. Of course, forms of life that could potentially evolve without Earth eco-systems would exponentially change that estimate to even a greater number.
There are a variety of projects dedicated to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) now scanning space with sensitive optical and acoustic technologies. Also, Gravitational Microlensing is being used for detection of planets using techniques measuring the bending of light emitted by a star as a result of gravity from orbiting objects.
There are those who say with all the possibilities of life out there – where is it and why have we not yet discovered it? This is commonly called the “Fermi Paradox” noting the contradiction between the high probability that life that is predicted to be in our universe, and the lack of evidence that advanced life exists anywhere else but Earth. But as such a young civilization that only discovered electricity in a recent era, there is not really much of a paradox. We are just at the doorstep of exploration and cannot not expect to know what we do not know yet. Man’s real quest for the stars has really just begun.
As mankind’s technology (especially artificial intelligence) and computing capabilities continue to grow, so will our ability to explore in greater detail the expansiveness of space and the multitude of galaxies. What was yesterday’s science fiction is now today’s reality. Someday, we may even have the capacity to travel beyond our dreams as humans, perhaps as cyborgs or replicating robotic probes. The continued discovery of Earth-like planets in our galaxy and beyond is another small step in our pondering of an understanding of what may be out there as we peer among the night sky.
Chuck Brooks is President of Brooks Consulting International. LinkedIn named Chuck as one of “The Top 5 Tech People to Follow on LinkedIn” out of their 500 million members. He has published more than 150 articles and blogs on cybersecurity and technology issues. In both 2017 and 2016, he was named “Cybersecurity Marketer of the Year by the Cybersecurity Excellence Awards. Chuck’s professional industry affiliations include being the Chairman of CompTIA’s New and Emerging Technology Committee, and as a member of The AFCEA Cybersecurity Committee. In government, Chuck has served at The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as the first Legislative Director of The Science & Technology Directorate at the Department of Homeland Security. He served as a top Advisor to the late Senator Arlen Specter on Capitol Hill covering security and technology issues on Capitol Hill. In academia, Chuck was an Adjunct Faculty Member at Johns Hopkins University where he taught a graduate course on homeland security for two years. He has an MA in International relations from the University of Chicago, a BA in Political Science from DePauw University, and a Certificate in International Law from The Hague Academy of International Law.