John Zarrella’s series "Search for Life" premieres this week on CNN.
The Kepler telescope finds a planet circling two suns, right out of "Star Wars." Data from the Galileo mission suggest that a body of liquid water the size of the Great Lakes is on Jupiter’s moon Europa. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter finds sand dunes rippling across the planet’s surface.
Every day, NASA pours out press releases with fascinating, sometimes groundbreaking revelations. The problem is, much of it flies under the radar, getting absorbed, minimalized and shoved aside in the noise of events around the world. Unless you are addicted to Light Years (and I hope you are), you could easily miss this wonderful dessert NASA keeps serving up, a heavenly hash of sorts.
As I watched all of this "stuff" pouring into my e-mail, it seemed to me that there was a series of stories that needed telling. The common thread is just how wondrous the universe is and how, when you consider all that’s out there, it’s hard for me to imagine we’re all alone.
It just so happened there was a very nice peg for a series: This week, NASA is planning to launch the most sophisticated rover it has ever sent to Mars. The rover named Curiosity is capable of detecting organic material required for life as we know it. For the first time, NASA is going to Mars with its primary focus on finding evidence of life.
“This mission is a key step in answering the eventual question whether life ever existed on Mars," NASA Deputy Project Scientist Ashwin Vasavada said.
Vasavada says that finding organic material is a long shot, but Curiosity is going to the place scientists believe gives them the best chance to find it. It’s called Gale Crater. Scientists think that if water ever flowed on Mars, it might have pooled up in this crater. And where there’s water, there could be life.
Given that NASA is about to embark on this incredible high-risk, high-reward mission, I thought it would be just plain fun to take a look at how the “search for life” is going.
We decided to look at all the planets being discovered by the Kepler telescope team. And then there’s the Webb telescope, with its promise and its problems. It’s years delayed and billions of dollars over budget but could revolutionize our understanding of the universe. And then we thought, you know what, we’re doing all these great things to find life; what about protecting the life we have here from asteroids?
As we talked with the scientists, it became increasingly clear that most of them are convinced there’s other life out there. Seth Shostak, an astronomer with the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, says it’s turning out that planets are “like kittens”: You don’t just get one in the litter.
“So the bottom line is, there are about 100 thousand billion billion planets just in the part of the universe we can see. That’s a very large number. Kind of hard to imagine that they’re all sterile, too,” Shostak said.
The Kepler folks are a bit more guarded, saying they have their opinions, but their focus is on finding planets of similar size to Earth. Not just close in size but also just the right distance from their sun to perhaps support life. Scientists refer to this as the “Goldilocks zone.”
“Kepler is just the first step,” Principal Investigator Bill Borucki said. “It says, 'here are Earth-sized planets. Here’s how many there are. And here are which number of them are in the habitable zone.' ”
The Kepler science team is making new discoveries of planet candidates, it seems, every day. They call them candidates until they are verified. They've found more than 1,200, including about 50 in that habitable zone.
“From our consoles, from our computers, we are exploring the universe. We are literally finding new worlds just like the European navigators did when they crossed the Atlantic 500 years ago,” Project Scientist Natalie Batalha said.
Even the planets they’re finding not like other Earths are bizarre. There’s one at least twice the size of Jupiter and another with the density of Styrofoam. “No one,” Borucki said, “expected that.”
The bottom line is, as astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told me, “We’re just going through this amazing period where all the different new tools we’re bringing to bear both with ground-based telescopes and space telescopes just give us these gobsmacking revelations about what’s going on.”
So what it comes down to is this: While there may be other life out there, the reality is that the universe is such a big place, we’re not going for a visit to our celestial neighbors anytime soon. Consider it this way: Kepler is finding planets in our Milky Way galaxy, our own backyard. But they are still so far away, it could be 50 or perhaps 100 years before we have telescopes capable enough to actually see exactly what they look like.
As for life out there, even if we never find it, the universe is so big, could we ever really say we know we’re alone?