ET may be able to phone home after all.
There are countless movies and stories about extraterrestrial life. Skeptics shake their head at suggestions we are not alone but there is much evidence to suggest aliens exist – and it doesn’t all come from a crackhead. In fact, this year NASA scientists predicted that within 20 years we will find credible evidence of life in outer space.
“I think in the next 20 years we will find out we are not alone in the universe,” announced NASA astronomer Kevin Hand, during a public talk in Washington that showcased the US space agency’s top extra-terrestrial life specialists.
In just five years, up to 5,000 planets have been identified by the Kepler telescope, suggesting there must be millions more in the universe and that we should not imagine ourselves to be the only place where life has miraculously sprung into being.
“What we didn’t know five years ago is that perhaps 10 to 20 per cent of stars around us have Earth-size planets in the habitable zone. It’s within our grasp to pull off a discovery that will change the world forever,” said Matt Mountain, director and Webb telescope scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
“We believe we’re very, very close in terms of technology and science and actually finding the other Earth and our chance to find signs of life on another world,” Dr Sarah Seager from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said.
The NASA scientists sent this message to the world, loud and clear: “Our understanding of the universe around us is on the verge of being dramatically changed forever.”
But NASA did not specify “intelligent” life, just evidence of life, which could include a form of algae. NASA would not be swayed – not publicly, that’s for sure – by the substantial evidence reported over the years by people ranging from the guy who talks to the trees in the park to astronauts and pilots.
Throughout history, sightings of UFOs have been dismissed but UFOs are a recurrent theme, as in The Madonna with Saint Giovannino painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494). The painting depicts the Virgin Mary in the foreground with, in the background, what looks like a man gazing in awe at an object that looks similar to modern depictions of a UFO.
Even astronauts have reported seeing UFOs. Three days into the Apollo 11 flight its crew sent a message to mission control asking, “Do you have any idea where the S-4B is with respect to us?”
Mission control replied that the S-4B was 10,000 kilometres behind them. What then, the astronauts asked, was the object flying beside them through space? No one knows. Certainly, something was riding alongside Apollo. It has been suggested the object/s were stray panels discarded by the vehicle, but others argue the object demands more explanation.
Dr David Baker, a senior scientist on the Apollo 11 project, has said it is not been uncommon for astronauts to report seeing UFOs. That dates back to the early earth-orbit space flights.
Major Gordon Cooper, one of the original Mercury astronauts, was shot into space on May 15, 1963. During his 22nd orbit of the world he told the tracking station at Muchea, Australia, that he could see a glowing, greenish object ahead of him quickly approaching his capsule. The UFO was picked up by the tracking radar and the sighting reported by the National Broadcast Company who was covering the flight. When Cooper landed, reporters were told they couldn’t ask questions about the sighting.
According to a taped interview by J. L. Ferrando, Major Cooper, a longtime believer in UFOs, said, “For many years I have lived with a secret, in a secrecy imposed on all specialists in astronautics. I can now reveal that every day, in the USA, our radar instruments capture objects of form and composition unknown to us. And there are thousands of witness reports and a quantity of documents to prove this, but nobody wants to make them public. Why? Because authority is afraid that people may think of God knows what kind of horrible invaders. So the password still is, we have to avoid panic by all means.”
In 1997 at Ohio State University, The Big Ear radio telescope picked up an unusual signal. Big Ear used numbers and letters to form the strength of a signal, 0 being meaningless noise and Z being a strong radio signal. Dr Jerry R. Ehman was studying the data from the telescope when a radio signal came through at 6EQUJ5. This signal surprised the astronomer so much so that he circled the signal on the data sheet and wrote “Wow”. The transmission lasted 72 seconds and came from the direction of the constellation Sagittarius. Non-believers have argued that the signal must have been of earthly origin, but that seems highly unlikely because the signal was in a frequency range for restricted use on Earth. Naturally, some people suggest the signal must have come from a spacecraft, but the best anyone can say with certainty is “unexplained”.
The Drake Equation, a hypothesis devised by radio astronomer Frank Drake, a pioneer of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), attempts to estimate the number of planets in the galaxy that might hold intelligent life capable of radio communication. The equation takes in these factors:
N – the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible
R* – the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy
ƒp – the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne – the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
ƒℓ – the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
fi – the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
ƒc – the fraction of civilisations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L – the length of time such civilisations release detectable signals into space.
Unfortunately, the last four factors cannot be definitively calculated, but using guesstimate figures, the equation can produce an answer of anywhere from 20 to 100 million.
A Wikipedia entry says, usefully, “As many skeptics have pointed out, the Drake equation can give a very wide range of values, depending on the assumptions. One of the few points of agreement is that the presence of humanity means the probability of intelligence arising is greater than nil. Beyond this, however, the values one may attribute to each factor in this equation tell more about a person’s beliefs than about scientific facts.”
The Fermi paradox, posed by Enrico Fermi, one of the pioneers of nuclear physics, asks “if multiple planets like Earth exist and have given rise to intelligent life, why have we not yet come into contact with it?” The question remains unanswered, but perhaps not forever.
“Do we believe there is life beyond Earth?” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, himself a former astronaut, said at the recent seminar. “I would venture to say that most of my colleagues here today say it is improbable that, in the limitless vastness of the Universe, we humans stand alone.” – Alana Scott
Top photo still from E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial.