Searching for Life in Outer Space
LIFE in outer space. What does that bring to your mind? Do you think of science-fiction novels and films about rocket trips to distant planets, exploring new worlds or communicating with civilizations at the ends of the universe?
Or do you take seriously the possibility of there being life beyond the earth, extraterrestrial life as it is called? If so, then you may be aware that some scientists believe that the study of life beyond the earth (termed “exobiology”) offers the prospect of your enjoying longer life, better health, more peace and vastly increased knowledge.
Today numerous scientists and serious thinkers are devoted to locating or contacting life in outer space, such as on other planets. The report “The Possibility of Intelligent Life in the Universe” to the United States Congress’ Committee on Science and Technology stated:
“The age-old concept that man is alone in the universe is gradually fading out. . . . Recent estimates by people of some stature suggest a probability of at least one million advanced civilizations in the Milky Way alone. The process has begun to search for methods to contact these other civilizations.”
Why do they feel that there may be other advanced civilizations? Certain scientists reason: ‘There are millions upon millions of galaxies like our Milky Way, which itself has some 200,000,000,000 stars like our sun. So there must be planets around many of these suns, and advanced civilizations on some of them.’ Does that seem reasonable to you? The conviction is so strong in some quarters that massive efforts are under way worldwide to discover extraterrestrial life and communicate with it.
What Is Being Done?
If you traveled to Arecibo in the mountains of Puerto Rico, you would find a gigantic telescope operating. No, it is not a telescope with glass lenses or mirrors, nor an eyepiece through which you could look. Basically it is an enormous aluminum bowl 1,000 feet (305 m) wide, with a collecting area of 20 acres (8 ha). This is not an optical telescope, but a radio telescope. It is a specialized form of antenna designed to collect natural radio noises from deep in space. But it could also receive radio transmissions from advanced civilizations elsewhere in the universe, if such exist.
Though the United States’ telescope at Arecibo is exceptionally large, weighing 625 tons, it is by no means the only such device. The Soviet Union, Great Britain and other nations are also listening to outer space with instruments of this sort. They are tuning in to the universe, seeking intelligent messages, even as you tune a portable radio and turn its antenna in a search for your favorite news station. The hope is that not only are there intelligent beings on other planets, but that they are sending messages that we can pick up.
It cost $17,000,000 (U.S.) to build the radio telescope at Arecibo, and it costs more than $4,000,000 a year to operate it. If you can imagine the combined cost of such efforts in all lands, you can appreciate that the search for life in space is a serious matter.
But such costs are mere pennies compared to what CYCLOPS would cost. Proposed by United States scientists, CYCLOPS would be a concentrated bank of some 1,500 antennas, each 100 meters in diameter, that could be turned in unison by a computer. It is estimated that this project, covering 25 square miles (65 km2), would cost up to $20,000,000,000 to build and $100,000,000 a year to operate.
The zest for contacting life in outer space is not confined to listening. Scientists are also powerfully saying, ‘Hello, out there. Do you read us?’ They are sending messages into outer space.
Ever since we have had radio and television, some electromagnetic transmissions have been seeping into space. But these transmissions have been designed to reach other points on the earth’s surface, not into deep space. So it is felt that even if there were intelligent beings on other planets or in distant galaxies, they probably could not detect and decipher our relatively weak radio and television broadcasts. And given the content of many of these programs, that would hardly be a great loss.
Anyway, serious efforts have recently been under way to beam powerful messages into space. We know that this is possible, for there have been radio and television communications with spacecraft on the moon and with exploring devices sent to Venus and Mars. An exceptional communication effort occurred on November 16, 1974. The radio telescope at Arecibo was turned into a colossal radar transmitter, beaming a message at Messier 13, a star cluster near the edge of the Milky Way, some 24,000 light-years from earth. The message was in a unique code that scientists feel could be deciphered by any civilization technologically advanced enough to receive it.
Yet the messages to outer space have not all been so involved. Pioneer 10, a space vehicle sent toward Jupiter and then on beyond our solar system, had a special plaque attached to it for the information of any extraterrestrial being who found it. The plaque depicted a human male and female, as well as a diagram of the solar system, and the earth as the source of the space probe.
Another such effort was a two-hour copper phonograph record of “earth-sounds” attached to a Voyager spacecraft on its trip through the solar system. The record contained greetings in 50 languages, as well as the “speech” of whales, and sounds such as those of rain, cars and volcanoes. It even included jazz, rock ’n’ roll and classical music selections.
Not waiting to communicate with intelligent life beyond the earth by radio, other scientists have concentrated on the more fundamental step of trying to prove that any such life exists.
You may recall the excitement when “moon rocks” were brought back to earth. The question was, Would they give any evidence of living material, or of former life? Alas, they did not. Then attention focused on the planets, particularly Mars.
Though serious scientists had long since dismissed the possibility of finding ‘men on Mars,’ they did want to search even for microscopic life forms. The Viking I and Viking II vehicles that reached Mars’ surface in 1976 contained special laboratories to analyze Martian soil. Mechanical arms reached out, scooped up some soil and brought it into the laboratories. There it was subjected to long and complicated tests with life-detection instruments. This was a major step in the search for life in outer space.
Why? What Meaning for You?
All this money and all the effort. Why? Is it merely out of curiosity? ‘Far from it,’ might be the response of astronomers, biologists and even many men on the street. “The most exciting thing we can find in science is life on another planet,” says astronomer Frank Drake of the Arecibo project. Similarly, astronomer/biologist Carl Sagan—probably the most widely known and ardent exobiologist—exclaims: “The scientific, logical, cultural and ethical knowledge to be gained by tuning into galactic transmissions may be, in the long run, the most profound single event in the history of our civilization.”
But exactly what is to be gained? you might wonder. In his best-selling book Broca’s Brain, Sagan suggests that advanced technological societies on other planets could offer us the solution to earthly problems: food shortages, population growth, energy supplies, dwindling resources, war and pollution. Sounding even more optimistic, the magazine Omni envisions: “Some advanced civilization might instruct us on how to preserve life, how to avoid disasters and suicide by nuclear war, or by careless destruction of our own earthship’s environment. They might even reveal how we could become immortal.”
It is easy to see why such prospects could generate enthusiasm. But are they distinct possibilities that we can validly consider in connection with the search for life in outer space?
You personally can form your own opinion about the search for extraterrestrial life. Yet you need not just guess. There is evidence that you can consider and that can have a bearing on your future.
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‘Hello, out there. Do you read us?’
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Earth-sounds sent on Voyager: Greetings in 50 languages, whale “speech,” cars, rain, jazz and rock ’n’ roll