What Would Happen If We Find Life Outside Earth?

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Pablo Edronkin

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Some say that it could easily become the most important scientific event of all history but what kind of impact it could have on us?

The search for extraterrestrial life is something that scientists do take seriously: Astrobiology or exobiology is a science specifically targeted towards the study of life outside our planet, and even ufology is in some aspects beginning to show indications of a serious scientific trend among some of its researcher. Projects such as SETI, which scans cosmic radio waves in order to try to pick up signals that have not been produced naturally but by sentient beings of any sort is also a task that has gained more acceptation in recent years. But what can we expect about the day - if and when - we finally find that something or someone is alive far from our home planet?

That would indeed largely depend on what we find because one thing would be to be suddenly confronted with primitive life forms and quite another, with intelligent beings, and then, if they are sentient, our reaction would depend on whether they are more advanced than we are or not. Distance would also be a factor for various reasons.

In recent times, NASA announced that methane gas has been found in the atmosphere of Mars, and that this gas has been tracked down to several and very distinct sources on the surface of the red planet, something that leaves us with two basic possibilities:

The gas emanates as a result of a purely mineral, non-organic reactions.

Those methane emanations are of biochemical origin, from living things adapted to the life on that harsh planet, probably underground. In this regard it is important to remember that a few years ago NASA also announced that an interesting meteorite that came from Mars was found in Antarctica: This particular rock, analysed thorough a high power scan microscope shows interesting features such as the signature of chemical and mineral processes related to the presence in water -a t least in our own planet - and what seems to be microfossils of some sort.

If this is the case and primitive life exists or existed at some point in Mars we would, of course, hit the top of the charts in a scientific science, but such an event would be perfectly explainable by an astrobiological phenomenon called panspermia which consists that theoretically life could travel from one celestial body to another by piggybacking on meteorites. Indeed, rocks such as the one from Mars that hit the Earth tens of thousands of years ago are expelled from the surface of any solid planet impacted by an object - meteorite - charged with sufficient kinetic energy. These meteorites are quite literally, planetary shrapnel. Then, since the Earth and Mars are fairly close, panspermia could take place in one direction or the other and suitable life forms could have survived the initial impact, the trip and the entry in the other planet's atmosphere.

Other possible outcome of this quest for life would be to find it in some extrasolar planet, such as Gliese 581c. This is an interesting celestial body of about five times the mass of our own that lies within what is known as the habitable sun of its sun, Gliese. The habitable zone is a range of orbital distances from any star within which water could exist in a liquid state, meaning that if Gliese581c has water - and it seems that it has, thanks to analysis performed on its apparent density - then life as we know it could form. The Earth is within our sun's habitable zone while Mars lies just barely outside it, meaning that if a little bit temperature is provided there, life could thrive. Then, deep under the ground temperatures tend to be higher than in the surface and so, the underground Martian scene could be considered as inside the habitable zone too. The star Gliese is smaller than our sun, so its habitable zone sports smaller radii and 581c is closer than Earth with respect to the sun, but it is a habitable interval nevertheless.

By performing different sorts of tests on a planet such as that one it would be possible to find signs of biological activity, such as the presence of certain gases on its atmosphere. Be it Gliese581c or any other planet found within the habitable zone of any star, scientists could arrive to the conclusion that life could exist there based just on such remote testing but that would not be enough to determine whether that life is intelligent or not and if it is, whether it has some degree of technological capability or not. For that we would need to find evidence of some sort of activity, such as the emission of certain radiowaves.

Aside from that, finding life forms that are intelligent, technological, with spacefaring capabilities and with technology enabling them to travel between starts would be extremely rare and interesting. We, as a species, have not yet fulfilled all of these conditions because we are just getting in touch with the technologies and physical requirements for true, practical interstellar navigation. In this sense, considering the stage of technological evolution of ourselves we might make contact with advanced intelligent beings in one of two most probable ways:

By radio contact using means such as SETI.

By being visited by them.

Maybe one day we will visit the stars and go find aliens using technologies such as the warp drive envisioned by Alcubierre but for now. And unless one of our probes roaming the solar system happens to cross an alien spaceship - something highly improbable - the other two scenarios that I have just mentioned should be considered the most likely. In this sense there are three very significant things that should be taken into consideration:

The development of technologies to enable superluminal space travel is no longer a matter of pure science fiction. It is a topic that is getting some serious attention by the scientific community and even NASA has laid the foundations for the study of the advanced propulsion systems required for faster-than-light travel, a thought that seems increasingly possible thanks to very serious research done by people like Alcubierre, Van den Broeck and others. Their papers seem to suggest that FTL travel would be a possibility either for robotic as well as crewed spacecraft in some decades or perhaps a century. There are of course, many obstacles to overcome, but NASA and other space agencies as well as research establishments are trying to organise the whole effort in such a way as to separate the purely speculative thinking from realistic, scientific-grade ideas.

What has been researched regarding UFOS should be taken into account as well. It is important to clarify one thing: Aside from all sorts of fakes, frauds and honest but incorrect beliefs in aliens, there are some circumstantial arguments as well as logical scientific hypotheses about the possible existence of true-life aliens - the Drake equation comes to mind. Most of what is being said about UFOS is simply untrue, but there is indeed a percentage of cases that seem suggestive and there are some credible witnesses that have indeed spoken about the issue: There are reports made by several pilots - both civilian and military - and even an astronaut. Dr. Edgar Mitchell, that have confirmed the fact that visits by aliens do have taken place. There is no public hard proof of that yet- some speak about a cover-up it just might be that nothing happened - but credible witnesses have brought the whole issue into a new dimension. If what they say is true and we come in contact with an alien civilisation, we would have to carefully consider the consequences of such contact, because according to our own history, the contact between two cultures, being one far more advanced in technological terms than the other, almost never ended well. So, we would have to prepare ourselves to asses the political, social, religious, and military implications of such an event.

It is highly unlikely that if we ever come across alien life we would be confronted with beings at virtually the same level of biological as well as intellectual and technical evolution. The two most probable outcomes in such a case would be that us or them would have the upper hand. If they come and visit us, certainly they would be at an advantage and we would be at the greatest risk; being less advanced we would probably benefit more if the whole thing is well managed. However, if we find them at a distance or we go thorough interstellar space for a meeting, then we would probably have the upper hand by finding something or someone between - say - the stage of protozoans and the middle ages. That would make us responsible for the well being of that ecosystem.

In the end, we should assume that is more probable that we will run across some form of alien life one day than the contrary. For about one hundred years radio waves have been going out from our planet and now anyone within a sphere of a 100 light years radius might be able to hear us. It is indeed possible that someone or has already detected our presence or at the very least we should star acting and thinking as if that had already taken place or will be a fact in a matter of years. We should ready ourselves because we might also make contact with various forms of life, in different systems and at different stages in their evolution; they will come to us or we will go to visit them. Thus, not thinking in the good and the not so good possibilities related to that, given the circumstances, would be extremely imprudent. We cannot gamble on the future of our planet.

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