The Search for One of Humanity’s Most Profound Question
In 1896, Nikola Tesla believed that highest degree of his wireless electrical transmission mechanism could be used to contact the intelligent life on Mars. In 1899, Tesla thought he had found a strange signal when Mars was set in the night sky. Later, the expert analysis stated that Tesla might have only picked signals from other radio experiments of the time (Guglielmo Marconi was engaged in radio experiments during that era). This is marked as one of early instance when mankind believed they can contact intelligent alien life through exchange of signals and other experiments. In 1959 or 1960 the first modern SETI – Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence — experiments began. For decades, cosmologists, astrophysicists, astrobiologists, astronautics engineers, planetary scientists have embroiled themselves in pushing the horizon to widen human’s search for alien intelligent life.
Yet, the existence of cerebral extra-terrestrials were strictly contained to literary and film-makers’ brilliant imagination (plus the endless false alarms and fake theories). However, as we are slowly crawling through the 21st century, chorus of scientific voices is reiterating that we are just two decades (or less) away from finding alien life-form . The punch-line is that it would be microbial life; not intelligent life. Intelligent or not, still it would be great achievement or learning experience to discover tiny microscopic organisms out there. NASA scientists have already started gearing up to look for evidence of habitability in other worlds. Their three prime candidates are Jupiter’s moons Europa, Gaynmede (largest satellite in our solar system) and Saturn’s moon Enceladus. They are all icy worlds, yet scientists have found valid evidence to believe that beneath the cold hardened surface, mysterious ocean or pockets of liquid water are flowing so as to evolve life.
Scientists often take pains to underline the fact that these life-searching missions aren’t just vain-glorious experiments but will make valuable, unfathomable contributions to science (if found, alien microbial life may point us to uncover Goldilocks condition for other forms of complex alien life). Over the years, the scientific community has had many disagreements over the succinct definition of life. Finding life beyond earth would move us few inches to piece together that definition.
NASA’s Viking rovers in 1976 had landed on the red planet to collect soil samples and observe for signs of life. The Martian desert soils haven’t yet provided any incontrovertible evidence of life. But ever since, the Galileo spacecraft in 1997 took the close-up of Europa, showing pure water ice and reddish stripes (considered to be salts from ocean), the call to study Europa’s humongous ocean and its mysterious geysers have become intense (no chance for life to be active on the surface of Europa). NASA’s orbital satellite to Europa is scheduled to launch by 2020 and its landing craft could touch down the icy moon as early as 2031. The lander would analyze ice samples 10 centimeters below the surface. On-board microscopes and various other instruments would look for organic materials and microbes to straightforwardly answer if Europa’s ocean possesses any life.
For the past few years, scientists are betting on the many recently discovered exoplanets (planets orbiting a star outside the solar system) to find intelligent life forms or earth-like habitable atmosphere. NASA’s much-awaited flagship program (developed in collaboration with European and Canadian Space Agency) James Webb Space Telescope – primarily designed to observe infrared light from very distant objects – is anticipated to bio-markers in different exoplanets. Other (advanced data-driven) detection devices are also in development to study the atmosphere of Earth-like planets, far removed from ours.
Of course, the other big question haunting human race is ‘how would an intelligent alien life respond to our existence?’ Renowned physicist Mr. Stephen Hawking had already conveyed his fears that an advanced alien civilization may wipe us out like colony of ants. His fears and misgivings arise from the basic perception that human beings have terrible history of mistreating life and so why would (advanced) alien civilization be any different. However, Stephen Hawking has confided that his fear over intelligent aliens triumphs the desire to learn about the existence of intelligent aliens. Mr. Hawking is part of an initiative called Breakthrough Listen (to search only for signs of intelligent life; will scan 1 million stars in the Milky Way Galaxy). Many other group of scientists assert that an advanced extra-terrestrial civilizations would have grown out of the evolutionary burdens to conquer violence or myopic thinking (some theorize that such serene life forms would have already visited earth or known of earth’s existence); may be, as in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ the alien life forms would be beings of pure energy and spirit. Whatever the destination or answer is, humans race will constantly be on the look out for many more possibilities.
“The barriers to distance are crumbling; one day we shall meet our equals among the stars.”
- Arthur C. Clarke, in the foreword of his novel 2001: A Space Odyssey