Monday, December 9, 2013

Is there life on other planets?

I am sitting on an airplane, and my seat partner asks me "What do you do for a living?".  When I say that I am an astronomer, the question then becomes "Do you think that there is life out there on other planets?"...  or some variation of that question.

This question, which is asked of me quite often, is one of the biggest questions out there.  Is there life elsewhere in the universe?  If so, is it intelligent life?

For those of you who came to read this post hoping for an answer, I apologize that I do not have one. However, what I can tell you is that there have been amazing advances in astronomy and planetary exploration lately.  Advances that could lead to the detection of extraterrestrial life possibly in our life time.

There are several places to look for extraterrestrial life.  One promising place is not a planet, but is in fact a moon in our own solar system.  One of the moons orbiting Jupiter, named Europa, is completely covered in ice.  However, underneath this ice, it is thought that there is a vast ocean of liquid water.  The fact that there is liquid water and not more ice is related to Jupiter's gravity.  The gravity of Jupiter acts to "stretch" out Europa slightly.  The way that Europa is aligned with Jupiter and other moons orbiting Jupiter leads to this stretching occurring repeatedly.  The continual stretching causes friction within Europa, heating it up, and thus leading to a liquid ocean.

Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, is a giant sphere of ice.  Beneath this ice,
however, is a vast ocean that potentially contains the earliest stages of life.
Courtesy: NASA

Neat huh?  I certainly think so!  And what an excellent place to search for at least the beginning stages of life.  After all, life on Earth started in the ocean and evolved from there.

There are also various missions (such as the Kepler mission) that have detected planets around other stars, some of which have properties very close to Earth.  What if these planets could host life? Maybe even evolved, intelligent life?

I don't know if there is life elsewhere in the universe.  No one knows.  But it would be one of the greatest discoveries of all time if we did find life elsewhere in the universe.

Here's the kicker though.  NASA's budget gets cut every single year.  With each new budget that Congress approves, there is less and less money for NASA to do these amazing things and potentially find life out there.

This is rather frustrating - not only to me, but I would imagine to anyone who realizes the true wonder of the universe and the possibility of extraterrestrial life.  The other frustrating thing is that of the total national budget, NASA accounts for only 0.5%.  That means that for every tax dollar that the average American owes, they send less than a penny to the government to fund these amazing missions.

If NASA's budget continues to get worse, we could very well see the end to these missions.  We may never know the answers to some of the most burning questions that we as humans have.

So, if you are thinking "what can I do to help?", here's a good way to pitch in.  Call your representatives in Congress (or email or tweet to them if you don't like phones) and tell them that you think funding NASA is important.  Does making a phone call really make a difference?  Yes it does! Just like with voting, if ENOUGH people call in, Congress will listen and they will allow NASA to do its job.  They will give NASA the necessary money to continue to do the amazing work that it has done in the past.

If you don't know who your representatives in Congress are, just go here to find out.  It will only take a second.  And just think - your call will make a difference and could help humanity to make one of the most important discoveries of all time.

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