NASA announced today (Feb. 22nd) the discovery of seven Earth-sized planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system 40 light years away, three of which are in the habitable zone; however, all seven could contain surface water. With the launch of JWST in 2018 we will know if any have the conditions for life. This is an amazing discovery. But what are the chances of finding basic life like microbes or plant-like life elsewhere in the universe, and how soon will we know?
A recent study using Hubble and other telescopes estimates that there are 2 trillion galaxies in the observable universe. Since the 1990s, which also used Hubble, the accepted number of galaxies was around 120 billion. This is huge news. If each galaxy, rounding current estimates, contains 200 billion stars, that means that there are 2e+24 (or 2•10 with 24 zeros being it) stars. That’s an enormous number!
And if every star has at least one planet?
There is now a commonsense approach to life “out there” in the universe. The universe is simply too vast and full of stars and planets to not have life elsewhere. A popular science figure puts it this way: look at the abundant elements, cooked in stars, then dispersed when they explode, throughout the universe. How much of what is there? The most prominent element is hydrogen, then helium, oxygen, carbon and nitrogen. Barring helium, our own bodies are made up of this ratio +, which according to Neil DeGrasse Tyson, suggests that life can’t be that rare. Jeremy England of MIT further suggests that life naturally evolves from matter capturing energy, then rearranging itself to dissipate that energy in life forming processes. The second law of thermodynamics and entropy thus inherently produces life.
But let’s assume that only one in a billion of those single planets (giving ourselves ample room) revolving around stars have life. That would leave us with 2e+15 planets with life on them! It becomes clear just what a life factory the universe probably is.
Will we ever know about it? Yes. Within the decade we are sending the James Webb Space Telescope, as well as TESS and other telescopes out into our surrounding space to look both for habitable planets (by now we know about thousands of exoplanets) and their signatures of elements using spectrometry to see if the right combinations for life are present.
A private company has started the Blue Project to search for life in Alpha Centauri, our closest star system. Breakthrough Starshot will send a satellite by laser to Proxima Centauri, the closest star to us within that system, which will take roughly 20 years, where we now know a habitable planet revolves.
Elon Musk wants to send humans to Mars in the next decade, and will search for the remnants of life there, and NASA’s Mars 2020 mission will be sent to specifically search for life in the water of its recurring slope lineae. So far, other missions like Curiosity have purposely attempted to stay away from Mars’ water in order not to contaminate it. Other projects include looking for life in the inner-oceans of moons like Europa and Enceladus.
I think it’s very likely we will find evidence of life elsewhere in the universe within this decade, or the next.
Does that mean flying saucers or ancient aliens really were here? Probably not. We need evidence after all, and more than the ambiguous symbols of our ancestors, or notoriously unreliable eyewitness testimonies. Does that mean that intelligent life is out there? Yes, most likely, but because of their relatively short lifespans, based on what we know about ourselves, they could be long gone or yet to be. But most likely, based on the numbers, at this moment in time, there are other intelligent species existing in the universe, wondering at themselves, though the distance between us could be so great we will never know. Still, it is possible that we may come upon a radio or other electromagnetic signal, or catch sight of a Dyson Sphere in the future.
But it is enough to know there is a very slim chance that we are alone, and that other life exists in the universe. It is enough to know we will find evidence of basic life shortly. We won’t be alone in the universe. That changes the whole game. This would entail a monumental paradigm shift in human consciousness.
We are the universe aware of itself, and the more we find out about ourselves, more is the wonder and meaning. It’s such an exciting time to be alive!