Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The question of extraterrestrial life - It may be resolved sooner than you think

One of the important questions that we will almost certainly answer this century, one way or another, is the question about the existence of life elsewhere in the universe. Actually, we might answer that in the next 10 months or so.

It turns out that there is a tremendous amount of life existing below the surface of the Earth. By some estimates the total mass of living organisms below the surface is as much if not more of the total mass of living organisms above the surface. When you look at another planet such as Mars where the surface conditions are rather harsh, many scientists believe that life is much more likely to exist below the surface of Mars than on its surface. This would also be consistent with surface life developing during a milder Mars climate billions of years ago, then spreading underground and surviving there as much of the Martian atmosphere slowly leaked away into space over the course of billions of years.

If everything goes as planed, in about ten months the most advanced generation yet of spacecraft will land on Mars to look for life. NASA's Phoenix Mission will land on the northern plains and dig three-feet into the soil and ice looking for evidence of microbial life. Should it find any, and some experts think it is likely, then a tremendous set of questions open up. Could this Martian life have come from Earth, or visa-versa? We know that meteor impacts on each planet occasionally jettison rocks into space that eventually crash into the other planet. Or is it based on a chemistry that is total different from any life on Earth? Either way, the discovery of the first extraterrestrial life will put us at the dawn of a major new scientific journey that will eventually tell us much more about our place in the grand scheme of things in the universe.

For an interesting discussion of this topic and its possible consequences, check out this article on Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos Revisited

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