By Mike Medeiros
Welcome to the Spirit of Trek, a weekly column where we identify and celebrate Gene Roddenberry’s vision by discovering how its messages have started to permeate throughout humanity’s collective consciousness by looking for it on the Internet and within popular culture. One of the major themes of Star Trek has been of exploration, seeking new life and new civilizations, and expanding the realm of human knowledge and understanding. This week, we’re going to be examining the progress being made to find extraterrestrial life.
For as long as humans have walked the earth and looked up to the night sky, we have wondered if there is life out there. Our understanding of the stars has evolved from a perspective wrapped in myth to one proven by science. The pursuit of that question has spurred invention and moved our knowledge of the universe forward. We still do not have the answer to the question, but we are starting to uncover evidence that there very well be life out there in the vastness of the universe.
But, what is life? There doesn’t seem to be a clear cut answer to this question. Looking close to home, the definition seems clear. We are alive as are the many species of animals found on our small ball of rock. However, it isn’t always clear. Bacteria are considered to be a life form, while a virus is not. Before we can find life in the universe, we must first define it on earth. So, far our best definition of life only describes a number of processes common to the life forms on our little world. Some of these processes include: homeostasis, organization, metabolism, growth, adaption, response to stimuli, and reproduction.
By looking at the wide range of life forms on our own planet, we know a liquid, such as water is required for life to flourish. In space, liquid water exist on planets found within a specific region of a solar system known as the habitable zone. Outside of the habitable zone, we have found liquids on moons around Jupiter and Saturn. Europa and Ganymede have solid ice on its surface, but there is evidence that liquid water exists just below the surface. Saturn’s moon Titan may have methane lakes while Neptune’s Trton has liquid nitrogen geysers – indicating liquids beneath its surface.
We have even found evidence that liquid water once existed on Mars and may still exist below the surface. Recently NASA announced that the Curiosity rover had located water, sulfur, and other chemicals associated with life, but it has yet to find any organic compounds to indicate its current status on the red planet. NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and ESA’s Mars Express discovered what appears to be an underground lake beneath McLaughlin Crater that sometimes spills out onto the surface.
Although the possibility of finding some form of microbial life in our solar system is possible, it is doubtful that we will find intelligent life here. In order to find the elusive Vulcan, we will have to look for evidence of it out among the stars.
In 1995, scientists discovered the first planet outside of our solar system. It was a Jupiter sized world, but it was proof that there were planets out there amongst the stars. Then, in 2008, European astronomers found three Earth-sized planets around a star 42-light years away. Since then, more than 2,740 planets orbiting 2,036 stars have been discovered, thanks in part to the Kepler space telescope. In December of last year, five planets have been found orbiting a star only 12-light years away with one within the habitable zone of the Tau Ceti star system. Future Kirk will have some where to send Kahn.
SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, has been searching the night sky for microwave radio signals since as early as 1959. The Soviet Union began its own SETI program in the 1960s, while NASA began their observations in the 70s until the late 80s. However, the SETI Institute, as it is known today in the US, has only been around since 1984. Over the years their methodologies and technologies used in their search has evolved from simple radio to optical experimentation. SETI has used telescopes, arrays, and observatories on earth and in space to help them search the skies for evidence of intelligent life. The Square Kilometer Array (SKA) telescope will be completed in 2024 in the Australian outback, and will be the world’s largest, most sensitive, and fastest radio telescope. Although, our search for Spock has yielded little in the way of proof, as of yet, perhaps, we’ll have better luck once the James Webb Space Telescope is launched in five years.
The Drake Equation is a formula used to estimate the number of potential intelligent civilizations in our galaxy. The formula is controversial because it doesn’t provide consistent answers due to the number of unknown variables that it uses. Even with so many extra-solar planets, and the size of the universe, surely the Vulcans are out there. However, for the sake of argument, I must present the Fermi Paradox, which states that if intelligent life is so prevalent, why haven’t we found any evidence of their existence yet? There is no concrete answer to that question, but Michio Kaku offers a reasonable response in the form of an analogy about an ant colony next to a ten-lane super highway.
Despite the unlikelihood that they would want to speak with us, it doesn’t prevent us from continuing to search the universe for signs of intelligence. You can get involved with the search for the Vulcan homeworld, through SETI@home, which allows you to donate your idle computer processing power to SETI to help them analyze signals. If you’re interested in helping SETI with their search for Mr. Spock, you can participate by joining the SETI@home project here.
The time has come to wrap up this week’s column. Thank you for joining me on this journey to discover how the Spirit of Trek has started to permeate throughout our culture with the hope that one day, Gene Roddenberry’s vision for humanity’s future will become a reality. If you come across something that you believe embodies the Spirit of Trek on the Internet or within popular culture, please do not hesitate to share it with me. I may discuss it in a future article. Live long and prosper.
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