In an infinite Universe, there must be other life. There is no bigger question. It is time to commit to finding the answer. – Stephen Hawking
My imagination caught fire this week with the discovery of a tantalizing “signal” coming from a planet around the star Proxima Centauri. This star is closest to Earth at just 4.2 light years (4.0×1013 km). Apparently someone within the group of astronomers searching for extraterrestrial signals leaked this information to the Guardian newspaper Okay, there is a huge amount of checking that needs to be done, and scientists have already been poo-pooing the possible discover, but let’s dream for a while. When I stare at the stars, I don’t see the dictionary definition of star –any massive self-luminous celestial body of gas that shines by radiation derived from its internal energy sources. I see wonder.
Wonder is the stuff that dreams are made of, and also the core of science-fiction. If you are a sci-fi fan you may already be familiar with the three stars in the Alpha Centauri system. Most recently the stars played host to the moon Pandora from “Avatar”. Or if giant friggin’ robots are your thing you might know that the Transformers homeworld of Cybertron was original from the Alpha Centauri system. Going back to the greatest science-fiction series of all time – Star Trek, the system was used multiple times in various iterations. Babylon 5, Lost in Space, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and dozens of novels have featured Alpha Centauri. So why not dream a little longer?
From left to right they are: NASA Administrator Dr. James D. Fletcher; DeForest Kelley, who portrayed Dr. “Bones” McCoy on the series; George Takei (Mr. Sulu); James Doohan (Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott); Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura); Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock); series creator Gene Roddenberry; U.S. Rep. Don Fuqua (D.-Fla.); and, Walter Koenig (Ensign Pavel Chekov).
When NASA built the very first space shuttle, thousands of Star Trek fans petition the president to name it Enterprise after the ship in Star Trek. It was never flown, and was preserved by the Smithsonian for years and is now on display in New York. Tens of thousands of scientists around the world were inspired by science-fiction. Writers and artists paint their visions into the minds of others. All of you reading this have escaped into various fictional worlds and marveled at the artifacts of artistic dreamers. When I read the news about a possible signal from the stars, I didn’t immediately douse the spark of wonder. I fanned the flames of the imagination.
Image: NASA This is an exoplanet (the red spot on the lower left), orbiting the brown dwarf star 2M1207 . 2M1207b is the first exoplanet directly imaged.
Here are a few facts The first planet (exoplanet) orbiting another star was discovered in the early 1990s. According to NASA, as of today, over 4,324 exoplanets have been confirmed with thousands more candidates being investigated. https://exoplanets.nasa.gov/ . There is a group called “Breakthrough Listen”, which is the largest ever scientific research program aimed at finding evidence of civilizations beyond Earth it surveys the 1,000,000 closest stars to Earth. It scans the center of our galaxy and the entire galactic plane. According to the group their equipment is sensitive enough to hear a common aircraft radar transmitting to us from any of the 1000 nearest stars. It could detect a 100 watt laser from 25 trillion miles away.
This is not the first potential signal from beyond the Earth. In 1977 the 72 second “Wow” Signal. In 2003 the Seti@Home project observed a 1420MHz burst of radio waves, known as SHGb02+14a, three times before it vanished. Back in 1996, I was teaching groups of science teachers about the environment, and how to use the Internet in their classrooms. That summer, scientists claimed to have found microscopic fossils of bacteria on a meteorite from Mars. President Clinton even gave a speech about the potential for life on Mars. That summer, dozens of science teachers and I wondered about the possibilities about life beyond this world.
Are We alone in the Universe? Please comment below