Finding Life Outside

Our Future in Space: Finding Life Outside

Alan Binder

I have no doubts whatsoever that there’s life, possibly even in our solar system, but elsewhere. We’re finding more and more extraterrestrial planets. The precursors for proteins and stuff are in intergalactic clouds and so on and so forth. We know all these extremophiles that live on the weirdest places on Earth—three miles down, for pity’s sake, eating rock. Life on Earth is in every niche you can think of, eating anything you can think of, even the weirdest things in the world.

In terms of Mars, okay, the meteorite that shows the possible fossils is very controversial, but we’re finding water all over the place. Viking landed, and it was geocentric in its thinking, because as the biologists said, we can only make experiments reflecting our knowledge of life. It was criticized for that, because how do you know that the stuff is going to eat what you’re giving it? Well, we don’t, but that’s the best we can do. We felt the camera was probably the best life-detector, because if something was walking around, you’d see it.

Clearly Mars is a very complex planet. We’re seeing extreme evidence of a water history. A lot of the things are there which would lead you to think that there is life there. Titan, that’s getting very interesting. I guess the thing is, we know how to make the precursors of life, and build up complex organic molecules naturally. I’m not a biologist, I’m a hard-rock type planetary scientist—to me, life is just a natural consequence of planetary evolution, and we will probably find it in places we never dreamed of. Venus, who knows? Venus was certainly a more hospitable planet long, long ago, and if life ever did get started there, life seems to manage to stay around, at least in the microbial form.

I think as we expand into the solar system there’s a reasonable chance we will find life, and I’m convinced that as we expand—as I believe we will—out of the solar system that we will start to find planets where life exists.

Whether or not you get intelligent life is another question. It’s very surprising that SETI [Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence] has still not heard a word. And they have expanded their search a long ways. You’ve got to wonder why. Is intelligent life very seldom? Or does intelligent life terminate itself the way we’re capable of? Or has natural disasters taken out intelligent life? There are many natural disasters that wipe the slate pretty clean. I don’t know. Life, yeah. Intelligent life is probably less frequent, but I’m sure the universe is awfully big and I can’t believe we’re it.

Alfred McEwen

There’s definitely life out there somewhere in the universe. For it to only be here would be totally extraordinary. But where it is, I don’t know; whether it’s in our solar system, I don’t know. It’s all faith at this point. Some people are convinced it’s there just because it’s so tenacious here on Earth—in extreme environments, any place at all it has a chance of existing, it does exist. But we have no real information. There’s some controversial claims about Mars, but basically not accepted by the science community. There’s no real evidence for life—yet.

But it’s a great thing to search for, and I really like the search for life as an overriding science theme for exploration, because it is a science theme, first of all. It isn’t just planting a flag and being patriotic, like going to the Moon was. In order to address that question, you have to address every other scientific question, about the geologic history, the nature of the atmosphere, the space environment. There isn’t anything that is left out of the scientific investigations.