Comment »Posted on Tuesday 17 February 2009 at 12:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Space & Astronomy

Two stories out of the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting caught my eye, both for making claims that seem a little bit “out of this world”. Oh yes, that is a poor excuse for a gag.

Speaking at the meeting, held this past weekend in Chicago, Dr Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution in Washington DC said that there could potentially be as many Earth-like planets as there are stars in the universe – one hundred billion trillion, according to the Telegraph, though estimates vary.

Boss predicts that with four years we will find one of these planets in our galaxy – aided perhaps by a new telescope being launched by NASA in three weeks time. Named Kepler after the great mathematician and astronomer, its mission is to seek out planets that could support life.

“We already know enough now to say that the universe is probably loaded with terrestrial planets similar to the Earth,

“We should expect that there are going to be many planets which are habitable, so probably some are going to be inhabited as well.”

If we were to send out unmanned spacecraft to take pictures of a newly discovered planet, Boss estimates it would take at least 2,000 years for us to receive them, because an Earth-like planet could potentially be 30 light years away. If you’re expecting little green men however, you’ll probably be disappointed; Boss expects any life out there to be microscopic organisms.

Also speak at the same meeting was British scientists Professor Paul Davies, who called for a “mission to Earth” in order to look for “alien” creatures who may already be here.

No, he’s not suggesting we draft in Mulder and Scully; rather Davies believes we should search for microscopic life in remote and hostile environments that could potentially have a different biochemistry to our own.

“No planet is more Earth-like than Earth itself,” he said.

“So if life does emerge readily under terrestrial conditions, then perhaps it formed many times on our home planet.

“Life as we know it appears to have had a single common ancestor, yet, could life on Earth have started many times?

“Might it exist on Earth today in extreme environments and remain undetected because our techniques are customized to the biochemistry of known life?”

Davies suggests that the discovery of a “shadow biosphere” would be “the biggest sensation in biology since Darwin”. Such a mission would be much cheaper than looking for life on Mars, and so-called “weird life” may already be lurking in deep sea vents, at the bottom of lakes, and in deserts and caves. The truth is out there…

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