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Astronomer’s Advice to Congress About Alien Life May Surprise You

Don’t worry… this isn’t another article that will begin with that lame and redundant little catchphrase of X-Files fame (yeah, you know the one we’re talking about, so quit playing dumb). But whether or not the truth is out there anyplace within reach, leading astronomers seem to think that the prospects for finding alien life just might be.

In a recent presentation before the U.S. House Committee, Seth Shostak and Dan Werthimer of California’s SETI Research Center argued that the search for alien life elsewhere in the cosmos “is plausible and warrants scientific inquiry.”

Seth Shostack

Seth Shostack

The Independent reported Thursday that,

“In the last fifty years, evidence has steadily mounted that the components and conditions we believe necessary for life are common and perhaps ubiquitous in our galaxy,” said Werthimer in his written testimony.

“There may even be primitive extraterrestrial life in our own solar system, perhaps on a moon of Jupiter or Saturn. Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, is thought to have a liquid water ocean beneath its icy surface, perhaps a good environment for life as we know it.”

The discussion before U.S. lawmakers regarding alien life and it’s likelihood for existence is hopeful for many, particularly those who have long posited that there may indeed be evidence that supports the existence of extraterrestrials, as well as their possible visits to planet Earth.

During a two year period between 1966 and 68, the University of Colorado UFO Project (informally called The Condon Committee in reference to the head of the committee, Edward Condon) sought to determine whether any scientific evidence existed to support the existence of unidentified flying objects. The United States Air Force’s Project Bluebook had spent more than a decade gathering data on UFO sightings and other purported encounters, and with hope of wiping their hands of the project, by 1966 had begun to search for a scientific panel that would review the data Bluebook had collected.

The famous determination by Condon and his experts had been damning in UFO circles: despite a modicum of compelling data, none presented a strong case for the existence of extraterrestrial UFOs. Hence, any further scientific inquiry into the matter seemed to be little more than a costly misadventure, at very best. UFO theorists to this day often cite the Condon committee’s resolute dismissal of any reality behind UFOs as a death knell for future serious scientific inquiry into UFO phenomenon.

J. Allen Hynek, once a skeptic and USAF scientific advisor turned believer, had argued that the Condon Committee’s determinations did little for scientific inquiry into the UFO puzzle, complaining that Condon and his review board had “avoided mentioning that there was embedded within the bowels of the report a remaining mystery,” and that they “had been unable to furnish adequate explanations for more than a quarter of the cases examined.” However, similar scientific determinations that have played down the UFO enigma have occurred elsewhere over the years, including those carried out by the U.S. based RAND Corporation, as well as the British Ministry of Defense. 

Will there be a future for the study of alien life that may exist in our universe? Perhaps the answers (very literally) lay in the stars on this one.


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  • Corrected. Thank you.

  • Seth sez we’ll find evidence of ET in the next 20 years. But like my friend Greg Taylor mentioned on Twitter, hasn’t he been saying that since the last 20 years already?

  • Jorge Rhor

    I remember just 20 years ago, that the “great” piece of news was that in order for life to exist outside of this world, there needs to be water as the primary component in any stellar body.

    After a few years it was amazing to me (since I did not follow this kind of subjects as closely as I do now) to see so many articles talking about frozen water on the moon, or Mars, or different natural satellites, as facts.

    Now we know that there is life that it is not carbon based as we are; I’m talking about bacteria found on volcano craters, living out of sulfur (I think).

    With rovers carrying pretty basic tech for what we could actually do “exploring” a foreign planet or the moon, it seems like it is only a matter of time, let’s say, another 5 years, until NASA or the Chinese for that matter, release the “news” that they have found fossilized microbes under the surface of either Mars or the moon.

    My point being, whatever anybody says we will find life on another planet, the people on control are doing it by pieces, slowly opening up the idea that in fact, we are not the ultimate creation of god, and that we are simply one of millions.

  • Pretty much agreed on everything you wrote, except for the part about the bacteria found in volcanic craters. All life on Earth is carbon-based, and whether there could be life elsewhere in the Universe based on other elements in the periodic table, it’s still a matter of heated debate among astrobiologists –io9 published an excellent article about the subject; read it here.

  • Randy

    In my opinion life is probably rare, multicellular life is probably very rare, and intelligent life is probably extremely rare and inevitably destroys itself with advanced technology. Here’s why.

    It took around 1.5 billion years for prokaryotes (single celled organisms with no cell membranes) to evolve into eukaryotes (single celled organisms with cell membranes). It took another billion years for eukaryotes to evolve into the first multicellular organisms. About one billion years after that the only intelligent life to ever arise on the planet appeared (early hominids including Neanderthals and the Cro-Magnon man).

    While life and even intelligent life clearly did evolve on Earth, the amount of time it took seems to be saying that water + carbon + energy does not necessarily = life. The evolution from non life to intelligent life appears to have required several low probability events, given that a billion years passed between them. Of course it is impossible to actually measure the probability of these events right now, because we only have one sample: Earth. But the unbridled optimism that if we find liquid water we will necessarily find life, is not founded and seems at odds with what we have observed on Earth.

    On to the next thing… If there is intelligent life, where is it hiding? The galaxy is close to thrice the age of the Earth, so if intelligent life and civilization are common, there must have been many civilizations who came before us. Some would be billions of years older than humanity. But there is no sign of them on the airwaves or here on Earth.

    One possibility for SETI’s disheartening failure is that civilizations only communicate with radio waves for a century or two and then move onto something like lasers, which you can only see if they are aimed at you. This is a possibility.

    But we still have to ask, where are their probes and spaceships? Autonomous space probes that can travel to other star systems and build copies of themselves are not at all fanciful, we know of no hard limit that would preclude their creation. Indeed they don’t even seem too far on the horizon. Our artificial intelligence technology is nearly advanced enough now and the necessary propulsion technology like solar sails or nuclear propulsion are easy to envision existing in a hundred years time. Why have such probes not visited Earth and if they have, why didn’t they leave any copies in orbit?

    There are plenty possible explanations. That we are in a big zoo. That aliens all develop extremely addicting video games and lose interest in the real world. But the simplest explanation seems to be that there simply are not many aliens.