We have all done it. Gone out on warm summer evening and looked up at all the stars in the sky and wondered if someone was standing on planet millions of miles away looking back at us.
The question of whether other planets have life on them has been asked for thousands of years. So far we have only been answered with a deafening silence, but it is not for lack of trying to find out. If life is here, then there is no reason to think that it wouldn’t also exist elsewhere in our galaxy.
But how can we find it? If you want to see if there is an animal living on an island in the ocean, you can simply take a ship to the island and look around. If you can’t take a ship and you want to check from a distance, you could fly over it with a plane and take high definition photos to see if you can spot any little critters. So, сan we do this with other planets?
The first step, taking a boat to another planet, we have already done. On October 18th, 1967 a soviet probe made the first confirmed journey to another planet as it dropped into the atmosphere of Venus. It used an onboard refrigerator to stay cool long enough to end back pictures and reading of the atmosphere and surface. As technology has advanced man-kind has been busy building more and more probes to explore our solar system.
Recently Mars has entered the spotlight as excitement is building for a manned mission to mars in the coming years. While several manned missions sent people to the moon, it would be the first time a human has travelled to another planet. The difficulty is that Mars is just so far away. It currently takes 6 months to make the trip and there are no shortcuts or rest stops along the way. Once there, there is also no greeting party and if there is a problem, there is no way to hitchhike back.
So far, there are no signs of life on Mars. The hope is that once a person is able to stand on the surface and look around, they will be able to turn over the right stone or dig a hole. Even with this, the most optimistic believers of life on Mars, admit that they aren’t hoping for more than a microbe. Even microscopic life as advanced as bacteria is highly unlikely.
There are other places to look within our solar system as well. Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, has liquid water under a layer of ice that could harbor life, although, we are again hoping for little more than a primitive microbe. Not only that, at our current level of technology, it would take years just to get to Europa and the technology to keep humans alive that long is space is still out of reach.
To look for life, advanced life, we need to leave our solar system. The problem with that is that, if Mars is a 6 month journey, the nearest stars to us is an epic quest. If for example, you wanted to take NASA’s Shuttle to Alpha Centari, it would take about 165,000 years. Obviously, we need another solution.
The next best thing to travelling to another star is taking pictures of it. Modern telescopes are getting better and better and every year new pictures of stars and nebula come in with greater detail. But to find life, we need to look at the planets around the stars, not the stars themselves. Several techniques are currently underway to help with this task.
When scientists point a telescope at a star they are able to get a fairly good picture. But to see a small planet orbiting the star is extremely difficult because the bright light from the star quickly drowns out the little bit of light from the planet around it.
Some scientists have had some success by creating solar shades to stop the bright light from stars in order to see the planets around them. This works for the largest planets but doesn’t work as well for the small planets closer to the star that are more likely to harbor life.
A team lead by Dr. Webster Cash at the University of Colorado at Boulder has come up with a method of using a starshade to block the light from the star and see the small, earth-like planets around distant stars. To understand how this works, imagine that you are playing baseball on a sunny day. Someone hits the ball high in the air. When you look up, all you can see in the Sun, but if you put your hand between your eyes and the Sun, you are able to see the ball.
In the same way this new, high-tech solarshade would block the glare from the star and allow researchers to identify these smaller planets. The shade is designed to look similar to a sunflower with pointed pedals at the edges to reduce the glare around the corona of the star.
The technology is groundbreaking and the team is hoping to finish its mission concept by the end of 2015. It is an expensive project with an estimated $3 billion budget and there are still numerous questions to be answered. But the payoff is huge as well.
If successful, the starshade will be able to get a real glimpse of small earthlike planets orbiting other stars. Obviously we won’t have the detail to see if there are people walking around, but we will be able to analyze the atmospheres of such planets and check for water vapor, oxygen and carbon dioxide ratios. With this information, it is easy to calculate whether these can exist naturally at those levels or if there are metabolic processes that create the atmosphere like back home on Earth.
Noosphere Ventures is always asking the next big questions and looking for the next big answer. With the technology in our hands to answer one of the oldest and biggest questions we could ask, we are eager to hear the biggest answer of all.
We work to share our knowledge with all humanity because the Noosphere is a single mind, a single consciousness that is the result of all human thought and technology. And what could unite our Noosphere more than knowing that as we look out to the stars, that there is another planet, just like ours, that really is looking back at us.