A peek into the abyss

Updated: Nov 14, 2020

At some point in our lives, sitting in our balconies with an untethered brain- we all looked up at the dark abyss above us and embarked upon a journey of mind-numbing thoughts- is someone out there? Every passing decade we have managed to shed some ambiguity on what is out there but the ultimate goal to find an intelligent species is still a distant thought. Let's say, the possibility of finding a planet with any form of life is congruent to the chances of finding that particular grain of sand on a beach maybe even more scarce.


Unarguably, the idea of finding another life form, irrespective of how simple or complex it might be is fascinating. Finding life in our observable universe and to bring theoretical science to the doorstep of practicality is a long outstanding feat for mankind to achieve. Scientists have brought us far in the world of cosmology and deductions made years ago have stood true to test of the time and laid a strong foundation to support towering space exploration works. The ship of imagination that was set assail by the great minds like Eratosthenes, Kepler, Copernicus and many more have sailed uncharted waters and bestowed us with key facts about our very own ocean of stars. As history shows, ideas for interplanetary communication have largely been driven by whatever the contemporary technology allowed – be it lamps, radios or lasers. “You go with what you know,” says Steven Dick, NASA’s Chief Historian. Over two thousand years ago, the ancient Greeks argued over the existence of life on other planets, but the idea really took off after the Copernican revolution, says Dick. “Once it was realized that all the planets go around the Sun, it was not hard to imagine that the other planets could be like Earth.” Galileo, Kepler and others considered the inhabitability of the planets, while being careful not to upset Church authority. Later “the idea blossomed in the 17th century into the ‘plurality of worlds’ debate, but it remained controversial,” adds Dick, who has written several books on the topic. One of the most influential proponents for extraterrestrial life was Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, who wrote a book called Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds in 1686. Despite the interest, there was no recorded discussion of how we might locate or contact these potential aliens until more than a century later.


In current times, the approach of locating an alternative civilization (SETI- search for extraterrestrial intelligence) is a more optimistic, data-driven and science-backed idea. The primary reason why life beyond Earth is conceivable because the numbers suggest so and believing that our existence isn't the only one just sits right, but this might be vague and some might even say it's a frail argument to put forth. To say the very least, we have around trillions of planets per galaxy and probably billions of galaxies in the observable universe. Until and unless we have explored all of it, we cannot rule out the possibility of astrobiology. With this point of view, the probability doesn't seem so bleak and the idea suddenly seems more plausible and palpable. On August 15, 1977, a radio telescope named Big Ear detected a radio signal which is believed to be originated from the constellation Sagittarius, famously known as Wow! Signal. This signal was a path breaker, lasted for around 72 seconds left Astronomer Jerry R. Ehman with a "Wow!". This signal, despite numerous attempts, remains undetected ever since.

The Wow! signal from 1977, as discovered by astronomer Jerry R. Ehman. Image via Big Ear Radio Observatory and North American Astrophysical Observatory (NAAPO). Now, it is a known fact that the noise that we collect today might be light years old and the source has probably vanquished in the dark space by the time we detect it. This theory also substantiates the fact that any communication we attempt today from the surface of Earth could take centuries to reach a prospecting listener but this does alleviate things for our future generations. We have only familiarized ourselves with Science for only around 500 years and we have already come a long way. We have managed to send Voyager out of the galaxy, landed on the moon and we are at the edge of colonizing Mars. Imagine what we could achieve in the upcoming decades. By now thousands of exoplanets have been officially identified and billions more await discovery. And that’s just in our Milky Way galaxy. The first plaque was launched with Pioneer 10 on March 2, 1972, and the second followed with Pioneer 11 on April 5, 1973, with a hope to initiate interplanetary conversations. Carl Sagan, a giant in the world of cosmology and an inspiration for many young space geeks, condensed "life on earth" quite remarkably on this six by nine-inch gold anodized plaque ( made with anodized aluminum with thick gold plating), along with his wife Linda Sagan, he created this beautiful art inspired from the novel Greek and Roman sculpture. One of the most profound examples of Symbolism.


Source: https://images.app.goo.gl/BNEbuYf41SyJvuUFA

https://www.ceros.com/originals/pioneer-plaque-design/ Refer to this website for a detailed explanation of what each icon symbolizes.


"With all of this activity related to the search for life, in so many different areas, we are on the verge of one of the most profound discoveries ever," Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's former administrator, told Congress in 2017. The focus is refined to find more habitable planets- at distance from their stars that would allow water to stay liquid. Mars is the closest we have to alien life, even though there is no trace of life on Mars currently but studies have shown that Mars did host life years ago and the atmosphere was similar to Earth's and might have held liquid water on its Martian surface. Rovers sent to Mars-like Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity – are designed to be the eyes and hands of scientists. Using their miniaturized tools and instruments, they analyze hundreds of rock and soil samples right on the spot and send data back to Earth. The hunt for astrobiology on exoplanets is only possible if we have evidence from the past, present and theories for the future.

Curiosity rover on the Martian surface. Mars Curiosity rover’s one-year anniversary selfie. The photo was actually composed of dozens of individual images taken between April and May 2014. Credit: NASA A very hot debate that has continued to bake the noodles of innumerable astrophysicists is the amount of money spent on space exploration. You will often see people arguing that the amount of resources spent by different countries on their respective space programs is exorbitant. Here's a fun stat to quantify the gravity of this notion,

https://media2.spaceq.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/23170749/Space-budgets_2.png

If you look keenly you will notice that the percentage of money being spent by space-exploration pioneer nations isn't a huge chunk, evidently opposite to what the noise suggests. On the other hand, the stats reflecting the expenditure on military and wars might invite a few frowns.

source:https://blogs-images.forbes.com/niallmccarthy/files/2019/04/20190429_Military_Budget_GDP.jpg I will not vindicate any claims, the numbers presented here will help you cast the dye. Decisions made by comparing and contrasting helps you to attain a broader perspective on things, it is a tool to learn and grow whilst appreciating the disparities. The discoveries we make today will walk the earth for years to come. Whatever Socrates told us is still alive and discussed, Newton's discoveries are still widely celebrated and we all know who ran in the streets with the chants of Eureka! Eureka! Books serve a similar purpose too. The point is, it is okay to spend money on such projects, it conveniently provides a vantage point for future seeds and provides a sense of direction. As the famous Greek quote states, "A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in". However, the more valid question is, how do we move forward or are we even in the right direction, to begin with? What if at the end of it all, we end up empty-handed and years of resources were exhausted in vain? Well, as much as we want to believe that there are aliens out there we cannot sideline the fact that there could be no other planet that supports life. Even though this thought breaks your heart, we have to understand that this could be true, but it still holds incredible significance. Imagine finally coming to terms that this what we have, the unexpected epiphany, that the beautiful planet we are destroying so callously is probably our only chance of life? Will this help us understand why the environmental crisis is the need of the hour? Will it be enough to wake us from our slumber? Well, we might be physically insignificant but if we are the only one in the universe we are so important at the same time. Our eyes will be on stalks as we watch Science iron out the wrinkles and pave way for more wonders.

Come rain or shine in this quest, the universe will always find ways to surprise you.

Inspiration-


Schirber, M. (2020, April 30). Searching for aliens through history. Retrieved November 14, 2020, from https://cosmosmagazine.com/space/searching-aliens-through-history/

Schirber, B. (2009, January 29). Attempts to contact aliens date back 150 years. Retrieved November 14, 2020, from https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna28916124

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