#867 Reaching for life on other planets

Kepler range superimposed on Milky Way

Kepler’s range superimposed on photograph of the Milky Way; courtesy of NASA

When I was a child, I gazed at the stars and wondered who lived there. I feel that same sense of wonder reading about the findings from a team of scientists who studied data from NASA’s Kepler spacecraft and the W. M. Keck Observatory. They found that one in five sun-like stars in our galaxy is orbited by a planet “somewhat like Earth”.

I have long figured it was hubris to believe we were the only life in the universe so the implications of this research fill me with excitement. True, identifying a planet traveling around its sun at a distance that would enable life to flourish does not mean the planet is inhabited by creatures we could chat with one day. However, it increases the probability that the conditions necessary for life may be more common than we knew.

In his excellent overview of the findings for his Bad Astronomy blog on Slate, Phil Plait wrote:

Stars like the Sun make up roughly 10 percent of all stars. There are very roughly 200 billion stars in the Milky Way, so that gives us 20 billion stars. If one of every five has an Earth-like planet, that means there are about four billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy alone!

The scientists found the nearest Earth-size planet a mere 12 light years from our home. It can be seen by the naked eye. As imaging technology improves, we will learn more about these potentially habitable planets. We may discover that the conditions essential for life are different on other planets than they are on Earth. Other species may have evolved from their own version of primordial ooze and manifested themselves in ways more akin to something envisioned by science fiction writers. Maybe they have known about us for a long time and are just waiting for us to learn how to communicate.

The likelihood of our contacting other sentient beings in my lifetime is infinitesimal, but that does not stop me from feeling a surge of hope that one day species from different planets may be able to connect with and learn from each other. Perhaps by then humans will have learned to approach The Other with more openness.

This Deep Astronomy video is a good overview of Kepler’s search for habitable planets.

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