‘Aliens exist and may already be among us’

Go home: There are over 4,000 known planets outside our solar system. © Getty

Do aliens exist? Helen Sharman, a scientist who was the first Briton in space, has declared that there are definitely other forms of life in the Universe – and they may already be among us.

In May 1991, Helen Sharman, a 27-year-old from Sheffield, hurtled into space on a Soyuz-TM Russian rocket.

“We left the atmosphere and suddenly light streamed in through the window,” she remembers. “We were over the Pacific Ocean. The gloriously deep blue seas took my breath away.”

She was not just Britain’s first astronaut – chosen from nearly 13,000 applicants – she was also the first woman aboard the Mir international space station, where she spent five months.

She has gone on to have a highly distinguished academic career, so when she declared in an interview last weekend: “Aliens exist – there’s no two ways about it”, people had to sit up and take notice.

Sharman’s belief is based on the balance of probability. “There are so many billions of stars out there in the Universe that there must be all sorts of different forms of life,” she argues. “Will they be like you and me, made up of carbon and nitrogen? Maybe not.” In fact, she adds, “It’s possible they’re here right now and we simply can’t see them.”

Plenty of leading scientists have shared her view, including Stephen Hawking and TV presenter Professor Brian Cox. “I would not be surprised if we find microbes on Mars,” says Cox, “or the moons of Jupiter or Saturn, where there’s liquid water.”

Hawking was so convinced that aliens exist – not just as microbes, but as intelligent beings – that he helped found the Breakthrough Listen project to look for signs of extraterrestrial communication.

It uses radio telescopes with a range of up to 25 trillion miles to search stars and galaxies for radio signals and laser transmissions. Indeed Hawking’s seal of approval helped it secure $100 million in funding, as well as the co-operation of Nasa.

The project has yet to find indisputable evidence of alien life. But last year, for the first time, its telescopes detected repeated pulses of radio waves coming from a single source, three billion light years away – and one possibility is that they were transmitted by another civilisation.

So, do aliens exist?

Beyond belief?

Sceptics point out that nothing has obsessed mankind more than the search for other forms of life. Huge resources have been devoted to it, and it is 60 years since the idea of using a radio telescope was pioneered – yet for all their sophisticated instruments, the scientists have found nothing. Equally, if there are aliens out there, you would expect them to have made contact by now.

Others argue that there is a huge amount we don’t know about the Universe: 99.5% of it can’t even be seen since it consists of dark energy or dark matter. There may be forms of life that our instruments cannot detect and we could not comprehend because they are so different from us. And given the enormous size of the Universe, the chances that we are its only living inhabitants are tiny.

You Decide

  1. Could there be other forms of life?
  2. Should we try to contact aliens?

Activities

  1. Make a drawing of a radio telescope and label the main parts of it.
  2. Imagine you have met a friendly alien. Think of 10 questions to ask about its home planet, and 10 essential things to tell it about ours.

Some People Say...

“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”

Arthur C Clarke (1917-2008), British science-fiction writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Helen Sharman is a respected scientist and has said that she believes in aliens. Radio telescopes have picked up unexplained signals from outer space, but there is no proof that they were sent by other creatures. Less than 1% of the Universe consists of matter that we can see.
What do we not know?
Whether we have, in fact, already made contact with aliens. The distances in space are so vast that it could take a radio signal decades – if not centuries – to reach another civilisation, and an equally long time for the aliens to reply.

Word Watch

Mir
The first space station, which operated from 1986 to 2001.
Stephen Hawking
British theoretical physicist and cosmologist (1942-2018).
Extraterrestrial
From another planet.
Trillion
One million million.
Nasa
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, responsible for the US space programme.
Indisputable
Definite.
Transmitted
Sent.

Subjects

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