Not (that) far: a planet where life is likely

Still alone: Over 500 films have been made featuring aliens, but none have yet visited.

Would contacting aliens be such a good idea? Another planet that might support life has been found, while China is investing huge amounts in the world's most advanced alien-spotting radar.

Ross 128 b. Remember the name. Planets outside our solar system may be named more prosaically than the Greek gods that orbit the Sun, but the treasures they hold are likely to make Mars, Jupiter and Saturn look dull in comparison.

This newly-discovered planet is the second closest to the solar system which has been found. It orbits a star called Ross 128, which is a red dwarf, meaning that it is cooler and less powerful than our sun. But the planet is closer to its star than we are to the Sun, meaning that its temperature is around 23°C — ideal for supporting life. In fact, it is now the most likely home to aliens that we know of.

Ross 128 b is 11 light years away. On the scale of the universe, believed to be at least 156 billion light years wide, this is nothing. But 11 light years is still 64,664,881,000,000 miles, so you will not be going there any time soon.

Nonetheless, a new space race is on. And it is China, not the USA or Russia, which appears best placed to make the first contact with extraterrestrial life.

The country has built the world’s largest radio dish to detect signals from other galaxies. It is sensitive enough to search tens of thousands of stars for signs of life and the kind of radio waves which attempts at contact would produce. The fact that no signals have yet been heard is a conundrum in itself.

But there is a problem. Any aliens with the ability to contact us would be likely to be far more advanced than human beings. As Stephen Hawking puts it, “The outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.”

Were we to send out a message, aliens could follow it and come here to exploit Earth’s resources, subdue humans, or even to destroy all life as we know it. After all, who knows how many other planets they have taken over?

But it may be too late already. We are a loud species, and our messages have been making their way through the universe since the dawn of radio. If aliens exist, they are probably on their way. Should we encourage contact?

Lonely planet?

It would be incredibly reckless to contact extraterrestrials before we know how advanced they are, and how they would treat humans. Instead of reaching out to potentially hostile invaders, we should consider becoming a quieter species, less noticeable to aliens. Otherwise we could be inviting our own destruction.

Others are more optimistic. As scientist and writer Steven Pinker has argued, humans have naturally become more peaceful over the course of history. If this pattern recurs throughout the universe, played out on much longer time scales, these highly advanced extraterrestrial visitors really will come in peace.

You Decide

  1. Would it be wise to encourage contact with aliens?
  2. Do you, in your heart of hearts, believe extraterrestrial life exists?

Activities

  1. List five objects from Earth that you would show to a group of aliens to tell them about humanity.
  2. Write a short story that begins with Earth receiving a message from an intelligent species. How does humanity respond?

Some People Say...

“We've never been visited by aliens because they have decided there's no sign of intelligent life.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
A planet 11 light years from Earth called Ross 128 b has been discovered. Scientists believe it is likely to have the correct conditions to support life. The reason astronomers are excited about Ross 128 b is because the star it orbits is "quiet". Other stars have a tendency to lash out at their planets with deadly flares of ultraviolet and X-ray radiation, making life impossible.
What do we not know?
A great deal. Does extraterrestrial life exist? If not, what makes Earth unique? If so, where is it, and how long will it take for humans to be able to make contact? Why have we not been contacted yet? Have we, in fact, been contacted without knowing it?

Word Watch

Light years
A light year is a measure of distance not time, being the distance that light travels in one year. One light year is about 5.9 trillion miles.
At least 156 billion light years wide
This is understandably hard to measure. We do not know whether the universe is infinite, and estimates vary. The observable universe is believed to be around 90 billion light years across, while the highest estimates for the whole universe are 554 billion light-years.
64,664,881,000,000 miles
The fastest spaceship ever built travels at 36,000 mph, meaning that it would take about 205,000 years for the spaceship to reach Ross 128 b.
Conundrum
This is known as the Fermi Paradox, named after Italian physicist Enrico Fermi. It goes as follows. There are billions of stars in the galaxy and in the universe which are similar to the Sun. This means that there is a high probability that, orbiting these stars, are innumerable Earth-like planets which can support life. If so, some of these life-forms would surely have developed interstellar travel. So Fermi asked: “Where is everybody?”

Subjects

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