- CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.
-- The first human to set foot on a place beyond Earth found an airless,
waterless, lifeless world.
- Nevertheless, Neil Armstrong is convinced life thrives
elsewhere in the cosmos.
- "We have no proof," said Armstrong, who stepped
onto the moon 30 years ago. "But if we extrapolate, based on the best
information we have available to us, we have to come to the conclusion
that ... other life probably exists out there and perhaps in many places."
- Two million years after intelligent life emerged on Earth,
humans finally have arrived at the moment when science and technology are
making possible a systematic search for other life in the universe.
- During the next 100 years, researchers armed with powerful
telescopes, computers and robots could find proof of past or present microbial
life in our solar system.
- And during the next 1,000 years, scientists say, it's
no longer pure fantasy to think that the human race could discover and
perhaps contact intelligent civilizations on distant worlds.
- "This is really an incredible time to be living
because we've gone from the idea that we're alone on this nice little planet
to the idea that anything is possible," said Lou Allamandola, a chemist
at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.
- After all, there are 400 billion stars in the Milky Way
galaxy and an estimated half-trillion galaxies in the universe.
- "We know there are planets going around other stars,
and we know it's likely that some of those planets have the right conditions
for life," said Dan Werthimer, a research physicist at the University
of California at Berkeley. "So it would be really bizarre if we were
the only ones. It's much more likely that the universe is teeming with
- If that's the case, the discovery would revolutionize
our perception of who we are, where we came from and what our place is
in the cosmos. On the other hand, the implications will be just as great
if scientists conclude the rest of the cosmos is populated by nothing other
than gases and carbon compounds.
- "We'll either find extraterrestrial life and have
a great insight into it, or we'll not find it, and basically conclude that
we're it. Either answer is important," said Louis Friedman, executive
director of the Planetary Society, a space-exploration advocacy group based
in Pasadena, Calif.
- Only in recent years have scientists discovered other
planets and solar systems in our Milky Way galaxy, a star-studded pinwheel
600 quadrillion miles across.
- Those findings raise serious scientific challenges to
the idea that our own solar system is a cosmic quirk of nature, and that
Earth is the only locale capable of producing and sustaining life.
- "I think the most moving question is whether or
not our own Earth with its lukewarm temperatures, allowing for water in
liquid form is a unique type of planet, or whether there are thousands,
perhaps millions, of Earthlike planets in our Milky Way," said Geoffrey
Marcy, an astronomer at San Francisco State University.
- An immense number of Earthlike planets would heighten
the possibility that ET: The Extraterrestrial, in fact has a home to phone.
And radio astronomers at the SETI Institute in California are hoping to
eavesdrop on the call.
- Working with the world's most powerful radio telescopes,
the researchers study sunlike stars to see whether alien civilizations
are broadcasting signals.
- Inside mountaintop observatories and cloistered university
labs, work is being done by astronomers, biologists, geneticists, geologists,
ecologists, paleontologists, physicists, chemists and zoologists.
- Even though researchers still are unsure exactly how
living creatures took root on Earth, they know solving that mystery is
crucial to the search for life beyond it.
- "It's an essential question," said Harley Thronson,
an astronomer at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. "If we could
figure it out for Earth, we could use that for a template as how it might
occur on any one of the other worlds that are orbiting other stars."
- The abundance of life in Earth's deep seas and other
hostile environments leads scientists to think it might flourish in equally
extreme locales in our solar system.
- The planet Mars is a top contender.
- In recent years, scientists have uncovered impressive
evidence that Mars once was warmer, wetter and more hospitable to life.
The latest theory is that water once raged across its surface, creating
planetary nooks and crannies in which life may have emerged.
- The evidence? A 4.5-billion-year-old Mars meteorite found
on a wind-blown glacier in western Antarctica. NASA scientists contend
the potato-shaped rock contains evidence of the fossilized remains of primitive,
bacterialike organisms that are signs of past life on Mars.
- Beyond Mars lies another seductive site for life: Europa,
one of the four moons of Jupiter discovered by Galileo in 1610. Close-up
photos from NASA's Galileo spacecraft show possible evidence of a subsurface
ocean, volcanic activity and comet strikes.
- "You've got liquid water. You've got a strong energy
source that's long lasting, and organic chemistry. You put those ingredients
together with enough time, and on Earth, those same ingredients in less
than a billion years gave rise to life," Richard Terrile, a planetary
scientist at JPL, said.
- All the theories about Europa and Mars are sound, but
the missions may turn out to be scientific busts.
- "Maybe we'll strike out at all these places,"
said SETI Institute scientist Seth Shostak. "But all we have to do
is find life on one other world in our solar system whether it's fossils
on Mars or tuna on Europa and that tells you right away that life can spring
up in all sorts of places in the galaxy."
- Added Firouz Naderi, who is heading a NASA project aimed
at finding life beyond Earth: "If, in fact, we are able to find life
or to answer the question 'Are we alone?' then that certainly is grand
enough and noble enough to be the enduring legacy of our civilization."
- Copyright 1999, The Detroit News