This Is Big: Scientists Just Found Earth’s First Cousin

Right now, 500 light years away from Earth, there’s a planet that looks a lot like our own. It is bathed in dim orangeish light, which at high noon is only as bright as the golden hour before sunset back home.

NASA scientists are calling the planet Kepler-186f, and it’s unlike anything they’ve found. The big news: Kepler-186f is the closest relative to the Earth that researchers have discovered.

It’s the first Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone of another star—the sweet spot between too-hot Mercury-like planets and too-cold Neptunes— and it is likely to give scientists their first real opportunity to seek life elsewhere in the universe. “It’s no longer in the realm of science fiction,” said Elisa Quintana, a researcher at the SETI Institute.

We are made out of stardust. The iron in the hemoglobin molecules in the blood in your right hand came from a star that blew up 8 billion years ago. The iron in your left hand came from another star. We are the laws of chemistry and physics as they have played out here on Earth and we are now learning that planets are as common as stars. Most stars, as it turns out now, will have planets.
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Sun’s Twin Discovered — the Perfect SETI Target?

There are 10 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy that are the same size as our sun. Therefore it should come as no surprise that astronomers have identified a clone to our sun lying only 200 light-years away.

Still, it is fascinating to imagine a yellow dwarf that is exactly the same mass, temperature and chemical composition as our nearest star. In a recent paper reporting on observations of the star — called HP 56948 — astronomer Jorge Melendez of the University of San Paulo, Brazil, calls it “the best solar twin known to date.”

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Moving forward, we have no choice but to get completely speculative. Let’s imagine that after billions of years in existence, 1% of Earth-like planets develop life (if that’s true, every grain of sand would represent one planet with life on it). And imagine that on 1% of those planets, the life advances to an intelligent level like it did here on Earth. That would mean there were 10 quadrillion, or 10 million billion intelligent civilizations in the observable universe.

Moving back to just our galaxy, and doing the same math on the lowest estimate for stars in the Milky Way (100 billion), we’d estimate that there are 1 billion Earth-like planets and 100,000 intelligent civilizations in our galaxy.[1]

SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is an organization dedicated to listening for signals from other intelligent life. If we’re right that there are 100,000 or more intelligent civilizations in our galaxy, and even a fraction of them are sending out radio waves or laser beams or other modes of attempting to contact others, shouldn’t SETI’s satellite array pick up all kinds of signals?

But it hasn’t. Not one. Ever.

Where is everybody?

The space that we’re looking through is 9-dimensional. If you build a mathematical model, the amount of searching that we’ve done in 50 years is equivalent to scooping one 8-ounce glass out of the Earth’s ocean, looking and seeing if you caught a fish. No, no fish in that glass? Well, I don’t think you’re going to conclude that there are no fish in the ocean. You just haven’t searched very well yet. That’s where we are.
"Alien Electromagnetic Signals Will Be Discovered by 2040" —SETI’s Chief Astronomer

"Astronomers will have scanned enough star systems by 2040 that we’ll have discovered alien-produced electromagnetic signals," said Seth Shostak of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, Calif. during a talk at the 2014 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) symposium at Stanford University.

SETI has until now sought radio signals from worlds like Earth. In the current search for advanced extraterrestrial life SETI experts say the odds favor detecting alien AI rather than biological life because the time between aliens developing radio technology and artificial intelligence would be brief. “If we build a machine with the intellectual capability of one human, then within 5 years, its successor is more intelligent than all humanity combined,” says Seth Shostak, SETI chief astronomer. “Once any society invents the technology that could put them in touch with the cosmos, they are at most only a few hundred years away from changing their own paradigm of sentience to artificial intelligence,” he says.

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An Interactive Simulation to Count Alien Worlds

Enrico Fermi famously asked, in his paradoxical analysis of the likely existence of extraterrestrial life, “Where is everybody?” If there are a certain (large) number of planets in the universe that are habitable, then a subset of these (also a large number) should be inhabited. Any civilization that formed, given enough time, could develop the means for interstellar communication or travel.

So yeah, “Where is everybody?

Years later, Frank Drake developed a precise equation to calculate the likely number of inhabitable worlds within range of observation or communication from Earth. Well, it’s as precise as you define it, anyway, given that the variables that go in are just that - variable. Things like how long it would take a civilization to develop communication, how long said civilization would last, how many stars and planets are estimated to exist … just the basics.

It’s called the Drake Equation, and thanks to the stupendous folks over at BBC Future, you can go tweak the equation with an interactive tool! Click here to start defining your galaxial parameters and see how many civilizations you think should exist.

I’m getting some pretty big numbers . . !

(via BBC, tip o’ the SETI dish to Russ Creech)

They're made out of Meat, by Terry Bisson
  • "They're made out of meat."
  • "Meat?"
  • "Meat. They're made out of meat."
  • "Meat?"
  • "There's no doubt about it. We picked several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, probed them all the way through. They're completely meat."
  • "That's impossible. What about the radio signals? The messages to the stars."
  • "They use the radio waves to talk, but the signals don't come from them. The signals come from machines."
  • "So who made the machines? That's who we want to contact."
  • "They made the machines. That's what I'm trying to tell you. Meat made the machines."
  • "That's ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You're asking me to believe in sentient meat."
  • "I'm not asking you, I'm telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in the sector and they're made out of meat."
  • "Maybe they're like the Orfolei. You know, a carbon-based intelligence that goes through a meat stage."
  • "Nope. They're born meat and they die meat. We studied them for several of their life spans, which didn't take too long. Do you have any idea the life span of meat?"
  • "Spare me. Okay, maybe they're only part meat. You know, like the Weddilei. A meat head with an electron plasma brain inside."
  • "Nope. We thought of that, since they do have meat heads like the Weddilei. But I told you, we probed them. They're meat all the way through."
  • "No brain?"
  • "Oh, there is a brain all right. It's just that the brain is made out of meat!"
  • "So... what does the thinking?"
  • "You're not understanding, are you? The brain does the thinking. The meat."
  • "Thinking meat! You're asking me to believe in thinking meat!"
  • "Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal! Are you getting the picture?"
  • "Omigod. You're serious then. They're made out of meat."
  • "Finally, Yes. They are indeed made out meat. And they've been trying to get in touch with us for almost a hundred of their years."
  • "So what does the meat have in mind?"
  • "First it wants to talk to us. Then I imagine it wants to explore the universe, contact other sentients, swap ideas and information. The usual."
  • "We're supposed to talk to meat?"
  • "That's the idea. That's the message they're sending out by radio. 'Hello. Anyone out there? Anyone home?' That sort of thing."
  • "They actually do talk, then. They use words, ideas, concepts?"
  • "Oh, yes. Except they do it with meat."
  • "I thought you just told me they used radio."
  • "They do, but what do you think is on the radio? Meat sounds. You know how when you slap or flap meat it makes a noise? They talk by flapping their meat at each other. They can even sing by squirting air through their meat."
  • "Omigod. Singing meat. This is altogether too much. So what do you advise?"
  • "Officially or unofficially?"
  • "Both."
  • "Officially, we are required to contact, welcome, and log in any and all sentient races or multibeings in the quadrant, without prejudice, fear, or favor. Unofficially, I advise that we erase the records and forget the whole thing."
  • "I was hoping you would say that."
  • "It seems harsh, but there is a limit. Do we really want to make contact with meat?"
  • "I agree one hundred percent. What's there to say?" `Hello, meat. How's it going?' But will this work? How many planets are we dealing with here?"
  • "Just one. They can travel to other planets in special meat containers, but they can't live on them. And being meat, they only travel through C space. Which limits them to the speed of light and makes the possibility of their ever making contact pretty slim. Infinitesimal, in fact."
  • "So we just pretend there's no one home in the universe."
  • "That's it."
  • "Cruel. But you said it yourself, who wants to meet meat? And the ones who have been aboard our vessels, the ones you have probed? You're sure they won't remember?"
  • "They'll be considered crackpots if they do. We went into their heads and smoothed out their meat so that we're just a dream to them."
  • "A dream to meat! How strangely appropriate, that we should be meat's dream."
  • "And we can mark this sector unoccupied."
  • "Good. Agreed, officially and unofficially. Case closed. Any others? Anyone interesting on that side of the galaxy?"
  • "Yes, a rather shy but sweet hydrogen core cluster intelligence in a class nine star in G445 zone. Was in contact two galactic rotations ago, wants to be friendly again."
  • "They always come around."
  • "And why not? Imagine how unbearably, how unutterably cold the universe would be if one were all alone."

Intelligent Alien Life Could Be Found by 2040

The first detection of intelligent extraterrestrial life will likely come within the next quarter-century, a prominent alien hunter predicts.

By 2040 or so, astronomers will have scanned enough star systems to give themselves a great shot of discovering alien-produced electromagnetic signals, said Seth Shostak of the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute in Mountain View, Calif.

Shostak’s optimism is based partly on observations by NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope, which has shown that the Milky Way galaxy likely teems with worlds capable of supporting life as we know it.

Shostak and his colleagues think at least some of these worlds host intelligent aliens — beings that have developed the capability to send electromagnetic signals out into the cosmos, as human civilization does every second of every day. So they’re pointing big radio dishes toward the heavens, hoping to detect something produced by living beings.

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When some people look out into space, they think nothing of it. Simply that it is the sky of our planet, the only planet that matters to them. Though, others, look off into space, and see what is really there. A vast, endless realm. Some view this realm with fright, as infinite vastness is hard, and unpleasant to comprehend. Though, others view this vast, endless realm with hope. They hope that somewhere, there are others like us. While we cannot even comprehend the implications and variables at play in this theory, we keep hope. Furthermore, this realm can be viewed with hope for the future. Hope that we will not be contained in our “terraqueous globe” forever. Hope that someday, our descendents will reach alpha centauri, and further.