Environment / Physics / The Student

What in the world are they doing?


Photo credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech

Planet hunter Kepler, NASA’s space telescope, has just completed its prime mission of locating and confirming other planets in the solar system. But it is barely out of action before it is being sent out on its second, extended mission: to find other planets like our own.

The prime mission has revealed more than 2,300 planet candidates and confirmed over 100 planets. William Borucki, Kepler principal investigator, hints towards the potential of this research, “The initial discoveries of the Kepler mission indicate that at least a third of the stars have planets and that the number of planets in our galaxy must number in the billions. The planets of greatest interest are other Earths and these could already be in the data awaiting analysis. Kepler’s most exciting results are yet to come!”

“Other Earths” have already been discovered, as scientists have jumped the gun and announced that some of these confirmed planets are in habitable zones of their star’s orbit, and have the potential for life.

When studying the origin of life on Earth it becomes apparent that life is incredibly stubborn. According to Richard Fortey, in his book Life: An unauthorised biography, the first cells would have emerged in “a torrid cauldron, acidic, emitting the sharp whiff of sulphur; and we have an atmosphere almost lacking oxygen. Almost everything in this biological Eden would have been damaging to most of the animals and plants alive today…Truly, life began in something approximating to the medieval idea of Hell.” But chemicals formed membranes, congealed into lipid vesicles and started sucking in energy anyway. The single greatest wonder of the world is that, despite everything, life will always find a way.

And our few million years of existence here have barely scratched the surface of discovering the gems around us. Just earlier this year a whole new species of monkey was discovered- deep in the Lomami Basin of the Congo, a beautiful primate with hauntingly human eyes. And there are still whole ecosystems hidden beneath the Earth and on the bottom of our oceans,  that we have yet to discover. Why on earth are we spending so much time scraping the surface of Mars and watching stars for evidence of microbes?

If we do not start putting more effort into the conservation of the life teeming on our own planet we are going to lose huge numbers of our furry, scaly, flying and swimming cousins. It is just not acceptable that $18.7 billion is spent on NASA each year when only $11.7 billion was spent on ‘Protection of biodiversity and la’ by the US Government in the Fiscal Year 2013.

What happens if we do find life? Judging by our own history, when Western civilisations go exploring, it isn’t a beautiful, majestic mission. They begin to plunder the new resources as they have their own, imagine that the land is theirs since they ‘discovered’ it, and there is a lot of bloodshed when they become territorial. Some may argue that humanity has learned from its mistakes, that of course we would treat any new planet and its resources far more carefully than we have our own. But looking back on history, it has repeated itself far too much to justify the claim that humanity is capable of learning from its mistakes.

The movie Avatar was just a supposition of what we may do if we found a planet with abundant, un-plundered resources. Just like the British explorers that first found America, they become infected with gold lust and forget about the lives around them. Chances are, like the Pandora natives, any indigenous species found on other planets will be in-equipped for our greedy aggression, but if they were it would still not exempt them from a fight over resources. As we steadily use up the resources on our own planet, we would become defensive in the light of our imminent extinction, and justify any invasions and resource wars with the importance of the survival of Earth’s intelligent, but foolish, apes.

The search for life out in the Universe, and any interactions with newly discovered aliens, could be justified if we had first fixed our own rocky home. At the moment we exist unsustainably as we gobble up the treasures within the Earth around us, sucking the biodiversity out of our planet as we try to feed the monstrous population we have bred onto our continents. At the moment our governments should focus all their attention inwards, and space exploration can be kept alive with the money from branding giants like Red Bull, because who are we to impose ourselves on alien  life in distant planets before we have properly discovered and conserved all of our own?

Originally published in the Student, November 2012.

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