The Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life in our Solar System

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The Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life in our Solar System

Post Number:#1  Postby Scott » May 19th, 2012, 1:25 am

I bet that there is extraterrestrial life in our solar system. I also think that if there is life in our solar system, we will find it within the next 50 or so years since we are already searching for it and our technology is constantly getting even better to quicken the search. Thus, I bet we will find extraterrestrial life in our solar system in the next 50 or so years, which for many of us will be in our lifetimes.

Is there extraterrestrial life in our solar system?

I say I bet because it's my best guess. It seems at least ever so slightly more likely than not to me. I of course can't say I know either way and I at least hesitate to say I believe as opposed to just I bet because as of yet there is no direct evidence that life exists or not. We don't have information to make a valid induction. Every planet on which we know whether or not life developed has developed life, but that is only 1 planet: Earth. That's the weakest induction ever, but that alone might be enough to guess that non-terrestrial life exists (or has left proof of previous existence) on one of the other 7 planets (not counting Earth), 5 dwarf planets, or 176 moons. Some notable candidates include Mars, Europa, Titan, Enceladus and Venus. There is also some indirect evidence of extraterrestrial life on Mars for instance:

  • Trace amounts of methane in the atmosphere of Mars
  • gas emissions from heated Martian soil that some argue are consistent with the presence of microbes
  • structures resembling nanobacteria were reportedly discovered in an allegedly Martian meteorite, ALH84001

Indeed, a survey of participants at one meeting regarding Martian life indicated that 75 percent of the researchers present agreed that bacteria once lived on Mars and roughly 25 percent agreed that bacteria inhabit the planet now (source). And that's just on Mars! In other places in the solar system, such as Europa, we have hopes of not only finding life but of life with animal-like mobility and intelligence.

I do think we can rule out the possibility of discovering extraterrestrial life with human-like intelligence or human-level civilization to a greater degree than what we can already find in non-human animals on Earth.

What would it mean?

Let's say as I predict that we do find extraterrestrial life in the solar system, either microbial or with animal-like mobility or intelligence. What effect would this have in the minds of the general public? What might mean in terms of what we believe cosmologically?

Considering how vast the galaxy is and how insanely vast the universe is, if we find the life sprung up even just twice in our little corner that is this solar system, I think that would indicate that there is a huge amount of life in the universe. Right now, in terms of life in other star systems, our thinking seems to be that it is most likely to exist on very Earth-like planets because maybe it can only exist on those. But if we find it twice in our own solar system, then that would seem to not merely expand the potential habitable planets by 2 but way more because it would seem life is a lot restricted in terms of where it can develop. The proposition of 2 anomalies in such close range is incredibly harder to dismiss than one. If microbial life or animal-like life is so incredibly common in the universe, which I think is reasonable to conclude if it sprung up twice in the only solar system of which we can find out, then I also think that make it reasonable to conclude there is also lots life with human-like intelligence, technology or civilization. In fact, if we find even microbial extraterrestrial life in our solar system, then I think it's a fair bet to say there billions of other civilizations in the visible universe with human-like intelligence. It also seems to me like a fair bet that some of those civilizations have made contact and communicated with each other or mutually interacted in some way, which is amazing to think about in my opinion. I think it changes the foundation of how we view the universe to so confidently think of it as containing so much life.

I think it would have a lot more of these universal implications if the life found in our solar system, if it's found, comes with evidence that it wasn't the result of previous cross-contamination of some sort but rather originally evolved independently. This is particularly the case with microbial life.

What do you think?
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The Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life in our Solar System



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Re: The Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life in our Solar Syst

Post Number:#2  Postby A Poster He or I » May 19th, 2012, 7:00 pm

Just remember, we carry our biosphere within us and about us wherever we venture. A meeting of 2 biospheres almost certainly implies the meeting of 2 incompatible biospheres. Just by landing on the shores of the New World, European explorers condemned millions of New World Indians to death by diseases they had no immunity to. Do we want to do the same to our stellar neighbors or become victims of their germs?

Yet ultimately, we cannot claim to have conquered the stars if we must remain sealed in a space suit to do it. If we ever imagine venturing into DIRECT relations with the cosmos, we must accept that we will be changing that cosmos to adapt to us...and we too will be adapting to it all the while. The choice to meet the stars ultimately implies the choice to change physically and psychologically into something that may be unrecognizable as human.
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Re: The Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life in our Solar Syst

Post Number:#3  Postby Belinda » May 20th, 2012, 3:37 am

So, Poster,I think we would need to meet aliens armed not only with space suits and isolation masks and gowns, but also a firm acknowledgement of what human nature is, or what we want or aspire for it to be? After all this is what we should do when we meet ordinary humans so that we know who we are, and so that we will not harm either them or ourselves by the contact.

The trouble is that aliens may not be as generous as we are, and we may have to defend ourselves against predators, as we try to defend ourselves against ordinary politico-military, commercial and criminal predators.
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Re: The Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life in our Solar Syst

Post Number:#4  Postby Steve3007 » May 20th, 2012, 6:52 am

I agree with Scott that if we were to find life twice in our solar system, rather than just once (on Earth), and if it was clear that the extraterrestrial life developed completely independently, with an independantly developed chemistry and structure (as opposed to being "seeded" from a common origin) that would have profound implications for the likely prevalance of life in other stellar systems.

Given that we currently have only the one example, I don't think we can say anything at all, with any genuine knowledge, about the likelihood of life elsewhere.

Consider that there is a huge, almost infinite, "space" of possible states that the Earth could currently be in (Note: I'm talking about the abstract concept of a multi-dimensional possibility space, sometimes referred to as "phase space", in which each point represents a single unique state of the system, not real space). Starting from 4.5 billion years ago, the probability of the Earth being in precisely the state it is now, with me typing this, is close to zero. It is a point in possibility space. But there is a vast number of similar (adjacent) states and a vaster number of states in the set/volume entitled "states in which life exists".

The question is, in this entire vast possibility space, how much volume in that space contains Earths with life and how much volume contains lifeless Earths. And what are their relative volumes? We cannot know.

We don't know all the many pinch-points that life here had to pass through. But the development of life on a different planet, with a completely different history of meteor impacts, environmental changes and countless other things which would have affected the development of life on Earth, would show that of the almost infinite set of possible current states, two possible states that are very different from each other in this imaginary possiblity space (i.e. not near each other) both result in life. This suggests a large "volume" of life states.

I don't know if that makes any sense or is a valid argument. Seems so to me.

---

Poster:

I'd like to add to your point about the necessity to break out of our biospheres and experience the Universe up-close. We are sealed into "biospheres" even here on Earth. For example, we are evolved from creatures who lived in salty water (oceans) and we have taken those oceans with us, wrapping them up in a bag of water - our bodies. So, even here on Earth, we are already wearing a kind of survival suit. We are fish out of water. I don't think we necessarily feel we need to break out of that particular "space suit" in order to experience life on Earth.
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Re: The Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life in our Solar Syst

Post Number:#5  Postby Xris » May 20th, 2012, 8:47 am

If we found life it would indicate that a formula for life must exist. If it exists, is it the same everywhere? Does it have the same capacity to evolve in the same measured manner? Would a formula be sign of design? Does it indicate a determined universe?
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Re: The Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life in our Solar Syst

Post Number:#6  Postby Steve3007 » May 20th, 2012, 9:33 am

My hunch (and it is just a hunch) is that the vast majority of inhabited planets are inhabited only by microbes. A much much smaller number have complex life. And a much much smaller number still, intelligent life. Which might make us think we're pretty special, until we remember the anthropic principle.

Back to one of my favourite aphorisms: If life on Earth is a miracle, then so is the fact that my legs are exactly long enough to reach from my body to the ground.
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Re: The Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life in our Solar Syst

Post Number:#7  Postby A Poster He or I » May 20th, 2012, 11:38 am

Belinda says,
So, Poster,I think we would need to meet aliens armed not only with space suits and isolation masks and gowns, but also a firm acknowledgement of what human nature is, or what we want or aspire for it to be? After all this is what we should do when we meet ordinary humans so that we know who we are, and so that we will not harm either them or ourselves by the contact.

The trouble is that aliens may not be as generous as we are, and we may have to defend ourselves against predators, as we try to defend ourselves against ordinary politico-military, commercial and criminal predators.

Your post so perfectly reflects what I too believe and feel concern for, that I just want to underscore the whole post without changing a word or adding any comment to it, other than to note that I don't have any real ideas about what to do about the problem.

Steve3007 says,
We are sealed into "biospheres" even here on Earth. For example, we are evolved from creatures who lived in salty water (oceans) and we have taken those oceans with us, wrapping them up in a bag of water - our bodies. So, even here on Earth, we are already wearing a kind of survival suit. We are fish out of water. I don't think we necessarily feel we need to break out of that particular "space suit" in order to experience life on Earth.

I hadn't considered our status of "fish out of water" in quite this way before, so thank you. It makes me consider something that I discounted before: the meeting of the human and alien biospheres might be said to be occuring within a "meta-biosphere," that being the Universe itself. After all, the ancient venturing of the sea-life biosphere onto dry land can be looked upon within the context of the biosphere of the Earth herself, where sea and land ecologies are a synergistic operation serving the whole. It supports a view that if we can survive the initial encounter with aliens (given its potential for disease, war, and cultural upheaval) then it is almost destined that the interaction should be beneficial to the whole in the long run.

To share a related (small-scale) example: I just found out that the African "killer bees" that escaped from a lab in South America in the mid-20th century and initially wreaked havoc on bee-keeping and honey production as they spread through one country after another, is now the bee of preference by South American bee-keepers since they have learned ways of taming much of the bees' aggressive behavior through selective breeding while maintaining the African bee's superior volume of honey production.
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Re: The Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life in our Solar Syst

Post Number:#8  Postby Xris » May 20th, 2012, 12:06 pm

Any life that has the ability to travel vast distances requires a certain intelligence that is acquired over centuries of cooperation and understanding. We may have interfered with alien cultures on our planet with ignorance but that does not indicate that when we capable of travelling in space and time, we would not have obtained the moral responsibility to not do the same again. Those elusive UFOs may be just those aliens acting with respect and understanding.
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Re: The Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life in our Solar Syst

Post Number:#9  Postby A Poster He or I » May 20th, 2012, 1:13 pm

Steve3007 said,
"...the development of life on a different planet, with a completely different history of meteor impacts, environmental changes and countless other things which would have affected the development of life on Earth, would show that of the almost infinite set of possible current states, two possible states that are very different from each other in this imaginary possiblity space (i.e. not near each other) both result in life. This suggests a large "volume" of life states.

It could additionally suggest a large volume of life states that humans might not recognize as life. Since neither science nor philosophy has pinned down authoritatively what constitutes life, and religion can only do so arbitrarily, the lesson of Stanislaw Lem's novel "Solaris" comes to mind. In that story (where space explorers encounter life so alien that they don't even recognize the encounter, causing them to completely misinterpret what befalls them), one of Lem's characters asks, Are we out here to look for intelligence or for a mirror?
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Re: The Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life in our Solar Syst

Post Number:#10  Postby Steve3007 » May 20th, 2012, 1:34 pm

Poster:
It could additionally suggest a large volume of life states that humans might not recognize as life.


True. In that case we start moving towards questioning whether it makes sense to say we're looking for extraterrestrial "life", if we can't adequately define that word. Perhaps we should think of something we can define and say we're looking for that. Let's just say we're looking for something we can talk to.
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Re: The Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life in our Solar Syst

Post Number:#11  Postby Steve3007 » May 20th, 2012, 3:53 pm

Getting back to the possibilities of present or past life in the solar system. In the OP, Scott mentioned Mars, Europa, Titan, Enceladus and Venus as possible habitats.

Others (e.g. Carl Sagan) have in the past proposed other planets too, like Jupiter. Sagan proposed a possible ecosystem based on hydrogen consumption floating in the atmosphere of gas giants like Jupiter. I'd be surprised, though, to find large life forms elsewhere in the solar system. Remember, on Earth, there was, evidence suggests, a vast mount of time between the development of the first life forms and the Cambrian explosion. It seems that life on Earth spent about 90% of the Earth's current age figuring out how to develop into large complex forms. 4 billion years. That's an unimaginably huge amount of experimenting time.
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Re: The Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life in our Solar Syst

Post Number:#12  Postby Scott » May 20th, 2012, 5:18 pm

Yet, the amount of time it took for microbial life to form on Earth was very small in cosmological time-frames.

For all we know, life developed as lot slower on Earth than most planets. Maybe most planets and large moons form animal-like life a lot quicker than Earth on average. We really don't know. Maybe most life is not life as we know it, i.e. the kind of non-microbial life we would expect to find on Jupiter if we could somehow search it. Then again, maybe Earth alone in the universe has developed any life at all. What I find interesting about the prospect of finding life in our solar system is it is distinctly not a slight or gradual change in our universal views of life. By finding two separate origins of life in our solar system, we would jump from thinking it not implausible that we are the only life in our galaxy or maybe even universe to thinking that life is extremely common in the universe with at least trillions of planet, moons and other celestial bodies being covered in it.

Someone mentioned that microbial life may be common while more complex life especially animal-like life may still be very rare. When we find life in our solar system, that will be the first major clue we have to the ratio. If we find that not only does life exists a second time in our solar system, but both -- and thus all known --origins of life resulted in animal-like life, then that would seem to indicate that that kind of evolution is the likely result of life originating at all. It would suggest an unbelievable amount of animal-like life throughout the at least trillions of planets and at least trillions of moons in the vast universe.
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Re: The Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life in our Solar Syst

Post Number:#13  Postby Steve3007 » May 20th, 2012, 6:11 pm

Yet, the amount of time it took for microbial life to form on Earth was very small in cosmological time-frames.


I'm not sure it was very small. The Universe is supposedly about 14 billion years old. So 4 billion years is a fairly large chunk of that.

But, yes, it's interesting to speculate that our Earth might actually, contrary to popular belief, be quite bad at nurturing life and other planets/moons might do it quicker.

I agree that the discovery of life elsewhere in the solar system would be a massive jump in our view of life in general. Personally I think it, or the discovery of unambiguous extra-terrestrial radio signals, would be by far the most important event in the history of the human race. Both the similarities and the differences would be fascinating. Finding extant life elsewhere in the solar system would mean we could study it in minute detail. Could DNA/RNA develop independantly due to convergent evolution? Or would there be a completely different type of self-replicating molecule? Do the chemical flexibility of carbon and the useful properties of water as a solvent which is liquid over a wide range of temperatures mean that this combination is the most likely medium for life? Or is it equally likely that life could use, say, liquid methane? (as it has been speculated could be the case on Titan).

---

An incidental point which I've read about life on Earth and the age of the Universe: Our kind of life, with its location on a rocky iron-rich world and its use of relatively heavy elements, probably couldn't have easily developed around a star from an earlier generation than the sun because those heavy elements were made inside previous generations of stars that wouldn't have been available before the sun's lifetime.

---

One more point: Does the question of life existing on a planet that is millions of light-years away actually mean anything non-metaphysical? The theory of Relativity states that absolutely no influence or information of any kind can travel faster than light. So, one could argue, the question of life existing on such a planet is a bit like speculations about parallel universes, or maybe even heaven and hell. It doesn't correspond to anything that could, even in principle, be known empirically. It is metaphysics. A J Ayer, for one, would presumably regard it as nonsense.

---

Correction: Ignore my first comment at the top of this post! I misunderstood you and thought you were talking about the time from the formation of the earth until the Cambrian explosion. Obviously you were talking about the much shorter time until the first microbes. (Maybe 100 million years or less).
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Re: The Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life in our Solar Syst

Post Number:#14  Postby Scott » May 20th, 2012, 6:51 pm

Steve3007 wrote:One more point: Does the question of life existing on a planet that is millions of light-years away actually mean anything non-metaphysical? The theory of Relativity states that absolutely no influence or information of any kind can travel faster than light. So, one could argue, the question of life existing on such a planet is a bit like speculations about parallel universes, or maybe even heaven and hell. It doesn't correspond to anything that could, even in principle, be known empirically. It is metaphysics. A J Ayer, for one, would presumably regard it as nonsense.

This is a good point. It's also why I think finding a second origin of life in our own solar system would be so significant. I think most people already accept that life exists elsewhere in the visible universe considering how inconceivably vast the thing is. Even if life is so incredibly rare, there still may be quite a bit of it in total. But, like you say, so what? Yet, if we find evidence that life is very common by finding two origins so close together in the only place we will really be able to look so far, that would seem to indicate that there is life all over the place -- not just millions or billions of light-years away but within our own galaxy. Sure for you and I we may see little more than the finding of unintelligent life in our own solar system in our lifetimes, but to believe there is life in most star systems and hopefully intelligent life in one of the few closest hundred star systems in our galaxy would seem to suggest that at some point in humankind's future we will make contact with other intelligent life. An author or painter might find interest in the belief that one day an intelligent alien will be reading his book or looking at his painting, for instance, and broadly that our terrestrial cultural history will become part a collective intergalactic history over the course of the next millions of years.
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Re: The Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life in our Solar Syst

Post Number:#15  Postby Fhbradley » May 20th, 2012, 6:54 pm

I wonder if aliens philosophize.
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