Life Elsewhere | Annie Lu

Humans have been speculating since the beginning of rudimentary astronomy about whether or not we are truly alone in the universe. The possibility of other living beings--maybe even other sentient beings--coexisting with us (or causing intergalactic war, who knows) has been the bread and butter of many fantastical science fiction books and movies. But that long-imagined dream might have become a reality.

Early in 2017, scientists at NASA discovered seven Earth-sized planets orbiting the nearby star TRAPPIST-1. Three of these seven contain the appropriate conditions to sustain life: not too hot, not too cold. The fastidious criteria necessary for life to bloom on any distant planet have caused these celestial bodies to be termed “Goldilocks” planets in the past. Too hot, and liquid water cannot condense. Too cold, and liquid water will simply freeze. This quandary is of course given the assumption that any other biological organisms even remotely resemble humans, and would require liquid water to survive. Who knows--maybe the aliens out there don’t need what we need, and we’re looking in entirely the wrong place.

The exoplanets orbiting the TRAPPIST star, however, exhibit promising traits in the form of a rocky composition, appropriate size, and a similar amount of light received as earth. All of them are closer to their star than Mercury is to our sun--by standing on the surface of one planet, you could plausibly see geographical features of a neighboring one, larger than Earth’s moon. NASA’s Kepler and Hubble space telescopes are intently on the lookout, hoping to confirm the existence of liquid water on any planet.

What if those planets really do accommodate life? Are we not so alone as we thought? Without making this sound too much like a series of conspiracy theories, there are so many potential situations. As brought up before, there could be life on other spheres; just forms of life that we do not yet recognize or are unable to detect from afar. To potentially explain why there has not been any so-called “contact”, we could consider that the living beings that we’re looking for are not sentient, and therefore cannot communicate; contrarily, they could be so far advanced that for them to try and communicate with us would be like us trying to converse with a dog.

These are all far-fetched scenarios. NASA makes few assumptions, instead relying on (as they should) purely scientific data. All we can know for sure right now is the size of the planets, their approximate masses, densities, and likely climate. Science has come so far so fast that it’s not so unimaginable for us to learn very closely the detailed characteristics of these planets soon. We live in a world so comparable to the dreamt-up inventions of science fiction in years past. What’s to say the future we imagine now is not also right around the corner?