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Water-dependent alien life on the rocks?

Friday, 13 July 2007 — by

To humans, as well as most other forms of life here on planet Earth, water is a commodity we need to survive. As a commodity, water isn’t interchangeable with anything else. Without it, we humans and most other creatures simply and abruptly die…

And right up until very recently, the presence of water in either liquid or gas form on an extra-solar planet was mere theory. Well now it’s fact:

“Water vapour has been found in the atmosphere of a Jupiter-like planet outside our solar system.

Planetary scientists had predicted that “hot Jupiters” – massive gas giants orbiting perilously close to their host stars – would have water vapour in their atmospheres.”

But is this new discovery all that important? If a recent report by the National Academies of Science are to have the last word on the subject, no:

“According to a new report issued by the National Academies of Science, NASA may be going down the wrong path when it comes to searching for life elsewhere in the solar system.”

While not a damning report by any means, the NAS do suggest that NASA don’t go looking too hard for our kind of life when other types of life may exist in our own neighborhood:

“No discovery that we can make in our exploration of the solar system would have greater impact on our view of our position in the cosmos, or be more inspiring, than the discovery of an alien life form, even a primitive one. At the same time, it is clear that nothing would be more tragic in the American exploration of space than to encounter alien life without recognizing it.”

What intrigued me most was the reference to ‘weird life’, which really gets my mind going. The thought of forms of life totally and utterly alien in every sense to our own is very, very exciting.

From our point of view, this really does open things up and offer a glimpse into a future where all kinds of weird lifeforms could exist. I say future rather than a possible future because I’m certain there’s other life out there.

However, from the point of view of NASA, this means a return to the chemists lab and starting from scratch, and the onerous task of spreading their budgets even more thinly.

What has 5 eyes, 3 legs and burps like an elephant?

When we see movies depicting alien life, we often imagine them as something grotesque, something weirdly ungainly or bizarre.

Right now, there are organisms in subterranean cave systems and the bottom of deep oceans, thriving in sunless environments, living by means of chemosynthesis that are as alien in appearance as anyone could hope to imagine.

While I whole-heartedly recommend exploring the unknown beyond, there’s still much to be learned right here on Earth…

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David Bradley → Friday, 13 July 2007 @ 10:49 BDT

Our anthropocentric view has narrowed our search for extraterrestrial life, we always assume it is going to be carbon based and rely on water as its biochemical solvent. But, US scientists recently published a report that suggests we should widen the search for exobiological systems, because water and carbon may not be the only way to go when it comes to eking out a living elsewhere in the universe.

I’ve got a piece scheduled on this for Intute Spotlight soon.
db

Wayne Smallman → Friday, 13 July 2007 @ 13:01 BDT

From what I understand, there’s an element of ‘back to the drawing board’ for NASA.

But the upshot is that we will be less likely to pass over a thin smudge of green slime and think it’s just slime and not life, but not as we know it.

Damn! That should have been the title.

Too late now…

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