Search for alien life in trouble

2012-01-30 22:52
Cape Town - Funding is critical to the search for extraterrestrial life, but donors are more keen on quick results, an astronomer has said.

"The problem with Seti [Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence] is that it's one of those experiments where we could get a result tomorrow, or we could wait a thousand years," Dr Robin Catchpole told News24.

Catchpole works at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, and is formerly a senior astronomer at the Royal Observatory.

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence was shut down in 2011 because of a funding shortfall, and Catchpole said this was an indication that funders wanted research to deliver results.

"When funding gets tight, people like something that's guaranteed to get some kind of a result tomorrow."

Microbial life

Recently astronomers have discovered that Mars has snowfalls and there may be a possibility of liquid water below the surface.

This may be a good indicator for microbial life.

"Yes, indeed, all those things [about Mars] are absolutely right and we also know we can go further. We can go to the moons of Jupiter and we see ice on Europa and where there is broken ice, we think there is water below the surface," said Catchpole.

He said that our solar system may contain the elements necessary for life and if the technology was available, it was possible to study bodies in the solar system in more detail.

"If we go even further out in the solar system to Enceladus [moon of Saturn], we see jets of water sort of squirting out from the surface there.

"Closer to home we might well find evidence for singled-cell life, but of course, the interesting thing about looking at other planets is to try and see if there are planets similar to Earth and if we can observe them spectroscopically, then we would be able to see molecules in their atmosphere."

Ozone, carbon dioxide and free oxygen may indicate the existence of life, but it is likely that the organisms, if found, will be single-celled bacteria, rather than the complex life forms on Earth.


Despite his belief that finding extraterrestrial life was imminent, Catchpole did not subscribe to the idea that the universe was "teeming with life".

"I've never been very sympathetic to that view. I mean it is possible that life could be moved around in our solar system.

"But panspermia doesn't really answer the ultimate mystery about how life starts, it just means it starts somewhere and moves around," said Catchpole.

The idea was first proposed by the Greek writer Anaxagoras in the 5th century BC and given new impetus in the modern era by Swedish chemist Jöns Jacob Berzelius in the 19th century, and also by famed astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle.

Panspermia suggests that life may have spread through the universe by collisions between planets that may harbour life and wherever conditions are favourable, life takes root.

"One has to maintain an open mind, but at this moment, there is no need to invoke that; it doesn't really help solve the problem of the origin of life, it just puts it somewhere else," Catchpole said.

Astronomers would be eager to identify life that is completely different from life on Earth, but it would hint that if life forms spontaneously, it would be a matter of time before intelligent life was found.

"But if it's different, then I think that would be exciting because it would suggest that life could spontaneously form, given the right conditions, in the right environment," said Catchpole.

Catchpole has authored and co-authored over 100 research papers and has used telescopes around the world including the Hubble Space Telescope. His research interests include the composition of stars, exploding stars, the structure of our Galaxy and galaxies with central black holes.

- Follow Duncan on Twitter
Read more on:    astronomy

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