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.

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  • Andries - 2012-01-31 03:05

    I knew the SETI search was running on a shoestring budget, but it’s quite disturbing to hear that they shut down in 2011. We should definitely keep a ear open to the possibility of ETs. Meanwhile the church, which is basically the administrative department of a failed hypothesis, is rolling in dough. Funny old world.

      Fredster - 2012-01-31 08:42

      I will rather give money for God's work then looking for ET

      Godfrey - 2012-01-31 09:17

      @Fredster69 I am sure you would because every advance in science knocks another nail in the coffin of religious fraud.

      ludlowdj - 2012-01-31 09:55

      Religion is a man made fraud and if there is a "God" figure he most certainly would have nothing to do with the church, The most likely explanation being that any "God" who visited would in most probability be an Alien who would have been given a god like status by primitive man. Science on the other hand is what we refer to as a learning occupation and although the basics taught by science may be proven and tested, most of the work put forward is little more than the best answer at the time from our understanding, which will most probably change as we learn more.

      Victor - 2012-01-31 13:29

      Fredster69 Godfrey summed it up nicely. Why does your almighty skygod need money?

      Phillip - 2012-01-31 13:48

      Victor. Fredster said that this money would be given to God's work. Not God

      Victor - 2012-01-31 14:33

      Phillip If god is almighty surely he can magically perform this "work"? And yet again, as I've asked asd nauseum, what does a myth like this have to do with SCIENCE? This is the science section of News24!

      Godfrey - 2012-01-31 15:19

      @Victor Because by their silly bronze age books of myths the big invisible sky daddy created everything in 6 days. Scientists are going to universities and studying for years, billions are spent around the world on scientific research and exploration all in an anti-god conspiracy to prove the bible is bollocks. This god created everything but is incapable of creating his own money. He needs the self-appointed reverends, pastors, priests, bishops and popes to collect if for him.

      Victor - 2012-01-31 15:37

      Godfrey - Indeed! If only Fredster69 was not such a coward, he never enters into debate. Just comes and spews his religious dribble, then runs away quickly.

      werner.smidt - 2012-01-31 16:40

      Why should we listen for ET? To distract us further from real life problems a little closer to home? Sure as hell works for the government changing Street names (a second and third time) to give people a mistaken sense of euphoria and making them believe the people they voted for are getting things done.

      werner.smidt - 2012-01-31 16:51

      @Victor . . this is a science section on News24 . . that doesn't implicitly make it scientific ;-) might tickle your fancy. Though please leave things as they are in there. Perhaps Fredster doesn't intend to debate and just leave one line of opinion. Doesn't really make him a coward. Or perhaps he likes debating face to face where there is no room for remote "bravery". It should be a good, sensational debate: Evangelical Atheist vs Evangelical Christian...hell, we'll even organize Fatti's and Moni's as sponsors to cater for your funny bone.

      Victor - 2012-02-01 08:31

      TheSlip: It's Fredster69's normal mode of behaviour. "that doesn't implicitly make it scientific" No, but I am so tired of religion being shoved in my face whereever I go. What does 'god' have to do with science? Do people come and post about the tooth fairy, no - so why the benevolent zombie?

      Victor - 2012-02-01 09:11

      TheSlip (2): "Perhaps Fredster doesn't intend to debate and just leave one line of opinion" I disagree - I think he just wants to be divisive.

      werner.smidt - 2012-02-01 09:20

      @Victor "No, but I am so tired of religion being shoved in my face whereever I go." Ever heard of ignorance is bliss? Having said that, I will agree that it does make me slightly weary when people live vicariously through the suffering of others . . . whether it be concentration camps or Galileo being under house arrest. Also, I suggest you watch a documentary called "Science and Islam". It was really fascinating. Religious authorities aren't hampering my efforts to do research, so I'll let them be.

      Victor - 2012-02-01 10:56

      TheSlip: Just be glad you're not a biologist in the bible belt of America.

      Victor - 2012-02-01 11:00

      As for the mention of the documentary, what is your point? That *some* of the work done in the name of religion is positive? I never argued that everything done in the name of religion is bad Islam has its share of weirdness when it comes to science. Take Harun Yahya with his laughable "The Atlas of Creation"

      Andries - 2012-02-02 00:52

      The Slip- I think it is quite clear that we should not all ALL be listening for ETs. Your idiotic post sounds as if the entire population of the country is suddenly going to drop everything else and state up at the sky. Also, I collect non sequiturs and your little off track comment about street name being changed is a beauty. Thanks.

  • Victor - 2012-01-31 13:30

    The US can slice a little off their leviathan of a defense budget and allocate it to SETI. Its strange how Obama also sets so many goals for NASA, but the government is not keen to increase budgets allocated to NASA.

  • CarlS - 2012-01-31 16:33

    Methinks we're a couple thousand years away from ET based on our current rate of advancement. ET will probably find us first.

  • werner.smidt - 2012-01-31 16:44

    @lud What exactly do imply with "we refer to as"? A little condescending, don't you think?

  • Dan - 2012-01-31 20:11

    I would rather give money to ET than to God , ET's disiples and clergy have never abused any choir boys , not commited genocide in south america and then calling it conversion . Anycasr the true got The flying spaggethi monster say in his gospel that he doesnt need any money Ramen

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