A powerful new model to detect life on planets outside of our solar system, more accurately than ever before, has been developed by University College London researchers.
The new model focuses on methane, the simplest organic molecule, widely acknowledged to be a sign of potential life.
The researchers developed a new spectrum for methane which can be used to detect the molecule at temperatures above that of Earth, up to 1220°C – something that was not possible before.
The new model will have a big impact on the future study of planets outside our solar system, potentially helping scientists identify signs of extraterrestrial life.
One of the first planets the new spectrum for methane gas can be tested on is Kepler-186f, just discovered in March 2014.
Kepler-186f, a planet 492 light years from earth, is special because it is the first planet found of the same size as Earth orbiting in the “habitable zone” – the distance from a star in which we might expect liquid water, and perhaps life.
Most scientists believe that life is most likely widely spread throughout our galaxy.
Extra solar intelligent life however, if it exists at all, will be much rarer because as physicist Enrico Fermi often noted, it seems extraordinary that not a single extraterrestrial signal has ever been detected.
This apparent absence of thriving extraterrestrial civilizations suggests that at least one of the steps from simple life forms on a planet to interstellar civilization is exceedingly unlikely.
The absence could be caused because either the development of intelligent life is extremely rare; or intelligent life with advanced technology has a tendency to go extinct.
While emergence of intelligent life could be very rare, the silence could also be the result of intelligent life emerging frequently but subsequently failing to survive for long.
Perhaps every sufficiently advanced civilization stumbles across a suicidal technology.
For example, astronomer Martin Rees at the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk points to advances in biotechnology as being potentially catastrophic.
Stephen Hawking also with the Cambridge Centre, has expressed serious concern about the possibility of humans developing a machine super-intelligence that takes over and replaces us.
And of course, we all know that old fashioned warfare, with hi tech bio-weapons, could do humans in.
More than thirty years ago I wrote a book about modern Kabbalah entitled, “God, Sex and Kabbalah”. I devoted an entire chapter in the book to Extra Terrestrial Intelligent Life as evidence of God’s universal creation.
In that chapter I point out that the key ingredient that is essential for two advanced civilizations to ever meet is the half-life of advanced civilizations.
If advanced civilizations last for only ten or twenty thousand years the odds against their being close enough in both time and space to be in contact are millions to one.
Only advanced technology civilizations that achieve a fully peaceful society (called by Jews-The Messianic Age) have any chance to last the hundred’s of thousands of years that would make interstellar contact possible.
Thus, the most important factor in assessing our chances of contacting extraterrestrial life, the most crucial one of all—the Messianic factor; is the life span of a civilization with a highly developed technology.
If we look to history for a model of our future, what we find does nothing to make us sleep better at night. Dozens of civilizations have sprung up, flowered brilliantly, withered, and died.
The reasons are difficult to identify, no doubt in each case numbers of factors were operating at once.
From our distance in time and space, some seem to have been destroyed by enemies from without, others from internal rot; a few fell before natural disasters such as a prolonged drought.
The most successful were victimized by their own achievements and ambitions, becoming too large to be efficiently administrated, or too rich and soft to make the hard choices that were later called for.
When those civilizations died, other peoples and other cultures replaced them. But today, our technology has developed weapons, which if used, could destroy not just the civilization of the countries directly involved but all civilizations and, conceivably, the entire human race.
Right now in our own lifetime, humanity is beginning to answer the question can we survive ourselves.
So the final factor is the length of time space age civilizations survive. We know that nothing lasts forever. Even the stars eventually die. Scanning the course of human history, more civilizations have already died than now exist.
It is reasonable to suspect that our own civilization, and those of alien races also will not last forever? Birth and death, creation and destruction seem an inevitable part of existence; it is hard to believe that any civilization will be exempt from the normal pattern.
But what is our lifespan? A pessimist might look at the world situation and claim there is serious doubt that we will survive to reach the twenty-third or twenty-fourth century. Some will wonder if we will see the end of the twenty-first century.
As a rabbi and a Kabbalist I am an optimist. While I agree that homo sapiens have overwhelming problems that must be solved if we are to survive, I feel confident that the very problems we face will stimulate solutions for managing them, and that we as a civilization will with God’s help, reorganize ourselves into a society uniquely capable of satisfying both humanity’s and the planet’s needs.
I believe that God has given the Messianic promise of ultimately achieving an age of international peace and justice to all intelligent beings living on all the worlds they inhabit.
Thus they, as well as we, must have both faith and hope in the coming of a Messianic Age which will last for an unimaginable length of time.
The rabbis foresaw that there would someday be an end to the time of trials; the transitional phase of the Messianic Age. Some rabbis placed the birth-pangs of the Messianic Age in units of centuries, others anticipating even longer time units.
They all agreed that humanity would win through the time of troubles and reach another age, called the New Age or the Coming World; but none of the rabbis remarked on its duration.
I believe the transitional phase of the Messianic Age will require several centuries, but the Coming World will last for an incomprehensible span of time.
I have looked at the problem of communicating with extraterrestrial beings from an anthropocentric point of view, wondering if there is someone “out there” for us to communicate with.
Now let’s look at the issue from the perspective of the universe.
Our galaxy is not unusual. It is one of a cluster of eighteen galaxies. Millions of such clusters fill the universe, each composed of anywhere from a dozen to several hundred galaxies.
It seems reasonable to assume the Messianic promise does extend to all of the universe’s intelligent races:
As they build toward a space-age technology, they will enter a Messianic transition and, through coping with their crises, eventually reach an era of great spiritual development, their New Age.
Their society’s basic social and technological problems will have been solved. The main thrust of their energies will be directed towards fulfilling their partnership with the Divine, by helping other civilizations and by achieving greater spiritual insights which will further their understanding both of the individual and the universe.
Eventually as each emerging civilization passes from its Messianic Age to its era of the New World, it contacts intelligent beings from a distant star.
Many science fiction stories have been written about this first contact, usually in terms of hostility. Their authors are mistaken. They judge the future in terms of the present.
The upheavals of the Messianic Age function as a proving ground and a filter.
Those intelligent species who are too aggressive, too competitive, too destructive, too selfish, or too materialistic to achieve a culture-wide spiritual uplifting; will destroy themselves long before they develop the technical sophistication needed for interstellar and intergalactic flight.
Those species that have achieved their Messianic Age will join together in a galaxy wide spiritual civilization which continually accepts new species who have attained their own Messianic Age.
They are waiting patiently for us to qualify.