Space: Forever a Frontier

(Photo: Kristen Thompson)

(Photo: Kristen Thompson)

Four minutes to launch.

Sunrise is only hours away. The sky is clear, and stars glint in the night. In the distance stands a beacon. Floodlights reveal the Boeing Delta II launch vehicle. Its cargo: the Indiana Jones of planet-discovering machinery, the Kepler spacecraft.

Three minutes to launch.

“It was incredible,” says Dr. Sara Seager, an astrophysicist and professor of planetary science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “They were counting it down just like in the movies.”

Two minutes to launch.

Equipped with the latest in imaging technology, Kepler will scour the night sky for planets outside of our solar system.

One minute to launch.

Kepler is being shot far out of our atmosphere and instead of orbiting the earth, as many satellites do, Kepler will orbit the sun.

Ten seconds.

Several scientists and their families watch in anticipation. Humanity is finally going to know just how common planets are in the universe.  

Lift off.

At 3:49 am, on the morning of March 6, 2009, the Kepler spacecraft was catapulted into space.  

The crowd cheers as the rocket blasts off.  “They were just so relieved and joyful,” says Seager. “Do they laugh because they are so happy or cry? It was such an amazing experience.”

Since the night at the launch, scientists have been feasting on a range of new planetary discoveries. We now know that every star has at least one planet, on average, and these planets can be incredibly diverse.

“They can occur in every size, mass, and orbit imaginable,” says Seager.

To date, the Kepler data has identified over 2,000 planets throughout our galaxy. What the Kepler data can’t tell us is whether or not something might be living on those planets.

“It is kind of like searching for gold: you found gold, and you’re going to stake it out. But in order to mine all that gold – that’s a whole other process,” says Seager. “We find planets in one way, and usually to characterize them and learn more about them we need a better telescope.”

That better ‘scope is the James Webb Space Telescope, which finished its construction in November. When the Webb is launched in 2018, it will be the largest telescope in space. Its sunshade alone is the size of a tennis court.

Without the convenience of warp-drive, scientists hope that the Webb will find atmospheric clues of life on distant earth-like planets.

Seager is one of many scientists who have been working on creating a catalogue of chemicals that signify life. There are approximately 14,000 molecules that are specific to earth’s pressure and temperature that scientists can look for. Seager says that while we are moving closer to understanding atmospheres, there’s a lot we still don’t know.

“We don’t know why earth’s atmosphere is what it is,” says Seager. “Why it’s the mass it is; why it has the composition it does. We don’t know what it was born with and how it evolves.”

Scientists can make a slew of educated guesses but once the Webb enters orbit and begins to collect data, astronomers will have a better grasp of what makes an atmosphere and how it can change.

Until the 2018 launch, scientists are theorizing that life can exist in outer space. Not the walking-talking-netflixing kind of life, but something much simpler. Small, single-celled creatures are more resilient and adapt quicker than their furry or scaly counterparts. On earth, these miniature bubbles of life survive in the harshest of conditions. Many made it through the extinction of the dinosaurs without batting an eye. Complex life, on the other hand, is much more fragile. It’s more likely to kick the asteroid-sized bucket. Which is why the sky is left empty.

Dr. Nick Bostrom, a professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford, argues that if the little green men did exist, we would see a sky teeming with spaceships. He says that even if the probability for life was low, there are just so many planets that there would still be a cacophony of celestial traffic.  

Somewhere down the line of existence there is a roadblock that stops intelligent life, whether it be a tragedy of the heavens or a disaster on the ground. Life seems to stop somewhere.  

Although technology is bringing us closer to discovering if we are truly alone, if no one is out there to begin with, perhaps the search is pointless. Maybe we are alone, cursed to survey the heavens in vain for the rest of our days.

The truth is, we just won’t know without more data. Until we find some form of life in the cosmos, scientists and theorists can only hum and haw about the possibility of extraterrestrials. If it happened once, couldn’t it happen again? Or are we the true freaks of nature?