NASA's Snapshot of the Universe
Lunar Eclipse 2010
large solar flares, possibly as large as the 1859 flares that fried
telegraph lines throughout the U.S. and Europe
Why Would We Go There?
a planet orbiting a star somewhere outside of our own solar system
discoveries of planets in "the habitable zone" - and these now seem to
be coming at an increasing rate - have been focused on specific swaths
of space, specifically that within an orbital distance from a star where
an Earth-like planet can maintain liquid water on its surface and
Earth-like life. The habitable zone is the intersection of two regions
that must both be favorable to life: one within a planetary system, and
the other within a galaxy. Planets and moons in these regions are the
likeliest candidates to be habitable and thus capable of bearing
extraterrestrial life similar to our own.
Life is most likely to form within the
circumstellar habitable zone (CHZ) within a solar system, and the
galactic habitable zone (GHZ) of the larger galaxy (though research on
the latter point remains in its infancy). The HZ may also be referred to
as the "life zone", "Comfort Zone", "Green Belt" or "Goldilocks Zone".
That bit of Wikipedia information is all
very interesting, but as awareness of these heavenly bodies from the
Goldilocks Zone grows by leaps and bounds, how do we measure the value
of the information?
The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) was put
into orbit above earth to establish a stable platform from which to
measure distances to Cepheid variable stars, which has given scientists
greater insight into the rate of expansion of the universe. It turns out
it is expanding at an accelerating rate, which is an unexpected and
unexplained discovery that may be linked to "dark energy".
Dark energy, scientists explain, is a
theoretical energy that permeates all of space and for some reason
accelerates the rate of the universe's expansion, which when you think
about it sounds like double-talk, but may allude to an aspect of the
fabric of space itself. Maybe the whole universe rides atop a giant oil
slick that tends to accumulate and focus the momentum of expansion. I
made that up, but people who know what they are talking about haven't
come up with anything much better, which again begs the question -
What is this all worth?
The HST has been around to view astronomical
events from somewhere near the beginning of time, owing to its
extraordinary depth of field. It has revealed information about black
holes and dwarf planets, and revealed other mysteries, astronomical
bodies of unknown type, such as SCP 06F6, which may have been a
supernova burning bright, possibly outside of the Milky Way Galaxy, but
may also have been tidal destruction of a CO white dwarf by an
intermediate-mass black hole, a "Type Ia" supernova exploding inside the
dense stellar wind of a carbon star, an asteroid that was swallowed up
by a white dwarf, or, less likely, a core collapse supernova. Whatever,
it isn't there any more, at least not as far as we can see.
Does it make any difference?
Purely scientific curiosity and a desire to
understand the universe in which we live is probably value enough to
support most of these scientific endeavors, however minimally their
findings may trickle down as intellectual benefits for the masses.
HERE IS WHAT WE GET...
The one thing we do get about the
exploration of space is the growing awareness that the universe is
likely teaming with life, and with that comes the almost certain
knowledge that we will eventually cross paths.
The questions a layperson might naturally
have about the value of this type of scientific investigation may begin
to come into focus when we consider the practical applications of
discovery, the way Magellan imagined the discovery of the "Spice
Humans have explored for only a handful of
Discovery - mapping unknown territory
Research - investigating organic and inorganic matter
Survival - need to discover required resources
Diplomacy - desire to communicate with other groups
Exploitation - desire to develop
Invasion - desire to occupy and claim
HERE IS WHAT THEY GET...
Humankind has history in all of those
regards, and they serve as the only models we have for what we might
expect from an alien race visiting our own planet. What if the shoe were
on the other foot and it was our territory and resources being, pardon
the expression, probed?
Research: If an alien race had the technology required to
traverse the vast reaches, they would likely know a great deal about
Planet Earth before ever showing up here in person. Based on human space
exploration, it might seem reasonable that they would first send
scientific data gathering probes, though we have only done that when
exploring celestial bodies that are not apparently inhabited by organic
life. We have discovered planets in the habitable zone and may imagine
one day sending our own probes to these distant places. Would we do
that, however, if we had the capability of going their ourselves?
Doesn't that seem unlikely?
If we had the technology to travel 36 light
years to HD85512b, for instance, aren't the chances even better that we
would have also developed the technology to have a pretty good idea of
what we would find there prior to ever sending a probe? And certainly we
wouldn't mount a manned mission to a planet about which we hadn't
already developed a significant body of knowledge.
Conversely, were an alien race to make a
site visit to Earth, it seems unlikely that it would be for either
Discovery or Research purposes. Those early phases of engagement would
likely have taken place without we Earthlings ever being aware of it
having happened. Those UFO reports that have been coming in since the
beginning of time, for instance, could be discovery and research drones
doing the preliminary work.
So what happens after that?
If an alien race has anything in common with the basic instincts
of humans, the aliens will act in their own self interests. One wouldn't
mount a galactic mission without feeling a certain entitlement to the
When Cortes showed up in Mexico, for
instance, looking for gold and silver, he discovered the Aztec Empire,
which he summarily attacked, destroyed, and plundered. He felt that he
could do that because he had a commission from the King of Spain to
bring home the bacon, and the presence of Montezuma and his Aztec nation
notwithstanding, he did just that, claiming Mexico for Spanish domain.
You got similar atrocities committed by
Columbus and other explorers of the new world.
Of course, an alien race may engage
Earthlings in a diplomatic way, as humans have often done when their was
a perceived benefit. Diplomacy, of course, is closely aligned with
treachery, and one can imagine the dynamics in trying to understand the
protocol of relations with an alien race for which one has no blueprint
for behavior and action. Trust is built slowly, over time, and Earth
history is made up of failed efforts to create collaborative relations
with disparate groups, each competing in their own interests. Detente is
typically preceded by an extended period of upheaval.
So what is left? Survival, Exploitation and
Invasion, all bearing unfortunate consequences for all parties involved.
Perhaps the worst of all possible scenarios
would be an alien race migrating through the universe in a struggle to
survive. They would almost certainly marginalize any competing force
they may encounter. And who knows what survival requirements might be
for such a gypsy contingent. Do they gobble resources so voraciously
that they are sentenced to an ongoing travail of hunting and gathering
and confrontational engagement?
Exploitation of Earth and its resources,
possibly including humans, seems like an entirely plausible scenario
based on how we Earthlings have behaved with one another. Alien life
forms may not even be carbon based, as life as we know it is, so we may
encounter behaviors outside of our wildest imaginings.
We can hope that an alien race arrives with
enlightened intentions, providing benefits that are mutual and shared
broadly, but that would indeed be a horse of a different color versus
the Human experience.
Invasion seems most likely among the four
engagement scenarios. Hannibal didn't move across the Orient looking for
new friends. A galactic trip, particularly if it involves any number of
vessels, would almost certainly be a military exercise, and militaries,
being large and expensive things to move, don't make any trips without
doing so for a purpose, and military excursions really only have the
The wild card could be that an alien race who shows up on Planet Earth
is just nothing at like us humans. We could hope that they were, in
fact, superior to us and that their technological advancements were
paced by their intellectual and spiritual enlightenment; that they came
as emissaries and peace and understanding.
Now those, to Earthlings, would be largely