March 12 2008 / by futuretalk
Category: Space Year: Beyond Rating: 12
By Dick Pelletier
In the 19th century, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells popularized the idea of Martian aliens. Astronomer Percival Lowell even built an observatory to study the red planet. He believed that its surface was criss-crossed by canals, dug by an advanced civilization.
How life began, and does it exist elsewhere in the universe remains a fascinating puzzle; but today, astronomers do not anticipate finding intelligent life on Mars. Nobody expects that other human-like life even exists in our Solar System. However scientists remind us that our Sun is just one among trillions in the universe. Astronomers estimate that a countless number of stars have planets swirling around them, and that billions of Earth-like planets may exist.
Some of these planets harbor intelligent life? It’s certainly possible, but skeptics wonder; if aliens are common, why haven’t they already visited us? Well, UFO supporters say they have, but British astronomer Sir Martin Rees says that evidence for UFOs is no better than that for ghosts, and most credible scientists view UFOs as an invention of human imagination.
The vastness of space may explain why aliens have not contacted us, Rees says. The nearest stars are so distant that even communication signals could take centuries to reach us. And the possibility of aliens transporting their physical bodies across this huge expanse may be impossible.
But a new generation of super telescopes will soon probe the most far-off heavens, which many believe could provide clear cut evidence of extraterrestrial existence. In 2013, NASA will launch the James Webb Space Telescope, seven-times stronger than the Hubble Telescope. This new tool will help us understand how stars and planets form.
In 2016, the Giant Magellan Telescope will become the world’s largest, but its glory may be short-lived. Already in the dream stage is a 42-meter monster called the European Extremely Large Telescope that could produce crystal clear views of Earth-like planets revealing irrefutable proof of intelligent life.
A major challenge facing tomorrow’s astronomers will be processing the huge amounts of data from these larger scopes. The number of variables and interactions are too massive for current computers to handle, but researchers see the solution in quantum computers.
Expected in the 2020s, quantum computers will provide better weather predictions, improved air traffic control methods, and unravel many of the human body’s mysteries. This IT marvel will also help astronomers identify planets with the highest probability of harboring intelligent life, and it could even help scientists develop ways to contact these new neighbors.
When we make first contact, the aliens’ appearance may surprise us. They could be balloon-like creatures floating in dense atmospheres; or appear as tiny ant-like insects – or even super-computers created by a race of beings that had died out. Regardless of how they look though, Rees believes we would consider them distant cousins. We are built from similar atoms and we both can trace our origins to the “big bang.”
As we trek through this 21st century “magical future,” the odds increasingly point towards a first contact with intelligent aliens. What might this mean for civilization? Forward-thinkers imagine that today’s Star Trek science fiction world could become tomorrow’s reality.