‘Anyone Out There?’

The Quest For

“Climate change and inter galactic space exploration are but some of the major challenges facing mankind and shaping our future. As citizens of the global village, these and others like inequality or Palestine are certainly more important preoccupations as we look at the larger picture, which are thankfully light years distanced from recurrent obsessions about black outs and the pipe dreams of anticipated elections…”

In the space of a week last month, we received the magnificent and imagination blowing images of Pluto, a dwarf planet situated at the outer belt of our solar system as well as pictures of the first near-Earth size planet, found in the ‘habitable zone’ of Kepler-186, a five planet star system about 500 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus. (A light year is the astronomical distance that light travels in one year i.e. nearly 6 trillion miles). These are magic moments for humanity to see such vivid pictures relayed to Earth through more and more sophisticated scientific space probes into the farthest hinterland of the cosmos.

Pluto, which is not classified as a planet by the International Astronomical Union, is located in the Kuiper belt, a ring of bodies beyond Neptune, some 3.6 billion miles from the sun. By virtue of its distance from the sun it was surmised as being primarily rock and ice. The breath taking true colour pictures of Pluto (which is less half the width of the United States) and its moons sent by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft in July reveals its well defined topography comprising as expected frozen peaks in icy mountain ranges similar in size to those in the United States, icy plains and heavily cratered terrain. The Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) enabled well defined features as small as half a mile to be visible on the images. The precision was such that it captured the fascinating image of a peak nested in a depression on Charon, the largest of the five known moons of Pluto.

Life outside our solar system

NASA’s Kepler’s space telescope path breaking discovery of a near-Earth size planet named Kepler-186f orbiting around a star at a distance from it where water could pool at the surface of the orbiting planet fires the imagination and opens exciting prospects of more discoveries. So far, we know of only one planet where life in the way we know it exists: Earth. Elisa Quintana, research scientist at NASA and lead author of a paper published in the journal ‘Science’ last month explains NASA’s approach as follows: ‘When we search for life outside our solar system we focus on finding planets with characteristics that mimic that of Earth. Finding a habitable zone planet comparable to Earth in size is a major step forward.’

Although planets have previously been found in the habitable zones, their much larger size than earth rendered their study more challenging. Kepler-186f is reminiscent of Earth but is not an exact match as it receives from its star a third of the energy that Earth gets from the sun. It orbits, together with four other planets around a sun like star half the size and mass of our sun. The star is classified as an M dwarf which makes up 70 percent of the stars in the Milky Way galaxy. Quintana opines that ‘the first signs of other life in the galaxy may well come from planets orbiting an M dwarf’.

In its mission of detecting Earth-size planets around sun like stars, the Kepler Space Telescope scanned and measured the brightness of more than 150,000 stars. Finding exact Earth like planets and conditions in the Universe is like finding a needle in a haystack. This approach is however based on the model of life as we know it on Earth i.e. carbon based. Conceptually, there could be other forms of life which are not carbon based.

Earth was, according to radiometric dating, formed about 4.54 billion years ago. Life appeared on the planet within the first billion years in water in its oceans. Life transformed the planet and its environment causing the formation of the protective ozone layer to shield Earth from risks of destructive and lethal exposure to the sun’s radiation. However, what makes it unique is that it is the only astronomical body known to accommodate life. It is the safeguarding cocoon of the ozone layer and earth’s fortuitous distance from the sun as opposed to other terrestrial planets of our solar system, its physical properties and geological history which provided the contributing and catalyzing conditions for life to emerge, proliferate and evolve in such diverse and extraordinary forms.

From most probably very early times with the birth of civilization on Earth, Man who is endowed with a unique questioning mind amongst the estimated 10-14 millions of species still on Earth has gazed at the skies and the stars and peered into the universe to fathom the secrets of the galaxies and the cosmos driven by the existential quest of ‘Anyone out there?’ Thanks to the development of more and more sophisticated telescopes and spacecrafts, space scientists are continuously carrying exploration of the universe to new exhilarating and ground breaking frontiers, unimagined at the time of the first ventures into space with the launch of the Russian Sputnik in 1957 or the first moon landing by the American Apollo 11 spacecraft in 1969.

More importantly, space exploration has experienced a sea change with the rivalry of those times being replaced by collaboration and cooperation with new players like China, India and Japan bringing in their own scientific acumen and cost effectiveness. For example, India has used pointed space technology in a variety of applications for the benefit of society but has also achieved singular success in space exploration. Chandrayaan-1 became the first lunar mission to discover the existence of water on the Moon in 2009 whereas the Mars Orbiter Mission, India’s first interplanetary mission made the country become the first country to successfully put a space probe into Mars orbit on its first attempt in 2014.

Safeguarding our homeland

Interplanetary space exploration to search for life outside our solar system should not make us forget that as guardians of our common homeland, Earth, we have to do significantly more to safeguard it from the growing dangers and dire consequences of global warming. This is principally caused by the growing emissions of greenhouse gases which block and trap heat radiation from Earth thus preventing them from escaping towards space.

The protective ozone layer shield is being weakened. The build up of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide or methane emitted in increasing quantities in the atmosphere by a range of human activity, deforestation and intense industrialization using energy derived from fossil fuels are already taking their toll on the planet. This is evidenced by global warming with 10 of the warmest years since 1954 having all occurred since 1998 with 2014 being the warmest on record and the Arctic sea ice declining at the rate of 13.3% per decade compared to the 1981-2010 average.

Satellite observations have shown that the 2012 Arctic sea ice extent was the lowest on record. NASA’s satellite data reveal that land ice sheets in both Antarctica and Greenland are losing hundreds of billions of ice mass every year since 2002. The melting of ice and global warming is raising the sea level and causing coastal tide driven erosion. The global forest cover has also shrunk through deforestation in the ‘lungs’ of the planet in Indonesia and at a declining rate of annual forest loss in Brazil. Global warming is also evidenced in the growing frequency and cycle of extreme climatic conditions affecting increasing number of regions across the world.

There is therefore a need for a paradigm shift towards more potent actions by the main industrialized countries that are the main culprits in the global warming and climate change affecting Earth, to reverse the trend and stem its adverse fallouts. President Obama’s more ambitious Clean Power Plan announced this week is therefore welcome. Stating that no challenge provides a greater threat to the future of the planet than climate change, he sets achievable standards to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

He sets carbon pollution reduction goals for all power plants and requires US states to create tailored plans to meet them. He also puts significant emphasis on wind and solar power and other renewable energy sources. He warned those defending coal, a principal feedstock in the production of energy in Mauritius, that scaremongering will not work to stop the proposal. The plan provides a timely boost to the UN Climate Change Conference scheduled in Paris in December 2015 and will put pressure on other countries to follow suit.

Climate change and inter galactic space exploration are but some of the major challenges facing mankind and shaping our future. As citizens of the global village, these and others like inequality or Palestine are certainly more important preoccupations as we look at the larger picture, which are thankfully light years distanced from recurrent obsessions about black outs and the pipe dreams of anticipated elections.

  • Published in print edition on 7 August 2015

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