Seth Shostak is Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute in California, and the host of the weekly radio show and podcast, “Big Picture Science.”
The Moon is a ball of left-over debris from a cosmic collision that took place more than four billion years ago. A Mars-sized asteroid—one of the countless planetesimals that were frantically churning our solar system into existence—hit the infant Earth, bequeathing it a very large, natural satellite.
OK, that’s a bit of modestly engaging astrophysics. But some scientists think there’s a biological angle here. Namely, that elaborate terrestrial life might never have appeared if that asteroid had arrived a few hours earlier, and sailed silently by. Put another way, if every night were moonless, you wouldn’t be around to notice the lack of a moon.
But is that true? Did our cratered companion really make our existence possible?
Only a few decades back, there were serious scientists who thought that planets might be miraculous. Not miracles like a burning bush or a docile teenager, but highly improbable objects. These researchers figured that the conditions necessary for making small, cold worlds could be rare—perhaps extremely rare. Most stars were believed to live their luminous lives alone, bereft of planetary accompaniment.
Well, those thoughts have been banished. In the last 15 years, hard-working astronomers have found many hundreds of so-called exoplanets around nearby stars, and NASA’s Kepler telescope is set to uncover thousands more. (If you don’t know this already, you’ve probably reached this site by mistake. But you’ve come this far already, so keep reading.) Kepler’s principal task is to find habitable exoplanets—worlds with solid surfaces at the right distance from their host star to sport temperatures amenable to the presence of watery oceans and protective atmospheres—planets that might be very much like Earth (depending on some other factors that are harder to measure from light-years away, like geology and chemistry).
Kepler has already found about five dozen candidate objects that, while somewhat larger than our own, seem to meet these criteria. As this space-based telescope continues to peer into the heavens, more such planets will emerge from the data. Indeed, it seems a good bet to guess that at least a few percent of all stars are blessed with “habitable” worlds. That would tally to billions of life-friendly sites, just in our galaxy. This has already prompted SETI scientists to swing their antennas in the directions Kepler’s most promising candidate planets, hoping to pick up the ABCs and MTVs of alien worlds. After all, these systems are arguably the best targets that SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has ever had. It’s like discovering a prolific fishing hole.
But there’s a fly in the ointment: While eavesdropping on a small bunch of star systems known to have terrestrial-style worlds is better than taking your chances with random targets, it’s not actually that much better. The reason is simple. The oldest confirmed fossils on Earth are about 3.5 billion years old, and there’s indirect, if sketchy, evidence for life going back 4 billion years. That’s roughly 90 percent of the age of the Earth, which is to say that biology bedecked our planet very early. Life seems to have been an easy chemistry experiment. So that’s yet more encouragement, as it hints that many of those habitable worlds will actually be inhabited. There could be life on billions of planets in the Milky Way.