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The Search for Life in the Universe by Dr Louisa Preston

A few weeks back we headed down to the Royal Astronomical Society for a very exciting lecture on the future and possibilities of life in the universe, where we’re likely to find it, and how we’re approaching this monstrous task, which ultimately will tell us a lot about ourselves.

 
The biggest question that faces us as humans is ‘Are we alone?’ and it can be quite a daunting one at that, as well as hard to solve… To put this question and our place in context, Kornreich estimated that the Universe contains 10 trillion galaxies, a galaxy like our own Milky Way holds 100 thousand million stars and the vast majority of stars are likely to have multiple planets in their orbit. Some of these planets sit in what is called the Goldilocks zone, which our Earth sits comfortably in to harvest the right conditions for life. Feeling small yet…?

 
In this lecture Dr Louisa Preston went into great detail to define what life is and where we find it on our own planet. Life on Earth has a number of variations, just look at water bears compared to humans compared to trees; we could go on and on. Life can also be found almost anywhere and in a wide array of conditions, be it volcanoes, impact craters, frozen deserts, hot springs or ancient rivers. Excitingly, many of these extreme locations mimic conditions we find in the solar system on other planets and moons, and this gives us great hope for finding our future alien friends.

 
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Our best bets in the search for life so far are Mars, Saturn’s moon Enceladus and Jupiter’s moon Europa, which host some of the aforementioned conditions. Europa in particular is of great interest to scientists as it’s thought under it’s layers of thick ice that the moon hosts an ocean of liquid water, and where we find water on Earth, we tend to find life. Mars is another contender and is a likely destination for human exploration in the next 15 – 20 years. Yes, The Martian movie could well become real…

 

There are also a number of exoplanets that we know of outside of our solar system which could well host life. To date we know of 3,422 exoplanets and some of these are good contenders for being habitable. Kepler 22b, Kepler 186f and Kepler 452b (catchy names right?) are all candidates and harvest similar conditions in one way, shape or form to what we have here on Earth. The bad news is that given these exoplanets are around other stars, and our nearest star Alpha Centauri alone is around 4.24 light years away, it’s impossible that we’ll reach these by spacecraft with current technologies and therefore we have to study them from afar. Very very very (etc etc) far, it would seem!

 
All in all, this lecture was fascinating and Dr Louisa Preston had a great way of making mind-bending information accessible and easy (or easier…) to understand. There’s so much more out there and scientists are hopefully on the verge of proving there’s more to life than what we know on Earth. Whilst Sci-Fi fans might be hoping for green little men, in reality the implications of just finding bacteria on another world would be life-changing on Earth. It would mean life has been able to evolve elsewhere, in different conditions, on different worlds, and ultimately would mean we aren’t alone in the vast universe. Now our minds have been blown, we best get back to work…