September 10

How Do We Search For Extraterrestrial Life?


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Astronomy, or the science of stars and planets, provides us with valuable answers about life beyond Earth. Telescopes like those at the Very Large Array in New Mexico or Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in northern Chile allow scientists to look out into space with unprecedented clarity – offering data about everything from distant explosions of stars to planet formation processes far off in space.

Searching for extraterrestrial life requires several types of telescopes. Radio telescopes resemble large bowls and collect electromagnetic waves; other telescopes may gather infrared, visible, or X-ray light – NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will specifically examine chemical composition of exoplanet atmospheres to search for signs of life.

Solar system exploration over the last 50 years has dramatically expanded our list of relatively nearby candidate worlds that may support life, including Europa and Enceladus of Jupiter and Saturn – where models suggest their rocky cores may be enclosed within layers of ice; potentially creating conditions conducive to life such as providing life-indicative chemicals to these moons.

Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf star only 4.2 light-years away, could also make an excellent target. Astronomers have developed methods for studying its seven transiting planets of various sizes that orbit it; specifically whether any may fall within Earth-sized and habitable zone boundaries.


Long before astronomers began studying planets beyond our solar system, speculation rife about whether life may exist elsewhere in space. Isaac Newton alluded to this possibility in the final paragraph of his Principia and it gained popularity throughout the 18th century despite lack of supporting evidence.

Astronomers have now discovered thousands of exoplanet systems — groups of non-stellar objects orbiting stars other than our Sun — with multiple planets orbiting each star system and some possessing surface water. Potential for life depends on its distance from its star – an indicator known as its habitable zone.

Scientists are exploring the formation of planets, including how they might have formed in a star’s disk and their chemical characteristics derived from meteorites or samples returned by space missions.

KEPLER will employ transit photometry as part of its search for Earth-like planets in other stars’ habitable zones. This technique watches for any small changes in light when planets pass through an atmosphere – an indicator that such planets exist.

Scientists hope to discover whether Mars once hosted conditions suitable for life by studying possible river channels that carried water to polar regions and searching shadowed craters for any signs of microorganisms that may have survived.


Searching for Alien Technology (SETI) involves looking for signs that advanced civilizations from distant corners of space have built sophisticated technologies, particularly radio transmission technologies. Radio is an ideal way of transporting messages across vast distances; radio waves travel through dust and gas that pervades space up to 20,000 times faster than light.

Assume a spacecraft arrives on Earth and detects swirling patterns. It sends out a probe, and its response shows up as slight modifications in the swirling pattern – now it seems there is some form of interaction or conversation taking place between these two forces, even though all they are really talking about are physical forces at work here.

New research suggests rocky exoplanets may contain liquid water as soon as they form, increasing the chances of life being found there.


Discovering exoplanets has given life on other worlds new urgency. Vanderbilt professor of astronomy David Weintraub recognized that religious beliefs had an immense effect on people’s reactions, so he sought out to see what each world religion had to say on this matter. His book, Religion and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life” (Springer International Publishing), covers various theological perspectives from Judaism, Christianity and other major world religions. The volume includes chapters on Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy churches, multiple mainline Protestant sects and evangelical and fundamentalist Christian denominations as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Quakers, Mormonism (including Latter Day Saints), Southern Baptists and Seventh Day Adventists).

Weintraub’s research shows that only two major Christian groups would object to the discovery of extraterrestrial life: Jehovah’s Witnesses and Roman Catholics, who believe intelligent aliens must descend from Adam and Eve and therefore suffer original sin, needing salvation. By contrast, Mormonism and Seventh Day Adventism both possess theological frameworks which readily accept extraterrestrials; for example, its founders believed God helped elevate lesser souls so they may live as gods on other planets – such belief was one keystone of Mormonism’s foundation compared with traditional Roman Catholic beliefs on original sin requiring salvation for intelligent alien life to exist.

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