Why It's Time to Rethink the Search for Alien Life

Monday, 22 January 2018 - 10:32AM
Alien Life
Monday, 22 January 2018 - 10:32AM
Why It's Time to Rethink the Search for Alien Life
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Image credit: YouTube

Humanity has reached somewhat of a dead end in our search for alien life in the universe.

We've looked on the surface of Mars, we've taken a brief glimpse a bit further afield, and we're stumped. It seems that we can't find anything that looks remotely like the kinds of bug-eyed, grey-skinned mutant elves that popular culture has trained us to expect hiding behind every haybale.

Congress has recently formally charged NASA with the task of advancing "the search for life’s origins, evolution, distribution, and future in the universe," which does sound a bit insulting—it's not as if everyone at the organization has been sitting on their hands and blowing snot bubbles all day.

In fact, NASA's Virus Focus Group has some important suggestions about what we should be doing to find alien life even within our own solar system—although, these new plans do involve moving the goalposts somewhat as to what we'll actually consider "alive."

Instead of looking for humanoid aliens, or even vertebrates of any kind, argues the Virus Focus Group, our next step should be trying to find alien viruses somewhere in the cosmos. These tiny micro-organisms aren't traditionally considered to be living creatures, but they could serve as indicators that more familiar forms of life exist on a particular planet.

To the casual observer, this might sound like even more work than spotting bigger aliens. After all, viruses are so tiny that they're invisible, so what chance do we have of spotting them?

A recent report that has been published by the focus group suggests that, counter-intuitive as it might be, trying to spot viruses first will give us a better understanding of life in general, and how it develops. If we can spot an alien virus circulating somewhere in space, we'll have a pretty good idea of where there might be more complicated forms of life.

To a certain extent, these viruses would be like breadcrumbs, pointing the way towards the alien life that they rely on in order to develop and grow.

According to the Virus Focus Groups' Ken Stedman:

Opening quote
"If we have a way to detect them—and that’s a really big if—you find viruses first. I think that would tell us something fundamental about life itself."
Closing quote

This isn't too strange of an idea—we already know that, thanks to our own efforts to explore our solar system, we've left a fair few microscopic organisms in awkward places. These could potentially be tiny guide markers for any aliens that are attempting to spot us, and we could use similar techniques to better explore our own solar system for signs of life.

The big challenge, though, is finding a way to actually spot viruses across great distances. Such a hunt would require transmission electron miscroscopes to be fitted to a probe which would have to physically travel to a distant planet or moon in order to check the environment for viruses, which is a big ask for an unproven theory. Stedman would like to see such a mission launched to Jupiter's moon Europa, but there's little chance that it'll happen any time soon.

Even if this were achieved, searching an entire moon for microscopic creatures of any variety would be like trying to spot a needle in a haystack while looking at the stack from a mile away through binoculars. This hunt becomes even more difficult if we don't find what we're looking for in our own solar system and we need to start sending transmission microscopes off to Alpha Centauri.

Certainly, there are a lot of things that potential extra-terrestrial viruses can teach us about the development of life. The challenge comes in finding them first, though, and without a solid method for scanning the stars, we might be a long way from finding anything that will actually confirm the existence of alien life.

Alien Life