clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The New Neil Armstrongs

Space exploration used to be the playground of pilots. It was tactile, and it was going places we could see, like the moon. So what happens when the new frontier is beyond most people’s comprehension? Meet two scientists whose work is taking greater leaps than Neil Armstrong.

Still from ‘No Man’s Sky’ Hello Games

On the latest episode of The Ringer MLB Show, Space Week extends to the sports world. Ben Lindbergh and Michael Baumann chatted with Ira Steven Behr, an executive producer and writer for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, about that show’s famous baseball episode, “Take Me Out to the Holosuite.” Behr discussed the episode’s origins, the difficulties of shooting baseball scenes in the Trek universe, and why the one-off idea made sense within the broader show’s timeline.


One day, probably in the summer of 1950, but possibly 1951, over lunch at Fuller Lodge, Enrico Fermi, the famed Italian American physicist and creator of the first nuclear reactor, coined what is now known as the Fermi paradox. “Where is everybody,” Fermi asked, apropos of nothing. Seated with him were Emil Konopinski, Edward Teller, and Herbert York, all eminent scientists in their respective fields. They responded with laughter. Not because of the absurdity of the interjection, but because, despite the query being a non sequitur, Fermi’s meaning was immediately understood. Where are all the extra-terrestrials?

On October 4, 1957, as the Cold War was heating up, the USSR launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, into orbit. It was not much to look at—a sphere of polished metal about the size of a workout ball. Nevertheless, it was a massive propaganda coup for the Soviets. And a needed one. Less than a year earlier, a series of student demonstrations in Hungary metastasized into a budding revolution. The Soviets responded to this challenge to their Eastern Bloc hegemony with a brutal crackdown that left its international reputation in tatters. The irony is that it took a Russian satellite to make the world forget about the plight of one of Russia’s satellites.

In Washington, D.C., the news, including the revelation that Sputnik was overflying the continental United States some seven times a day, was met first with panic, then, eventually, with the space race. That early era of space exploration was underpinned by science but dominated by humans. It was a tactile and treacherous and utterly relatable endeavour—astronauts in experimental craft flung into the heavens and eventually to the moon by giant rockets designed by an ex-Nazi—that made heroes of the men involved.

Today’s space explorers, however, inhabit a more theoretical domain. We know more about space and the forces that govern the universe and the movements of distant particles and planets than ever. What confounds is the scale of the measurements involved—the vastness of distances measured in light years and incomprehensible strangeness of the quantum realm. Traveling the 238,900 miles to the moon is, as it turns out, pretty easy. And it’s right there in the sky. Mars is more than 33 million miles away (at its closest possible point). Some people alive today might see a manned mission to Mars. For anything farther afield in our solar system, viable cryostasis technology would be necessary. To reach destinations beyond our solar system, radical breakthroughs in our understanding of physics and mastery of technology would be necessary.

But that doesn’t mean we’ve stopped trying.

There are approximately two trillion galaxies in the observable universe. Estimates based on the ongoing Kepler space observatory mission, launched in 2009, puts the number of potentially habitable planets in our galaxy alone at 10 billion. Extrapolate that number out to two trillion galaxies and if only even a tiny percentage of planets have conditions suitable for life, that’s still suggests a huge number of possibly advanced alien civilizations just lurking out there beyond the dark. So … it’s worth asking again—where is everybody?

“There are a lot of possible solutions to the Fermi paradox,” Elisabeth Newton, an astronomer and National Science Foundation post-doctoral fellow at MIT tells me over the phone. She’s someone who is looking for answers. “Some of them are pretty depressing, like civilizations self-destruct before they ever reach the point where they could reach other stars and other planets.”

It’s an all too plausible line of thinking. Perhaps the industries required to build and sustain a technologically advanced civilization capable of traveling through space end up fatally poisoning a home planet’s environment. Perhaps as a planet’s resources and ecology dwindle and fray, conflict becomes more frequent. It follows that the massive energies needed to navigate the stars would make apocalyptic warfare or industrial accidents more likely. Heck, the human race has yet to send a manned mission beyond our moon and we have enough nuclear weapons to destroy Earth many of times over.

Oh, I don’t know. Things look pretty stable right now on good old Planet Earth!

“I think we’ll be around for a long time,” Newton says, before adding, “I don’t know.”

Newton’s work involves identifying and studying “exoplanets,” or planets outside our solar system which orbit stars. The field is absurdly young. The first confirmed exoplanet, 51 Pegasi b, which circles the star 51 Pegasi, wasn’t discovered until 1995.

“We’re still in this era of really rapid discovery,” Newton says. “People have always assumed that exoplanets existed. Science fiction has been talking about exoplanets and life on other worlds for a century or more. But we didn’t actually know of worlds beyond our solar system until very recently.”

Proxima Centauri, the closest star to our sun, floats a bit over four light years away in the vastness of space, like a distant, but not that distant (relatively speaking), beacon. Just last year, astronomers using the European Southern Observatory’s telescope located at La Silla, Chile, discovered an Earth-sized planet orbiting the star. The planet, Proxima Centauri b, orbits at a distance which should allow for temperatures mild enough for liquid water to pool on its surface. The discovery has been hailed as a game changer.

But what’s the game? If the planet is light years away from Earth, does it matter that it’s changed? Or does the discovery’s utility exist in some nebulous area between theory and imagination? The distances involved in space travel are beyond comprehension. It takes eight minutes and 20 seconds for the sun’s light to reach our planet. Travel time for a spacecraft to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, which scientists consider the best bet for finding life in our solar system, is an estimated six years. I ask Newton how long it might be until humanity is capable of sending a probe or even a manned mission to Proxima Centauri.

“Ooooooh,” she says. We laugh. “That is certainly farther off than really is imaginable from where I'm sitting.”

Since plying the infinite void of outer space is a nonstarter (at least for now), other methods are being used. Clara Sousa-Silva is a quantum astrochemist and post-doctoral researcher at MIT with a casual and easy conversational manner which belies the complexity of her job—which is to literally scan planets and exoplanets looking for signs of life. I ask her how she can detect something as specific as amino acids on a planet that is light years away.

“So that’s called spectroscopy,” she tells me. “If you have any molecule on Earth—that could be like methane or ammonia or ozone—and light shines through it, when light comes out of the other side it has been slightly modified.”

Sousa-Silva and her colleagues analyze the light from distant planets. Pure white light, when broken apart, produces a perfect rainbow. But if the light passes through something—a gas or a cloud of frozen methane—the molecules in that substance will absorb some of the light’s energy, altering the rainbow in specific ways. That creates a sort of fingerprint, which Sousa-Silva can analyze to discover what molecule the light passed through. Of course, the flickering light must then traverse space and everything contained therein before reaching Sousa-Silva. How does she separate the atmospheric data from the noise? It’s complicated.

“It’s movement, basically,” she tells me. “If the light is coming from a sun, you know where the sun is. You can slowly exclude things based on how fast the sun is moving. So if there’s an ice cloud halfway between us and that light source, then we expect it to move across our field of view differently than if it is a cloud right in front of the light source. And likewise, it will move differently than if it is the atmosphere on our planet. That's absolutely something we can do. Of course there's a lot of noise, and I'm simplifying here. It's a headache.”

Are we alone? This is life’s most existential question. It has inspired religions and philosophers, artists and con artists. It caused Simple Plan to write “Astronaut” and was the raison d’etre behind the Cure. The question is fundamental because of the way it scales—it is a profound concern to the individual, to groups, to nations, and to humanity writ large. The question maintains its aching poignancy, whether the distances involved can be bridged by a simple embrace or by yet-to-be-invented faster-than-light travel. And there are only two ways to meet the question: to fall deeper into insularity or to look outward and press on. At the highest end of the scale, where the question is asked by us, as a species, and the search for an answer plays out on the bleeding edge of science and technology, pressing on means wrestling with distances that, perhaps, will never be tamed.

Part of the difficulty is our frame of reference. As individuals, our interior selves are a jumble of thoughts and images and emotions posing, outwardly, as coherent selves. It’s fair to say that the only person you will ever really know will be yourself. Similarly, the only life we’re familiar with is the lifeforms that live here on Earth. How do you look for something out in the universe when you may not even recognize what you’re looking for?

“I don't think I know any good scientist that is comfortable with the fact that when we look for alien life we have a dataset of one that we’re working from,” Sousa-Silva tells me. “But there are things you can do to improve our obsession with being geocentric to try and avoid that. So for example, alien life may be completely different from ours, but it still has to make use of the same physics. The same chemistry. The periodic table is the same no matter where in the universe you are. So although the combinations of all the atoms and all the molecules is breathtakingly large, it isn't infinite.”

“It is pretty fun to come home and tell my husband that I looked for planets today,” Newton answers when I ask if it’s exciting to go to work every day to study alien worlds. “Unfortunately for me the answer is always, ‘But I didn't find anything.’ But it's, you know … he always really appreciates it when I come home and say that.”

“I think it would be normal to say, ‘Oh it’s just like any other job and you come in and you look at your computer,’” says Sousa-Silva when I ask her if searching for life in the universe is gratifying. “It’s super cool. I'm aware that I have a really cool job most days. But the fact is most of my work ends up being really complicated. Quantum mechanic simulations. One molecule that takes months to run and may mean nothing. So it’s a lot of thinking of the bigger picture while doing very small, very difficult things. But that’s fine because the bigger picture is so cool and most people’s jobs don't have that.”

On September 15, 2017, the Cassini unmanned spacecraft will end its 20-year mission into the solar system by diving into Saturn’s atmosphere. Some of the mission’s accomplishment’s include:

  • Landing the Huygens probe on Titan, a moon of Saturn. Scientists discovered that Titan has atmosphere that act’s like Earth’s.
  • The discovery of plumes of ice shooting up from the surface of the Saturnian moon Enceladus, making it one of the prime locations in our solar system where life outside Earth might reside.
  • Taking the most detailed pictures of Saturn’s rings ever seen.

By any measure, Cassini added more to human knowledge than John Glenn or Chuck Yeager or any heroes of the Space Race era. But we live vicariously through the deeds of other people. We imagine ourselves in their place, spinning high above the Earth, with nothing between them and the void but a few strips of metal. We imagine what it might be like to risk our lives to roar into the heavens, far from the only home humans have ever known, with the timeless void of space constantly reminding us how alone we are.