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 By P. Vishnupraneeth Reddy

Edited by Anandita Malhotra, Senior editor,The Indian Economist

Is earth the only planet in the Universe with life? Many a famous scientists believe that we are not alone in the universe. It’s probable that life could have existed on at least some of the billions of planets that exist in our Milky Way alone – similar to what it did here on planet Earth. “Sometime in the near future, people may notice it themselves and say ‘that star has a planet just like Earth’,” stated by a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Many efforts have been made by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). This decade saw the discovery of more super Earths, which are rocky planets that are larger, stronger and heftier than Earth. Finding smaller planets, the twins of earth is a tougher challenge because they produce fainter signals in comparison to Earth. Technology to detect and image these Earth-like planets is being developed now for use with the near future space telescopes. The ability to detect alien life may still be millenniums away. The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in the near future will help scientists see whether any of the billion planets have the right chemical fingerprint to suggest they harbor life. Specifically, they are looking for gases and vapours in the planet’s atmosphere that could only be produced by life. But even with the new telescope, finding these planets and researching them will still be a tough challenge since they’re incredibly distant and because their light is outshone by the Sun-like stars they orbit. The James Webb Telescope is a successor to the Hubble Telescope, which was launched in 1990 and captures stunning images of galaxies deep in distant space. But it does so from roughly 350 miles above Earth’s surface; the Webb Telescope will do its work from 930,000 miles away. Thanks to the Hubble and other instruments, NASA scientists now know where every star is located within 200 light years of the Sun. The top scientists at Monday’s panel said that if they follow this map of the stars, they should be able to find many new planets. However, when Galileo confirmed once and for all that we were a small and insignificant part of the universe, the question reinitiated. Indeed, Galileo himself felt sure there was life on Mars, based on what he thought were artificial canals on its surface. But serious studies of planets in the 20th century have made it clear that life was not possible on other planets in our solar system. It was only in the late 20th century that we began to study the moons of other planets, and now, some harbor a suspicion that there just may be primitive life on some of the moons of these planets and in the interior of Mars. But that’s just a guess.

We believe that when stars are created, a large quantity of material is left over to form planets, and so planets can be common in the universe. In many cases, we can see these planets transiting across the disk of the star or forcing the star to wobble just a little for us to notice. In rare cases, the gravity of the planet can actually focus and brighten the star’s light, and this too tells us a lot about planets. In fact, our studies have got so good that in many cases, we can now calculate the size and density of the planet, and in one rare case, we have even been able to estimate the cloud coverage on the planet by precisely measuring how the star light twinkles when the planet passes between the star and us. This is a staggering achievement considering the fact that the stars are typically so far away that even light, travelling at almost 300,000 km per second, takes more than a hundred years to reach us. So, the question is, are we about to find life in the universe? Even if intelligent life exists in the universe, contacting them will not be easy because of the vast distances. Travelling will certainly not be easy as long as we cannot find a way around relativity, which states that one cannot travel at velocities close to the velocity of light, let alone exceed it. So the fastest rockets will take several decades to even reach the nearest star. Assuming other intelligent life can get around relativity, they will have to be technologically sophisticated. We must hope they have overcome the desire to dominate, if not conquer, or we are in serious trouble. In fact, some scientists have even argued that the very fact that we have not had extra-terrestrial visits, super-intelligent life capable of interstellar travel doesn’t exist.

P. Vishnupraneeth is studying at the Indian Institute of Technology at Guwahati, India, an Institute of National Importance. He is pursuing his undergraduate studies in ECE & Physics departments simultaneously. Apart from his engineering side, his interest lies in writing articles about sports, special ops around the world, war, politics & their consequences on economy, Income tax etc. His favourite writers are Rabindranath Tagore & APJ Abdul Kalam.

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