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Extraterrestrial life

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The official U.S. government position on extraterrestrial life, and the three major efforts in the search for it:
1. Looking for extrasolar planets (File: Kepler spacecraft)
2. Listening for signals (File: Allen array)
3. Robotic exploration of the Solar System (File: Curiosity rover)

Extraterrestrial life (from the Latin words: extra ["beyond", or "not of"] and terrestris ["of or belonging to Earth"]) is defined as life that does not originate from Earth. It is often also referred to as alien life, or simply aliens (or space aliens, to differentiate from other definitions of alien or aliens). These hypothetical forms of life range from simple bacteria-like organisms to beings far more complex than humans.

The development and testing of hypotheses on extraterrestrial life is known as exobiology or astrobiology; the term astrobiology, however, includes the study of life on Earth viewed in its astronomical context. Nonetheless, in a National Institutes of Health study, the authors hypothesize that if biological complexity increased exponentially during evolution, life in the universe may have begun "10 billion years ago"—more than 5 billion years before the formation of Earth. Many scientists consider extraterrestrial life to be plausible, but there is no direct evidence of its existence. Since the mid-20th century, there has been an ongoing search for signs of extraterrestrial life, from radios used to detect possible extraterrestrial signals, to telescopes used to search for potentially habitable extrasolar planets. It has also played a major role in works of science fiction.


Alien life, such as bacteria, has been hypothesized to exist in the Solar System and throughout the universe. This hypothesis relies on the vast size and consistent physical laws of the observable universe. According to this argument, made by scientists such as Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, it would be improbable for life not to exist somewhere other than Earth. This argument is embodied in the Copernican principle, which states that the Earth does not occupy a unique position in the Universe, and the mediocrity principle, which holds that there is nothing special about life on Earth. Life may have emerged independently at many places throughout the Universe. Alternatively life may form less frequently, then spread between habitable planets through panspermia or exogenesis. In any case, complex organic molecules necessary for life may have formed in the protoplanetary disk of dust grains surrounding the Sun before the formation of the Earth based on computer model studies. According to these studies, this same process may also occur around other stars that acquire planets. (Also see Extraterrestrial organic molecules.) Suggested locations at which life might have developed include the planets Venus and Mars, Jupiter's moon Europa, and Saturn's moons Titan and Enceladus. In May 2011, NASA scientists reported that Enceladus "is emerging as the most habitable spot beyond Earth in the Solar System for life as we know it". Life may appear on extrasolar planets, such as Gliese 581 c, g and d, recently discovered to be near Earth mass and apparently located in their star's habitable zone, with the potential to have liquid water. In December 2011, scientists working with NASA's Kepler space telescope announced the discovery of Kepler-22b, an exoplanet that appears to be orbiting a sun-like star within the habitable zone.

No widely accepted evidence of extraterrestrial life has been found; however, various controversial claims have been made. Beliefs that some unidentified flying objects are of extraterrestrial origin (see Extraterrestrial hypothesis), along with claims of alien abduction, are dismissed by most scientists. Most UFO sightings are explained either as sightings of Earth-based aircraft or known astronomical objects, or as hoaxes.

In November 2011, the White House released an official response to two petitions asking the U.S. government to acknowledge formally that aliens have visited Earth and to disclose any intentional withholding of government interactions with extraterrestrial beings. According to the response, "The U.S. government has no evidence that any life exists outside our planet, or that an extraterrestrial presence has contacted or engaged any member of the human race." Also, according to the response, there is "no credible information to suggest that any evidence is being hidden from the public's eye." The response further noted that efforts, like SETI, the Kepler space telescope and the NASA Mars rover, continue looking for signs of life. The response noted "odds are pretty high" that there may be life on other planets but "the odds of us making contact with any of them—especially any intelligent ones—are extremely small, given the distances involved."

Possible basis

Several hypotheses have been proposed about the possible basis of alien life from a biochemical, evolutionary or morphological viewpoint.


All life on Earth is based upon 26 chemical elements. However, about 95% of this life is built upon only six of these elements: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur, abbreviated CHNOPS. These six elements form the basic building blocks of virtually all life on Earth, while most of the remaining elements are found in only trace amounts.

Life on Earth requires water as the solvent in which biochemical reactions take place. Sufficient quantities of carbon and the other elements along with water, may enable the formation of living organisms on other planets with a chemical make-up and temperature range similar to that of Earth. Terrestrial planets such as Earth are formed in a process that allows for the possibility of having compositions similar to Earth's. The combination of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen in the chemical form of carbohydrates (e.g. sugar) can be a source of chemical energy on which life depends, and can provide structural elements for life (such as ribose, in the molecules DNA and RNA, and cellulose in plants). Plants derive energy through the conversion of light energy into chemical energy via photosynthesis. Life, as currently recognized, requires carbon in both reduced (methane derivatives) and partially oxidized ( carbon oxides) states. Nitrogen is needed as a reduced ammonia derivative in all proteins, sulfur as a derivative of hydrogen sulfide in some necessary proteins, and phosphorus oxidized to phosphates in genetic material and in energy transfer.

Pure water is useful because it has a neutral pH due to its continued dissociation between hydroxide and hydronium ions. As a result, it can dissolve both positive metallic ions and negative non-metallic ions with equal ability. Furthermore, the fact that organic molecules can be either hydrophobic (repelled by water) or hydrophilic (soluble in water) creates the ability of organic compounds to orient themselves to form water-enclosing membranes. Additionally, the hydrogen bonds between water molecules give it an ability to store energy with evaporation, which upon condensation is released. This helps to moderate the climate, cooling the tropics and warming the poles, helping to maintain the thermodynamic stability needed for life.

Carbon is fundamental to terrestrial life for its immense flexibility in creating covalent chemical bonds with a variety of non-metallic elements, principally nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen. Carbon dioxide and water together enable the storage of solar energy in sugars and starches, such as glucose. The oxidation of glucose releases biochemical energy needed to fuel all other biochemical reactions.

The ability to form organic acids (–COOH) and amine bases (–NH2) gives rise to the possibility of neutralization dehydrating reactions to build long polymer peptides and catalytic proteins from monomer amino acids. When combined with phosphates, these acids can build the information-storing molecule of inheritance, DNA, and the principal energy transfer molecule of cellular life, ATP.

Due to their relative abundance and usefulness in sustaining life, many have hypothesized that life forms elsewhere in the universe would utilize these basic materials. However, other elements and solvents could provide a basis for life. Life forms based in ammonia (rather than water) have been suggested, though this solution appears less optimal than water.

From a chemical perspective, life is fundamentally a self-replicating reaction, but one which could arise under a great many conditions and with various possible ingredients, though carbon-oxygen within the liquid temperature range of water seems most conducive. Suggestions have even been made that self-replicating reactions of some sort could occur within the plasma of a star, though it would be highly unconventional. Life on the surface of a neutron star, based on nuclear reactions, has also been suggested. However, communicating with such creatures would be difficult because the time scales involved are much faster.

Several pre-conceived ideas about the characteristics of life outside of Earth have been questioned. For example, a NASA scientist suggested that the colour of photosynthesizing pigments of hypothetical life on extrasolar planets might not be green.

Evolution and morphology

In addition to the biochemical basis of extraterrestrial life, many have considered evolution and morphology. Science fiction has often depicted extraterrestrial life with humanoid and/or reptilian forms. Aliens have often been depicted as having light green or grey skin, with a large head, as well as four limbs—i.e. fundamentally humanoid. Other subjects, such as felines, insects, blobs, etc., have occurred in fictional representations of aliens.

A division has been suggested between universal and parochial (narrowly restricted) characteristics. Universals are features which are thought to have evolved independently more than once on Earth (and thus, presumably, are not too difficult to develop) and are so intrinsically useful that species will inevitably tend towards them. The most fundamental of these is probably bilateral symmetry, but more complex (though still basic) characteristics include flight, sight, photosynthesis and limbs, all of which are thought to have evolved several times here on Earth. There is a huge variety of eyes, for example, and many of these have radically different working schematics and different visual foci: the visual spectrum, infrared, polarity and echolocation. Parochials, however, are essentially arbitrary evolutionary forms. These often have little inherent utility (or at least have a function which can be equally served by dissimilar morphology) and probably will not be replicated. Intelligent aliens could communicate through gestures, as deaf humans do, by sounds created from structures unrelated to breathing, which happens on Earth when, for instance, cicadas vibrate their wings or crickets stridulate their wings, or visually through bioluminescence or chromatophore-like structures.

Attempting to define parochial features challenges many taken-for-granted notions about morphological necessity. Skeletons, which are essential to large terrestrial organisms according to the experts of the field of gravitational biology, are almost assured to be replicated elsewhere in one form or another. The assumption of radical diversity amongst putative extraterrestrials is by no means settled. While many exobiologists do stress that the enormously heterogeneous nature of life on Earth foreshadows an even greater variety in outer space, others point out that convergent evolution may dictate substantial similarities between Earth and extraterrestrial life. These two schools of thought are called "divergionism" and "convergionism" respectively.

Planetary habitability in the Solar System

Some bodies in the Solar System have been suggested as having the potential for an environment that could host extraterrestrial life, particularly those with possible subsurface oceans. Though due to the lack of habitable environments beyond Earth, should life be discovered elsewhere in the Solar System, astrobiologists suggest that it will more likely be in the form of extremophile microorganisms.

The planets Venus and Mars, along with several natural satellites orbiting Jupiter and Saturn, and even comets, are suspected to possess niche environments in which life might exist. A subsurface marine environment on Jupiter's moon Europa might be the most suitable habitat in the Solar System, outside of Earth, for multicellular organisms.

Panspermia suggests that life elsewhere in the Solar System may have a common origin. If extraterrestrial life was found on another body in the Solar System, it could have originated from Earth just as life on Earth may have been seeded from elsewhere ( exogenesis). The Living Interplanetary Flight Experiment, developed by the Planetary Society launched in 2011 was designed to test some aspect of these hypotheses, but it was destroyed along with the carrier Fobos-Grunt mission. The first known mention of the term Panspermia was in the writings of the 5th century BC Greek philosopher Anaxagoras. In the nineteenth century it was again revived in modern form by several scientists, including Jöns Jacob Berzelius (1834), Kelvin (1871), Hermann von Helmholtz (1879) and, somewhat later, by Svante Arrhenius (1903). Sir Fred Hoyle (1915–2001) and Chandra Wickramasinghe (born 1939) were important proponents of the hypothesis who further contended that lifeforms continue to enter the Earth's atmosphere, and may be responsible for epidemic outbreaks, new diseases, and the genetic novelty necessary for macroevolution.

Directed panspermia concerns the deliberate transport of microorganisms in space, sent to Earth to start life here, or sent from Earth to seed new solar systems with life. The Nobel prize winner Francis Crick, along with Leslie Orgel proposed seeds of life may have been purposely spread by an advanced extraterrestrial civilization, but considering an early " RNA world" Crick noted later that life originating may have originated on Earth.

Proponents of Intelligent Design creationism (ID) attempting to evade objections to religious views being introduced into science education have claimed that the "designer" might be aliens rather than God. The movie " Expelled" promoting ID featured narrator Ben Stein asking Richard Dawkins about ID, and presented his response as an endorsement of panspermia. In an op-ed on 18 April 2008, shortly before the film opened, Dawkins explained that he was going through this science fiction scenario as the nearest ID got to science, to show that even if evidence could be detected that life on Earth had been seeded by intelligent aliens, the designers themselves would have had to have evolved.

In a virtual presentation on Tuesday, April 7, 2009, Stephen Hawking discussed the possibility of building a human base on another planet and gave reasons why alien life might not be contacting the human race, during his conclusion of the Origins Symposium at Arizona State University. Hawking also talked about what humans may find when venturing into space, such as the possibility of alien life through the theory of panspermia.


Carl Sagan, David Grinspoon and Dirk Schulze-Makuch have put forward a hypothesis that microbes could exist in the stable cloud layers 50 km (31 mi) above the surface of Venus; the hypothesis is based on the premises of hospitable climates and chemical disequilibrium.


Life on Mars has been long speculated. Liquid water is widely thought to have existed on Mars in the past, and there may still be liquid water beneath the surface. The origin of the potential biosignature of methane in Mars atmosphere is unexplained, although abiotic hypotheses have also been proposed. By July 2008, laboratory tests aboard NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander had identified water in a soil sample. The lander's robotic arm delivered the sample to an instrument which identifies vapours produced by the heating of samples. Photographs from the Mars Global Surveyor from 2006 showed evidence of recent (i.e. within 10 years) flows of a liquid on Mars's frigid surface. There is evidence that Mars had a warmer and wetter past: dried-up river beds, polar ice caps, volcanoes and minerals that form in the presence of water have all been found. Nonetheless, present conditions on Mars may support life since lichens were found to successfully survive Martian conditions in the Mars Simulation Laboratory (MSL) maintained by the German Aerospace Centre (DLR). In June, 2012, scientists reported that measuring the ratio of hydrogen and methane levels on Mars may help determine the likelihood of life on Mars. According to the scientists, "...low H2/CH4 ratios (less than approximately 40) indicate that life is likely present and active." Other scientists have recently reported methods of detecting hydrogen and methane in extraterrestrial atmospheres.


Carl Sagan and others in the 1960s and 70s computed conditions for hypothetical amino acid-based macroscopic life in the atmosphere of Jupiter, based on observed conditions of this atmosphere. However, the conditions do not appear to permit the type of encapsulation thought necessary for molecular biochemistry, so life is thought to be unlikely.

However, some of Jupiter's moons may have habitats to sustain life. Scientists have suggested that heated subsurface oceans of water may exist deep under the crusts of the three outer Galilean moons— Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. The EJSM/Laplace is planned to determine the habitability of these environments. However, Europa is seen as the main target for the discovery of life.


Subsurface oceans such as the one pictured of Europa, could possibly harbour basic life forms.

Jupiter's moon Europa has been subject to speculation about the existence of life due to the strong possibility of liquid water beneath an ice layer. Hydrothermal vents on the bottom of the ocean, if they exist, may warm the ice and could be capable of supporting multicellular microorganisms. It is also possible that Europa could support aerobic macrofauna using oxygen created by cosmic rays impacting its surface ice.

The case for life on Europa was greatly enhanced in 2011 when it was discovered that vast lakes exist within Europa's thick, icy shell. Scientists found that ice shelves surrounding the lakes appear to be collapsing into them, thereby providing a mechanism through which life-forming chemicals created in sunlit areas on Europa's surface could be transferred to its interior.


While Saturn is itself considered inhospitable to life, the planet's natural satellites Titan and Enceladus have been speculated to possess possible habitats for life.


Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, is the only known moon with a significant atmosphere. Data from the Cassini–Huygens mission refuted the hypothesis of a global hydrocarbon ocean, but later demonstrated the existence of liquid hydrocarbon lakes in the polar regions—the first stable bodies of liquid discovered outside of Earth. Analysis of data from the mission has uncovered aspects of atmospheric chemistry near the surface which are consistent with—but do not prove—the hypothesis that organisms there are consuming hydrogen, acetylene and ethane, and producing methane.

An alternate explanation for the hypothetical existence of microbial life on Titan has already been formally proposed—hypothesizing that microorganisms could have left Earth when it suffered a massive asteroid or comet impact (such as the impact that created Chicxulub crater only 65 mya), and survived a journey through space to land on Titan.


Enceladus ( moon of Saturn) has some of the conditions for life including geothermal activity and water vapor as well as possible under-ice oceans heated by tidal effects. The Cassini probe detected carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen—all key elements for supporting living organisms—during a fly-by through one of Enceladus's geysers spewing ice and gas in 2005. The temperature and density of the plumes indicate a warmer, watery source beneath the surface. However, no life has been confirmed.

Small Solar System bodies

Small Solar System bodies have also been suggested as habitats for extremophiles. Fred Hoyle has proposed that microbial life life might exist on comets. Live bacteria were found on the camera of the Surveyor 3 probe that had stayed on the surface of the Moon for two and a half years. This finding was later considered doubtful as sterile procedures may not have been fully followed.

Scientific search

The NASA Kepler Mission for the search of extrasolar planets.

The scientific search for extraterrestrial life is being carried out both directly and indirectly.

Direct search

Scientists are directly searching for evidence of unicellular life within the Solar System, carrying out studies on the surface of Mars and examining meteors which have fallen to Earth. At the moment, no concrete plan exists for exploration of Europa for life. In 2008, a joint mission by NASA and the European Space Agency was announced that would have included studies of Europa. However, in 2011 NASA was forced to deprioritize the mission due to a lack of funding, and it is possible that the ESA will take on the mission by itself.

There is some limited evidence that microbial life might possibly exist (or have existed) on Mars. An experiment on the Viking Mars lander reported gas emissions from heated Martian soil that some argue are consistent with the presence of microbes. However, the lack of corroborating evidence from other experiments on the Viking lander indicates that a non-biological reaction is a more likely hypothesis. Independently, in 1996, structures resembling nanobacteria were reportedly discovered in a meteorite, ALH84001, thought to be formed of rock ejected from Mars. This report is controversial.

Electron micrograph of martian meteorite ALH84001 showing structures that some scientists think could be fossilized bacteria-like life forms.

In February 2005, NASA scientists reported that they may have found some evidence of present life on Mars. The two scientists, Carol Stoker and Larry Lemke of NASA's Ames Research Centre, based their claim on methane signatures found in Mars' atmosphere resembling the methane production of some forms of primitive life on Earth, as well as on their own study of primitive life near the Rio Tinto river in Spain. NASA officials soon distanced NASA from the scientists' claims, and Stoker herself backed off from her initial assertions. Subterranean tunnels in the United States have also been investigated for extraterrestrial life. Due to advances in Gravimetry, colorful images are available to assist scientists in uncovering potential underground cities.

Though such methane findings are still very much in debate, support among some scientists for the existence of life on Mars seems to be growing: an informal survey conducted at the conference at which the European Space Agency presented its findings on methane in Mars' atmosphere, indicated that 75% of the people present agreed that bacteria once lived on Mars. Roughly 25% agreed that bacteria inhabit the planet today.

In November 2011, NASA launched the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) rover which is designed to search for past or present habitability on Mars using a variety of scientific instruments. The MSL landed on Mars at Gale Crater in August 2012.

The Gaia hypothesis stipulates that any planet with a robust population of life will have an atmosphere in chemical disequilibrium, which is relatively easy to determine from a distance by spectroscopy. However, significant advances in the ability to find and resolve light from smaller rocky worlds near their star are necessary before such spectroscopic methods can be used to analyze extrasolar planets.

On March 5, 2011, Richard B. Hoover, an astrobiologist with the Marshall Space Flight Centre, speculated on the finding of alleged microfossils similar to cyanobacteria in CI1 carbonaceous meteorites. However, NASA formally distanced itself from Hoover's claim. See Hoover paper controversy for more details.

In August 2011, findings by NASA, based on studies of meteorites found on Earth, suggests DNA and RNA components ( adenine, guanine and related organic molecules), building blocks for life as we know it, may be formed extraterrestrially in outer space. In October 2011, scientists reported that cosmic dust contains complex organic matter ("amorphous organic solids with a mixed aromatic- aliphatic structure") that could be created naturally, and rapidly, by stars. One of the scientists suggested that these compounds may have been related to the development of life on Earth and said that, "If this is the case, life on Earth may have had an easier time getting started as these organics can serve as basic ingredients for life."

On August 29, 2012, and in a world first, astronomers at Copenhagen University reported the detection of a specific sugar molecule, glycolaldehyde, in a distant star system. The molecule was found around the protostellar binary IRAS 16293-2422, which is located 400 light years from Earth. Glycolaldehyde is needed to form ribonucleic acid, or RNA, which is similar in function to DNA. This finding suggests that complex organic molecules may form in stellar systems prior to the formation of planets, eventually arriving on young planets early in their formation.

In September 2012, NASA scientists reported that polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), subjected to interstellar medium (ISM) conditions, are transformed, through hydrogenation, oxygenation and hydroxylation, to more complex organics - "a step along the path toward amino acids and nucleotides, the raw materials of proteins and DNA, respectively". Further, as a result of these transformations, the PAHs lose their spectroscopic signature which could be one of the reasons "for the lack of PAH detection in interstellar ice grains, particularly the outer regions of cold, dense clouds or the upper molecular layers of protoplanetary disks."

On January 10, 2013, Chandra Wickramasinghe reported in the fringe science Journal of Cosmology, of shapes resembling fossil diatom frustules in a new carbonaceous meteorite that landed in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka on 29 December 2012.

Indirect search

Terrestrial Planet Finder

If there is an advanced extraterrestrial society, there is no guarantee that they are transmitting information in the direction of Earth or that this information could be interpreted as such by humans. The length of time required for a signal to travel across the vastness of space means that any signal detected, or not detected, would come from the distant past.

Projects such as SETI are conducting an astronomical search for radio activity which would confirm the presence of intelligent life. A related suggestion is that aliens might broadcast pulsed and continuous laser signals in the optical, as well as infrared, spectrum; laser signals have the advantage of not "smearing" in the interstellar medium, and may prove more conducive to communication between the stars. While other communication techniques, including laser transmission and interstellar spaceflight, have been discussed seriously and may well be feasible, the measure of effectiveness is the amount of information communicated per unit cost. This results in radio transmission as the method of choice.

Some have hypothesized that very advanced civilizations may create artificial black holes as an energy source or method of waste disposal. Thus, they suggest that the observation of a black hole with a mass of less than 3.5 solar masses, the theoretical lower mass limit for a naturally occurring black hole, would be evidence of an alien civilization.

Extrasolar planets

Astronomers search for extrasolar planets that may be conducive to life, such as Gliese 581 c, Gliese 581 g, Gliese 581 d and OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb, which have been found to have few Earth-like qualities. Current radiodetection methods have been inadequate for such a search, since the resolution afforded by recent technology is inadequate for a detailed study of extrasolar planetary objects. Future telescopes should be able to image planets around nearby stars, which may reveal the presence of life – either directly or through spectrography – and would reveal key information, such as the presence of free oxygen in a planet's atmosphere:

Artist's Impression of Gliese 581 c, the first terrestrial extrasolar planet discovered within its star's habitable zone.
  • Darwin was a proposed ESA mission designed to find Earth-like planets and analyze their atmosphere.
  • The COROT mission, initiated by the French Space Agency, was launched in 2006, and is currently looking for extrasolar planets; it is the first of its kind.
  • The Terrestrial Planet Finder was supposed to have been launched by NASA, but as of 2011, budget cuts have caused it to be delayed indefinitely.
  • The Kepler Mission, largely replacing the Terrestrial Planet Finder, was launched in March 2009.

It has been argued that Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to Earth, may contain planets which could be capable of sustaining life.

On April 24, 2007, scientists at the European Southern Observatory in La Silla, Chile said they had found the first Earth-like planet. The planet, known as Gliese 581 c, orbits within the habitable zone of its star Gliese 581, a red dwarf star which is 20.5 light years (194 trillion km) from the Earth. It was initially thought that this planet could contain liquid water, but recent computer simulations of the climate on Gliese 581 c by Werner von Bloh and his team at Germany's Institute for Climate Impact Research suggest that carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere would create a runaway greenhouse effect. This would warm the planet well above the boiling point of water (100 degrees Celsius/212 degrees Fahrenheit), thus dimming the hopes of finding life. As a result of greenhouse models, scientists are now turning their attention to Gliese 581 d, which lies just outside of the star's traditional habitable zone.

On May 29, 2007, the Associated Press released a report stating that scientists identified twenty-eight new extra-solar planetary bodies. One of these newly discovered planets is said to have many similarities to Neptune.

In May 2011, researchers predicted that Gliese 581 d, not only exists in the "Goldilocks zone" where water can be present in liquid form, but is big enough to have a stable carbon dioxide atmosphere and "warm enough to have oceans, clouds, and rainfall," according to France's National Centre for Scientific Research.

In December 2011, NASA confirmed that 600-light-year distant Kepler-22b, at 2.4 times the radius of Earth, is potentially the closest match to Earth in terms of both size and temperature.

Since 1992, hundreds of planets around other stars ("extrasolar planets" or "exoplanets") in the Milky Way Galaxy have been discovered. As of March 22, 2013, the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia identified 861 extrasolar planets (in 677 planetary systems and 128 multiple planetary systems); the extrasolar planets range in size from that of terrestrial planets similar to Earth to that of gas giants larger than Jupiter. The number of observed exoplanets is expected to increase greatly in the coming years. Because the Kepler spacecraft must view three stellar transits by exoplanets before it identifies them as candidate planets, it has so far only been able to identify planets that orbit their star at a relatively quick rate. The mission is expected to continue until at least 2016, in which time many more exoplanet candidates are expected to be found.

Despite these successes, the transit method employed by the Kepler spacecraft requires that planetary orbits be at a small inclination to the line of sight of the observer. Due to this constraint, the probability of detecting a planet of Earth's size and orbital radius around a distant star is just 0.47%. Thus, the number of planets we are currently able to detect is only a small fraction of the total number of planets present within the galaxy.

The Drake equation

In 1961, University of California, Santa Cruz astronomer and astrophysicist Dr. Frank Drake devised the Drake equation. This controversial equation multiplied estimates of the following terms together:

  • The rate of formation of suitable stars.
  • The fraction of those stars which are orbited by planets.
  • The number of Earth-like worlds per planetary system.
  • The fraction of planets where intelligent life develops.
  • The fraction of possible communicative planets.
  • The "lifetime" of possible communicative civilizations.

Criticism of the Drake equation follows mostly from the observation that the terms in the equation are entirely based on conjecture. Thus the equation cannot be used to draw firm conclusions of any kind. Although the Drake equation currently involves speculation about unmeasured parameters, it was not meant to be science, but intended as a way to stimulate dialogue on these topics. Then the focus becomes how to proceed experimentally. Indeed, Drake originally formulated the equation merely as an agenda for discussion at the Green Bank conference.

Drake used the equation to estimate that there are approximately 10,000 planets in the Milky Way galaxy containing intelligent life with the possible capability of communicating with Earth.

Based on observations from the Hubble Space Telescope, there are at least 125 billion galaxies in the observable Universe. It is estimated that at least ten percent of all sun-like stars have a system of planets, i.e. there are 6.25×1018 stars with planets orbiting them in the observable Universe. Even if we assume that only one out of a billion of these stars have planets supporting life, there would be some 6.25×109 (billion) life-supporting planetary systems in the observable Universe.

The apparent contradiction between high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and the lack of evidence for, or contact with, such civilizations is known as the Fermi paradox.


Ancient and medieval ideas

Anunciacion by Carpaccio

In antiquity, it was common to assume a cosmos consisting of "many worlds" inhabited by intelligent, non-human life-forms, but these "worlds" were mythological and not informed by the heliocentric understanding of the solar system, or the understanding of the Sun as one among countless stars. An example would be the fourteen Loka of Hindu cosmology, or the Nine Worlds of Old Norse mythology, etc. The Sun and the Moon often appear as inhabited worlds in such contexts, or as vehicles (chariots or boats, etc.) driven by gods. The Japanese folk tale of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (10th century) is an example of a princess of the Moon people visiting Earth.

The Jewish Talmud states that there are at least 18,000 other worlds, but provides little elaboration on the nature of those worlds, or on whether they are physical or spiritual. Based on this, however, the 18th-century exposition "Sefer HaB'rit" posits that extraterrestrial creatures exist, and that some may well possess intelligence. It adds that humans should not expect creatures from another world to resemble earthly life any more than sea creatures resemble land animals.

Hindu beliefs of endlessly repeated cycles of life have led to descriptions of multiple worlds in existence and their mutual contacts (Sanskrit word sampark (सम्पर्क) means "contact" as in Mahasamparka (महासम्पर्क) = "the great contact"). According to Hindu scriptures, there are innumerable universes to facilitate the fulfillment of the separated desires of innumerable living entities. However, the purpose of such creations is to bring back the deluded souls to correct understanding about the purpose of life. Aside from the innumerable universes which are material, there is the unlimited spiritual world, where the purified living entities live with perfect conception about life and ultimate reality. The spiritually aspiring saints and devotees, as well as thoughtful men of the material world, have been getting guidance and help from these purified living entities of the spiritual world from time immemorial.

According to Ahmadiyya a more direct reference from the Quran is presented by Mirza Tahir Ahmad as a proof that life on other planets may exist according to the Quran. In his book, Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge & Truth, he quotes verse 42:29 "And among His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and of whatever living creatures (da'bbah) He has spread forth in both..."; according to this verse there is life in heavens. According to the same verse "And He has the power to gather them together (jam-'i-him) when He will so please"; indicates the bringing together the life on Earth and the life elsewhere in the Universe. The verse does not specify the time or the place of this meeting but rather states that this event will most certainly come to pass whenever God so desires. It should be pointed out that the Arabic term Jam-i-him used to express the gathering event can imply either a physical encounter or a contact through communication.

When Christianity spread throughout the West, the Ptolemaic system became very widely accepted, and although the Church never issued any formal pronouncement on the question of alien life, at least tacitly, the idea was aberrant. In 1277, the Bishop of Paris, Étienne Tempier, did overturn Aristotle on one point: God could have created more than one world (given His omnipotence). Taking a further step, and arguing that aliens actually existed, remained rare. Notably, Cardinal Nicholas of Kues speculated about aliens on the Moon and Sun.

Early modern period

Giordano Bruno, De l'Infinito Universo et Mondi, 1584

There was a dramatic shift in thinking initiated by the invention of the telescope and the Copernican assault on geocentric cosmology. Once it became clear that the Earth was merely one planet amongst countless bodies in the universe, the extraterrestrial idea moved towards the scientific mainstream. The best known early-modern proponent of such ideas was the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, who argued in the 16th century for an infinite Universe in which every star is surrounded by its own planetary system. Bruno wrote that other worlds "have no less virtue nor a nature different to that of our earth" and, like Earth, "contain animals and inhabitants".

In the early 17th century, the Czech astronomer Anton Maria Schyrleus of Rheita mused that "if Jupiter has (...) inhabitants (...) they must be larger and more beautiful than the inhabitants of the Earth, in proportion to the [characteristics] of the two spheres".

In Baroque literature such as The Other World: The Societies and Governments of the Moon by Cyrano de Bergerac, extraterrestrial societies are presented as humoristic or ironic parodies of earthly society. The didactic poet Henry More took up the classical theme of the Greek Democritus in "Democritus Platonissans, or an Essay Upon the Infinity of Worlds" (1647). In "The Creation: a Philosophical Poem in Seven Books" (1712), Sir Richard Blackmore observed: "We may pronounce each orb sustains a race / Of living things adapted to the place". With the new relative viewpoint that the Copernican revolution had wrought, he suggested "our world's sunne / Becomes a starre elsewhere". Fontanelle's "Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds" (translated into English in 1686) offered similar excursions on the possibility of extraterrestrial life, expanding, rather than denying, the creative sphere of a Maker.

The possibility of extraterrestrials remained a widespread speculation as scientific discovery accelerated. William Herschel, the discoverer of Uranus, was one of many 18th–19th-century astronomers convinced that the Solar System, and perhaps others, would be well populated by alien life. Other luminaries of the period who championed "cosmic pluralism" included Immanuel Kant and Benjamin Franklin. At the height of the Enlightenment, even the Sun and Moon were considered candidates for extraterrestrial inhabitants.

19th century

Since the 1830s, Mormons have believed that God has created and will create many Earth-like planets on which humans live. They believe that all of these people are children of God. Joseph Smith, the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, taught that God revealed this information to Moses and that the Creation account written by Moses corresponded only to "our" earth. There is no official doctrine relating to the location or commonality of these inhabited planets.

Speculation about life on Mars increased in the late 19th century, following telescopic observation by some observers of apparent Martian canals — which were however soon found to be optical illusions. Despite this, in 1895, American astronomer Percival Lowell published his book Mars, followed by Mars and its Canals in 1906, proposing that the canals were the work of a long-gone civilization. This idea led British writer H. G. Wells to write The War of the Worlds in 1897, telling of an invasion by aliens from Mars who were fleeing the planet's desiccation.

Spectroscopic analysis of Mars' atmosphere began in earnest in 1894, when U.S. astronomer William Wallace Campbell showed that neither water nor oxygen were present in the Martian atmosphere. By 1909 better telescopes and the best perihelic opposition of Mars since 1877 conclusively put an end to the canal hypothesis.

The science fiction genre, although not so named during the time, develops during the late 19th century. Jules Verne's Around the Moon (1870) features a discussion of the possibility of life on the Moon, but with the conclusion that it is barren. Stories involving extraterrestrials are found in e.g. Garrett P. Serviss's Edison's Conquest of Mars (1897). The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells was published in 1898 and stands at the beginning of the popular idea of the "Martian invasion" of Earth prominent in 20th-century pop culture.

20th century

The Arecibo message is a digital message sent to globular star cluster M13, and is a well-known symbol of human attempts to contact extraterrestrials.

A radio drama version of Wells' novel broadcast in 1938 over the CBS Radio Network led to outrage because it supposedly suggested to many listeners that an actual alien invasion by Martians was in progress.

In the wake of the Roswell UFO incident in 1947, conspiracy theories on the presence of extraterrestrials became a widespread phenomenon in the United States during the 1940s and the beginning Space Age during the 1950s, accompanied by a surge of UFO reports. The term UFO itself was coined in 1952 in the context of the enormous popularity of the concept of " flying saucers" in the wake of the Kenneth Arnold UFO sighting in 1947. The Majestic 12 documents published in 1982 suggest that there was genuine interest in UFO conspiracy theories in the US government during the 1940s.

The trend to assume that celestial bodies were populated almost by default was tempered as actual probes visited potential alien abodes in the Solar System beginning in the second half of the 20th century, and by the 1970s belief in UFOs had become part of the fringe beliefs associated with the paranormal, New Age, Earth mysteries, Forteana etc. A number of UFO religions developed during the surge in UFO belief during the 1950s to 1970s period, and some, such as Scientology (founded 1953) and Raëlism (founded 1974) remain active into the present. The idea of "paleocontact", supposing that extraterrestrials (" ancient astronauts") have visited the Earth in the remote past and left traces in ancient cultures, appears in early-20th-century fiction such as The Call of Cthulhu (1926) and the idea came to be established as a notable aspect of the Ufology subculture in the wake of Erich von Däniken's Chariots of the Gods? (1968). Alien abduction claims were widespread during the 1960s and 1970s in the United States.

On the scientific side, the possibility of extraterrestrial life on the Moon was decisively ruled out by the 1960s, and during the 1970s it became clear that most of the other bodies of the Solar System do not harbour highly developed life, although the question of primitive life on bodies in the Solar System remains an open question. Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and Louis Friedman founded the U.S. Planetary Society, partly as a vehicle for SETI studies in 1980, and since the 1990s, systematic search for radio signals attributable to intelligent extraterrestrial life has been ongoing.

In the early 1990s, NASA was set to join in on SETI research with a planned targeted search and all-sky survey. However, Senator Richard Bryan of Nevada cut funding for the project, and no comparable search has taken place since.

Recent history

The failure so far of the SETI program to detect an intelligent radio signal after decades of effort, has at least partially dimmed the prevailing optimism of the beginning of the space age. Notwithstanding, the belief in extraterrestrial beings continues to be voiced in pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, and in popular folklore, notably " Area 51" and legends. It has become a pop culture trope given less-than-serious treatment in popular entertainment with e.g. the ALF TV series (1986–1990), The X-Files (1993–2002), etc.

The SETI program is not the result of a continuous, dedicated search, but instead utilizes what resources and manpower it can, when it can. Furthermore, the SETI program only searches a limited range of frequencies at any one time.

In the words of SETI's Frank Drake, "All we know for sure is that the sky is not littered with powerful microwave transmitters". Drake noted that it is entirely possible that advanced technology results in communication being carried out in some way other than conventional radio transmission. At the same time, the data returned by space probes, and giant strides in detection methods, have allowed science to begin delineating habitability criteria on other worlds, and to confirm that at least other planets are plentiful, though aliens remain a question mark. The Wow! signal, detected in 1977 by a SETI project, remains a subject of speculative debate.

In 2000, geologist and paleontologist Peter Ward and astrobiologist Donald Brownlee published a book entitled Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe. In it, they discussed the Rare Earth hypothesis, in which they claim that Earth-like life is rare in the Universe, while microbial life is common. Ward and Brownlee are open to the idea of evolution on other planets which is not based on essential Earth-like characteristics (such as DNA and carbon).

The possible existence of primitive (microbial) life outside of Earth is much less controversial to mainstream scientists, although, at present, no direct evidence of such life has been found. Indirect evidence has been offered for the current existence of primitive life on Mars. However, the conclusions that should be drawn from such evidence remain in debate.

The Catholic Church has not made a formal ruling on the existence of extraterrestrials. However, writing in the Vatican newspaper, the astronomer, Father José Gabriel Funes, director of the Vatican Observatory near Rome, said in 2008 that intelligent beings created by God could exist in outer space.

In September 2010, it was reported that the U.N. General Assembly had appointed Mazlan Othman as their official extraterrestrial liaison by the UK paper The Sunday Times. This claim was later refuted.

Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking in 2010 warned that humans should not try to contact alien life forms. He warned that aliens might pillage Earth for resources. "If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans", he said. Jared Diamond has expressed similar concerns. Scientists at NASA and Penn State University published a paper in April 2011 addressing the question "Would contact with extraterrestrials benefit or harm humanity?" The paper describes positive, negative and neutral scenarios.

In 2011, Richard Hoover, an astrobiologist at the U.S. Space Flight Centre in Alabama, claimed that filaments and other structures in rare meteorites appear to be microscopic fossils of extraterrestrial beings that resemble cyanobacteria—a phylum of photosynthetic bacteria.

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