Dawning of the Age of Cosmozation

Searching for Signs of Life on Mars

New America Media, Commentary, Andrew Lam Posted: Jun 08, 2008

Editor's Note: Our satellites, probes and telescopes are peering deep into the heavens looking for signs of life. Yet not long ago, we resisted the idea, clinging instead to the self-important notion that life did not exist elsewhere. NAM editor Andrew Lam is the author of “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.”

Mars suddenly has become a very busy place. Orbited by satellites, crisscrossed by Land Rovers and now dug up by NASA’s Phoenix probe, which recently landed on its northern pole in search of organic compounds and water – it’s as if the barren planet already has been colonized by humans.

marsNever before in human history have we been so enthusiastic about the cosmos. NASA is planning manned missions to the moon and Mars – with the cooperation of Japan and Europe – and plans to establish a permanent station on the moon. China hopes to have a manned station orbiting the moon very soon. All the while, our satellites, probes and telescopes are peering deep into the heavens looking for signs of life.

Yet not long ago, we resisted the idea, clinging instead to the self-important notion that we were special, that life did not exist elsewhere.

Indeed, for millennia we assumed that our planet was the center of the universe and, for that matter, that the sun orbited the Earth. When we discovered that the Earth was round and mapped the shape of our solar system, we held onto the notion that our system, in which planets orbit the sun, was absolutely unique.

Scientists just a few decades ago assumed, too, that conditions on Earth – the temperature, light, radiation, water and volcanic activities and ocean tides – made it the only planet that could possibly support life.

But lately we have begun to change our minds.

As astonishing discoveries are being made, that sense of self-importance has eroded, giving way to a more humble assessment of our place in the cosmos. The conditions of our home planet and solar system may be unique, but solar systems are not at all anomalies.

Consider these discoveries.

Using the Hubble Telescope, which orbits Earth, astronomers have discovered hundreds of other solar systems – planets that orbit around stars. One planet in particular, 150 million light years away, is believed to have an atmosphere.

mars 2We know that Earth is constantly bombarded by meteors when we look up into the night sky and spot shooting stars. But more astounding is astronomer Lou Frank's recent discovery. Using the Hubble Telescope to study Earth's atmosphere, Frank proved that Earth is constantly being hit by snowballs from space. The implications are enormous: If ice from outer space hits Earth regularly, it could be "snowing" onto other planets too, providing much-needed water to support life. The universe is suddenly very wet.

A few years ago a meteorite from Mars found on Earth, known as the Allan Hills meteorite (or ALH 84001 to scientists), astonished everyone when some scientists claimed they found tantalizing traces of fossilized life within it. Their findings have been contested, but it fired up the imagination.

Moreover, the Galileo space probe that orbited Jupiter showed us that on Europa, one on Jupiter's many moons, huge oceans lie beneath an icy surface. Scientists found active volcanoes as well – that is to say, ingredients that could spark and possibly support life.

More tantalizing still are the organic materials found in comet dust collected from the comet Wild 2. Here's NASA's press release on the comet dust brought back to Earth by the space probe Stardust: “These chunks of ice and dust wandering our solar system appear to be filled with organic molecules that are the building blocks of life."

The finding surprised scientists because many predicted that the space probe would find mostly ice. Instead, the finding could lend support to the belief that comets could have "seeded" life on our planet as well as others.

All of these discoveries renewed our enthusiasm in the idea of “panspermia” (originating from the Greek word for “all-seeding") the hypothesis that seeds of life could have been delivered to Earth – and possibly other planets. The therory of an interstellar exchange of DNA was championed by Francis Crick, who discovered the DNA molecule with two other scientists more than half a century ago. If scientists laughed behind the Nobel laureate’s back when he first suggested it, no one is laughing now.

Besides, there is such a thing as self fulfilling prophecy: If Earth didn't receive DNA for a start up way back when, we are now actively sending out DNA through space with our spacecrafts and satellites and shuttles.

While thinkers and writers still haven't come to terms with the full impact of the forces of globalization, another age is already upon us – one in which man's awareness expands beyond the globe as his relationship with the cosmos intensifies.

Ours is no longer just a lonely blue planet amid the heavens but – as we send probes and manned missions to the comos and map the universe, as we enthusiastically search for signs of life elsewhere – seems to exist as part of an open and intricately complex system.

StarsThe age of cosmozation has arrived.

Related Articles:

If It's Bleak On Earth, Look Up To The Heavens

Rover, or Beagle: One Indian-American Knows Who the New Top Dog Is, on Mars and Earth

Back From a Space Station Far, Far Away

Pact Signed for India's 2008 Moon Mission




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User Comments


sandy close on Jun 08, 2008 at 15:35:23 said:

a refreshing exploration that reminds us of Walt Anderson's dictum--we're way past the Industrial Age yet still drowning in its political vocabulary.


Ken K on Jun 08, 2008 at 12:42:16 said:

A good and timely piece! When discovery of life in Mars or elsewhere outside the earth is made, I wonder how religious institutions would react…

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