Communion Of Dreams

Is there anybody out there?*

From the opening pages of Communion of Dreams:

Jon sat there for a moment, trying to digest what Seth said. According to what pretty much everyone thought, it wasn’t possible. SETI, OSETI, META and BETA had pretty much settled that question for most scientists decades ago, and twenty years of settlement efforts throughout the solar system hadn’t changed anyone’s mind. Even with the Advanced Survey Array out at Titan Prime searching nearby systems for good settlement prospects, there had never been an indication that there was an intelligent, technologically advanced race anywhere within earshot.

It’s one of the very basic questions of space science: are we (sentient beings) unique? Rare? Common? There are a lot of ways to think about it, and here’s a nice piece on NPR discussing some of the relevant parts of the question and what we’re doing about it.  An excerpt:

So, to address the first part of the question we must find out how unique the Earth is. We then should figure out how unique life, and humans, are. Fortunately, thanks to NASA’s Kepler mission, we are making huge progress in the first part of the answer. A key finding is that the majority of stars (around 70 percent) have at least one planet orbiting around them. Based on the data so far (2,740 planet candidates and 115 confirmations), Kepler scientists estimate that some 17 percent of these are Earth-size, meaning with similar mass and rocky composition as the Earth, and possibly close enough to their parent star that water, if present, could be in its liquid state.

More good news arrived on this front earlier this month as NASA authorized the construction of Kepler’s successor, TESS (for Transit Exoplanet Survey Satellite). With launch scheduled for 2017, TESS will survey a much wider area of the sky than Kepler, while focusing mostly on stars that are closer. This way, it will use spectroscopy to resolve at least part of the atmospheric composition of the exoplanets. The goal is to find telling signs of life-related compounds such as ozone, water, carbon dioxide and, if we’re really lucky, even chlorophyll. Successful detection would be very exciting, as it’d point to what optimists expect, a few fairly close Earth-like planets with metabolizing beings.

I hope I live long enough that science is able to make a definitive affirmation of life, then intelligent life, outside our own planet.

Until then, well, there’s science fiction.


Jim Downey

*Seemed appropriate.