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It’s all about light

March 19, 2016

In just three years from now, we will mark the fifty-year anniversary of man’s first setting foot on the moon. Fifty years! It’s gone fast. Too fast. The 70’s and 80’s were full of visionaries projecting that we would have bases on the moon and burgeoning tourism by now. Alas man hasn’t set foot on the moon again since our last Apollo mission in 1972. Eugene Cernan was the last man to walk on the moon and that was almost 44 years ago!

For those of us who grew up on Star Trek and Star Wars, our effort in getting off the planet and into space has been agonizingly slow. Instead, we watch as NASA sends rover after rover to investigate nearby bodies, while mumbling amongst ourselves “how hard can it be?”

But as it turns out, it’s pretty hard. Physics is the most obvious problem, especially for technologies that haven’t been invented yet. And the more we learn about space, the more obstacles we discover. Problems like radiation. Or lack of gravity. Or social isolation. The problems continue to grow based on the most fundamental human traits imaginable. And things we’ve taken for granted for millions of years.

Even with today’s technologies, we only have “ideas” on how to solve some of these problems. And it can be a very long time between initial concepts and working models. Which paints a pretty stark picture. The unfortunate reality is that it may be a very long time before we have a ship capable of going anywhere.

So the question then is…do we even have to? We all know the fastest speed possible (that we know of) is the speed of light. And while we’d love to venture out and see other places and new planets, it all really boils down to just one reason. After all, if you’ve seen one sun, you’ve pretty much seen them all. And I don’t think anyone is all that excited about seeing a planet comprised of nothing but barren rock or clouds of deadly methane.

No, most of us prefer to venture through space with one single, monumental goal in mind. To find life! Any kind of life. Sure, a friendly alien waving back at us, waiting to share their knowledge would be great. But even just seeing plant life on another planet would be incredible. Or knowing that life “exists” beyond our own Earth would change everything. Not just textbooks, but it would validate so much of our beliefs. Even the Drake Equation, as simple and realistic as it is, is little more than scientific “faith”. And knowing that our assumptions and extrapolations were right would fill so many of us with a profound sense of eternal satisfaction.

But we have no ship. And we won’t have one that can help us make these discoveries for a very long time. Most likely after the vast majority of us have long since been laid to rest. Although there is one way.

There is one way that is within our grasp. And it’s possible right now. It doesn’t require huge leaps in technology, or exotic solutions that we can only imagine in diagrams or books. A way that may just be able to answer the question as to whether we’re alone, long before we pass on still clinging to our scientific faith.

I’m talking about planet hunting. The search for distant Earth-like planets, visible to us now thanks to the wonders of light. You see, instead of us having to figure out a way to make the trip, light has already done that for us. And when that light has bounced off a distant planet, it carries with it signatures of the elements that it bounced against.

In other words, by examining the faint rays of this light, even using today’s technology, we can see what molecules are in that planet’s atmosphere. Which means we can determine what caused it. Things like methane and carbon dioxide can be caused by many things, but one thing that is a sure signature of life is oxygen. Oxygen, in large quantities, is unquestionably the result, or byproduct, of a living organism.

This all means that we can potentially answer the biggest question of all, without ever having to leave our planet. At least for now. Because while a plant or forest may not sound interesting, we simply need to remember that those are complex organisms. And to find complex life out there means we will eventually find more complex and potentially intelligent life.

Light is the key. Light doesn’t just provide illumination. It provides information. Like nature’s fiber optic cables, with bits of data that has already traversed the universe, it can help us verify that we are not alone. And that as Frank Drake posited many years ago, there are likely thousands of other civilizations out there.

This is why we all love science fiction. Because deep in our hearts we know we’re right.

And with any luck…simple photons are about to prove it.

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