Skip to main content

The Search for Extraterrestrial Life

Jim Dorsch has written about food, drink and music for 25 years. He occasionally foists what passes for humor on unsuspecting readers.

People have long speculated about intelligent life on other planets. Scientists have scanned the universe in its pursuit. They have come up empty so far, but who knows? Perhaps someone has received the signal and chosen not to respond. Or maybe they have scanned our planet and found the inhabitants unworthy of further examination.

Activity grew in the United States after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) analyzed the scientific and technological issues related to the search. NASA funded a High Resolution Microwave Survey (HRMS) targeted search in 1992. Said by Congress to be a waste of money, HRMS was canceled in 1993. While I am skeptical about the efficacy of Congress, I concede that this august body has established its credentials as regards the waste of money.

Use Your Imagination

Think of it like the national debt, expressed in miles instead of dollars

The SETI Institute took over HRMS in 1994, renaming it the Phoenix Project and funding it with donations. The effort was suspended in April 2011 due to a shortage of funds. The Phoenix Project observed over 800 stars as far as 240 light-years from Earth, and found no signs of life.

A light-year is the distance that light travels in a year. It's a bit less than 6 trillion miles. Doing some quick math, 240 light-years is around 1.4 quadrillion miles. To better visualize this huge number, think of it like the national debt, expressed in miles instead of dollars.

The Search for Life

The nonprofit SETI Institute was founded in 1984 with a mission to “explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe.” SETI, of course, is an acronym for “search for extraterrestrial intelligence.” It's like Star Trek without the spaceships.

People have searched for radio signals from space since a radio astronomer named Frank Drake aimed an antenna at a couple of Sun-like stars in 1960. The Soviet Union conducted a broad search over the next decade, hoping perhaps to enlist extraterrestrial workers to the cause.

How Many Civilizations?

Led by astronomer Frank Drake (b. 1930), a team of scientists formulated the Drake equation in 1961 to estimate the number of detectable extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy. The equation is complex and depends on a number of assumptions that can greatly affect the result. The answer ranges from less than a thousand to almost a billion. Drake suggested that the paucity of evidence of other civilizations might indicate that technological civilizations disappeared fairly rapidly. This, in turn, gave rise to speculation about the lifespan of civilization on Earth.

Astrobiologists assume other lifeforms will be carbon-based, as we are, and will require water and a sun. Scientists have sent numerous probes to Mars, which is the closest place where life might exist. Dr. Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, suggests that life could exist on Saturn's moons, or in the upper atmosphere of Venus. These lifeforms would likely resemble bacteria.

The Search Goes On (And On, And On)

Scientists have not been passive in the search for life. The United States launched the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft in 1973. These carried a plaque, designed by Drake and astronomer Carl Sagan (1934–1996), with information about humans, the Earth and the space missions. Pioneer 10 exited the solar system in 1983. According to Popular Science, it will be two million years before either craft encounters another star.

NASA also sent golden records with the Voyager probes. These explain how to play them, and they contain a map locating the Sun, along with videos, greetings in numerous languages and music from around the world. It will be tens of thousands of years before this information reaches its destination.

Meteorites bounce around the universe, and they sometimes carry bits of amino acids. About 20 different amino acids form the basis of life, and scientists have found eight of them on meteorites. They also study organisms on Earth called extremophiles. These creatures can survive, and possibly even thrive in extreme conditions such as near absolute zero temperatures and radioactive environments.

Astronomers had thought these types of lifeforms might live on Mars. The Telegraph reported in February 2012 that after three years analyzing Martian soil collected during the 2008 NASA Phoenix mission, researchers stated that Mars has suffered a super-drought, perhaps for hundreds of millions of years, and that any life on the red planet would have to be deep underground.

Scientists discovered the first extrasolar planet orbiting a normal star in 1995. Called 51 Pegasi b, the planet is in the constellation Pegasus, about 50 light-years from Earth. Its discovery confirmed ideas that our solar system might not be unique. By mid-2008, about 300 exoplanets had been found. NASA launched the Kepler space observatory in March 2009, and the spacecraft identified more than 2,600 planets and observed more than a half-million stars before being retired in 2018.

Aliens Among Us

Aliens have visited our planet many times in the movies, but scientists tend to believe it won't happen because of the energy required to travel through the vastness of space. But perhaps there's another form of energy that we mere Earthlings have not yet discovered.

Led by the late physicist Stephen Hawking (1942–2018) scientists started to acknowledge that alien life might well exist, according to big think. Conjuring up images from old Outer Limits TV shows, Hawking advised in a Discovery Channel documentary that we should avoid engaging aliens, which he called “nomads looking to conquer and colonize.”

Scroll to Continue

Bulgarian scientist Lachezar Fiipov told the media, “Aliens are currently all around us, and are watching us all the time,” according to The Telegraph. The same publication reported the statement of Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe of Cardiff University that billions of years ago comets deposited microbes that multiplied and seeded to form human life. If that's true, then the aliens have already been here—and we are their descendants.

What's Your Opinion?

New Candidate Planets Found

In February 2012, Scientific American reported the discovery of a planet named GJ 667Cc, which could support life. The planet is at least 4.5 times as massive as Earth. It orbits its parent star, 22 light-years from Earth in the constellation Scorpius, in about 28 days. GJ 667Cc lies in the habitable zone of its host star, where temperatures are appropriate for liquid water to exist on its surface.

The planet is part of a star system whose makeup is quite different than ours, lacking particularly in metals, which are usually key in the formation of planets. Steven Vogt, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and one of the authors of a study announcing the planet's discovery, said, “Statistics tell us we shouldn't have found something this quickly this soon unless there's a lot of them out there. This tells us there must be an awful lot of these planets out there.”

In April 2013, scientists announced the discovery by NASA's Kepler satellite of three new candidate planets. Rotating around the Kepler-62 star, two of the planets, Kepler-62e and Kepler-62f, lie in the habitable zone. A third planet, Kepler-69c, is somewhat less likely to accommodate life. The planets are about 1,200 light-years from Earth. The Kepler-69 star is 2,700 light-years away.

Billions of Habitable Planets May Exist in Our Galaxy

In late March of 2012, the Irish Independent reported on a study indicating that billions of habitable planets may exist in our galaxy, some within 30 light-years of Earth.

A group of astronomers, led by Dr. Xavier Bonfils of Grenoble University in France, surveyed red dwarf stars and determined that about 40 percent had a rocky planet not much bigger than Earth orbiting in the habitable zone where liquid water can exist, making life possible. There are about 160 billion such stars in the Milky Way, accounting for approximately 80 percent of all stars in the galaxy, leading to the astonishing conclusion that there are tens of billions of such planets just in our galaxy.

Scientists surveyed a specific group of 102 red dwarfs using a telescope at La Silla, Chile, and found nine super-Earths, planets with masses between one and 10 times that of Earth. From this, they estimated that there could be about 100 habitable-zone planets within 30 light-years of Earth.


In 2017 Congress updated NASA's mission to include the understanding of the nature and distribution of life beyond Earth. That seems sufficiently noble and vague to continue to suck up taxpayer money for many years. Well done. President Donald Trump wants NASA to set up shop on the moon, and to put humans on Mars by 2033. That gives the Martians the better part of 15 years to erect the outer-space version of a wall to repel the Earthling interlopers.

You Know

Our boring life on Earth could someday resemble a '50s science fiction flick.

Scientists in many disciplines are searching not just for intelligent life, but for any life beyond our planet, including microbes, for example. This is exciting. Our boring life on Earth could someday resemble a '50s science fiction flick. If microscopic creatures fail to infect the Earthly population, then advanced creatures will seek to use us as ingredients in their next dinner.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2012 Jim Dorsch


Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on March 13, 2012:

Glad you liked it, and yes, the "Life On" posters are great! I was lucky to find those. Cheers.

Glen Nunes from Cape Cod, USA on March 13, 2012:

Great hub, informative and funny! I love the "Life on..." posters.

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 24, 2012:

Thanks for your thoughts, Deb. My opinion is that we haven't found anything yet. I read another hub recently that mentioned how difficult it is to find anything in such a vast universe, but that doesn't mean there's no life out there. Cheers.

Deb Welch on February 24, 2012:

Gio - God created all the Planets in the Universe and every living thing - if HE created human beings and animals plus every creeping thing upon the planet Earth, as well as plant life - why couldn't HE have created other beings? Humans may be too egotistical. I believe this government covers up what the general public can't handle. Fear and shock factors that goes for other things not only outer space happenings. Voted Up - Useful information and interesting.

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 09, 2012:

I think yours is wise counsel. Certainly it's not a good idea to assume they will be our pals! Cheers.

Davesworld from Cottage Grove, MN 55016 on February 09, 2012:

Science fiction author Jerry Pournelle once suggested: "Ours is a world dominated by the use of force. What makes us think the universe will be any different?" If space aliens do exist, they are more likely to be unfriendly than they are to be Mr Spocks.

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 05, 2012:

Thanks for your comments. I don't think anything could be like we see in the movies, not even life here on Earth. Cheers.

nityanandagaurang on February 04, 2012:

There are extra terristial planet but they are not like we usually see in movies.Very interesting hub giocatore.

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 04, 2012:

Thanks. If they said it in a movie, it must be true! Cheers.

cebutouristspot from Cebu on February 04, 2012:

I believe so. I remember one quote in a movie I cant remember. "If their is no other life out their then the universe is such a lonely place" or something close to that :) Thanks for sharing

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 04, 2012:

Thanks. I find it hard to believe that humans are the only intelligent lifeforms in the universe, but as you say, we're not likely to see anything in our lifetimes. But who knows?

JamesPoppell on February 04, 2012:

Great hub. I believe there is life out there. Will we see complete evidence in our life time? Probably not but it is fun and fascinating to think about. Vote up. Thanks for sharing.

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on February 04, 2012:

Thanks, and glad to produce a chuckle. I've always wondered what extraterrestrial lifeforms might look like. Probably like nothing we ever imagined. Cheers.

Brett C from Asia on February 04, 2012:

A fun read and loved the line:

"Doing some quick math, 240 light years is about 1.4 quadrillion miles. It's sort of like the national debt, expressed in miles instead of dollars."

I laughed so much at this. As for other life, there must be, but whether we will ever see them is a different story.

Voted up, interesting, funny and SOCIALLY SHARING.

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on January 29, 2012:

The only Bigfoot I care about is made by Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Cheers!

chelseacharleston on January 29, 2012:

Great question! I once had a guy tell me that the reason we'd never find Bigfoot's body was because he was an evolved species from another planet LOL. I'll never forget it. Thought provoking, though. Good hub!

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on January 28, 2012:

Well, we don't know that for sure. If a life form has an advanced method of travel, they could zoom over to Earth as quickly as you can drive to the CVS. Of course, if that's the case, I expect we're not going to be able to do much about it, so it really doesn't matter.

I do have some questions. For example, what kind of sitcoms do alien life forms watch? Do they have football teams? Do they suffer from ingrown toenails?

I dealt with the asteroid situation in another hub. Cheers.

Brad Masters from Southern California on January 28, 2012:

Your hub points out my opinion that it really doesn't matter if life exists in outer space. You won't see it in your life time, that of thousands generations, even if they do exist now.

A couple of days ago there was a reported near miss of the earth by a bus sized asteroid. There would have been nothing that we here on earth could have done to stop or divert it. But it should have been more interesting than a planet 50 light years away.

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on January 28, 2012:

Thanks, I always try to have some fun! Cheers.

poetvix from Gone from Texas but still in the south. Surrounded by God's country. on January 28, 2012:

Thank you for the history lesson, and the interesting theories. I really like your writing style. The wit you insert keeps the material from being dry.

Related Articles