Humans have long wondered whether life exists beyond our home planet. In recent years, a host of new technologies are turning speculation into science. We now have the ability to discern the atmosphere of an extra-solar planet so distant we can't even see it, to detect the presence of dozens of new planets circling stars similar to our own sun, and have discovered life in environments on Earth so extreme it's not unreasonable to imagine that microbes -- or more-- may flourish elsewhere in the Universe. To explore this frontier, a new hybrid field called Astrobiology, a combination of astronomy and biology, has sprung up. Given the ability of astronomers to invent ever greater technologies and the recent findings by biologists that life can exist in extraordinarily hostile environments without sunlight, water and oxygen, there's a whole new ballgame out there.
Some stars die benignly like our own sun.
-- Shri Kulkarni, Astronomer
Not benign to us.
-- Robert L. Kuhn, Host
Batter up. Mars then Europa. Astronomer/planetary geologist Bruce Murray has worked on missionsto Mars since before his tenure as head of Caltech's JPL. If anyone wants to get there, it's Murray. But as for drilling for life on Mars, he's skeptical. "The surface of Mars is self-sterilizing. That means it had to either evolve or be subterranean life like in the groundwater of the Earth." Astrophysicist and director of New York's Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson says he doesn't care how big our shovel will have to be to find it, if that's what we need technology to do, we'll invent it. Shri Kulkarni, who observed and correctly assessed what turned out to be the first known pulsar, fields what may be the key homerun, "we now know that star formation is accompanied by planet formation."
"Are the stars out tonight?" Who cares if it's cloudy or bright. Now we know that not only are they there, so are their planets. Multiply the stars times the planets they have all formed? Astronomy is divided into those who say just on statistics alone, there has to be life, and those who refute it by saying that those statistics don't include a myriad of factors inhibiting the development of life, and that we are a chance accident. Will we ever know that we are not alone… or very alone?
Delve deeper into this episode’s content.
Shri Kulkarni Ph.D.
Planetary Astronomer, Caltech
Shri Kulkarni on the meaning of discovering life elsewhere and the Hubble Telescope.
Bruce Murray Ph.D.
Planetary Astronomer/Geologist, Caltech
Bruce Murray discusses his professional life's goal, scientific explorations on Mars.