At a talk in Germany in 2012, astronomer Seth Shostak bet everyone in the room a Starbucks coffee that the human race would make first contact with alien life within 24 years.
Seven years later, Shostak, who works for the California-based SETI Institute, stands by his bet.
And just one encounter with a thriving alien civilization or even just living or dead microbes could change, well, everything. “The universe, we could conclude, is teeming with life,” Shostak told The Daily Beast.
Shostak’s position is increasingly uncontroversial. More and more scientists believe that, yes, there’s life beyond Earth. “Why should we be the only ones?” Martin Dominik, an astronomer at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, asked The Daily Beast.
(And no, all those recent sightings of supposed UFOs by U.S. Navy pilots don’t count. Whatever those weird flying objects are, scientists almost unanimously dismiss the possibility they’re alien visitors.)
First contact looks more and more likely. But if we’re going to find extraterrestrial life within a decade or so, we might need to switch up exactly where, and how, we’re looking. One hellishly hot volcanic planet in particular practically begs for our attention.
At present, Earth’s scientists are pursuing basically two separate efforts for finding non-Earth life. One is essentially passive, and involves listening for signals from alien civilizations. The SETI Institute— that stands for “search for extraterrestrial intelligence”—spearheads that effort with its arrays of radio receivers.
The other is active. We send out probes to distant planets and moons and scan even farther-away heavenly bodies with powerful telescopes that can help us to determine the makeup of a planet’s atmosphere.
The passive effort, which is focused on detecting intelligent life in some faraway technological civilization, has one huge flaw. Civilizations most likely are on planets. Planets orbit stars. And stars emit a lot of radiation, much of which our radio receivers read as static noise.
Any distant observer of our own solar system would probably never detect human civilization despite all our electronic activity, Terry Virts, a former NASA astronaut, explained on the science podcast Oh No Ross and Carrie. “If we transmitted with all of our power possible, you’d never hear it because the sun would overwhelm it [with] the radio signals that it makes,” Virts said.
So maybe active efforts are more likely to turn up evidence of alien life. The world’s space agencies and science organizations have organized a wide array of probes and telescope surveys that could find E.T. relatively soon.
There are rovers on Mars as well as a NASA plan to land astronauts on the Red Planet sometime in the 2030s. Former NASA scientist Gil Levin, for one, told The Daily Beast the agency found evidence of microbes on Mars way back in 1976. NASA insisted the data was faulty.
Looking past the Red Planet, the European Space Agency and NASA are both planning to launch space telescopes that could scan the atmospheres of “exo-planets” potentially hundreds of trillions of miles from Earth.
NASA’s new James Webb telescope, billed by the agency as the “world’s premier space science observatory,” should be ready by 2021. The ESA’s Remote-Sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large-Survey telescope is slated for a 2028 launch.
The two sensors will make a powerful pair. Douglas Vakoch, who heads the METI International research organization in San Francisco (METI stands for “Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence”), is an advocate of SETI’s passive approach to finding life, but he told The Daily Beast even he believes that, after 2028, the space telescopes will be the best way to hunt for E.T.
In that case, “E.T.” almost certainly would mean microbes. Michael Varnum, an Arizona State University psychologist who studies possible first-contact scenarios, told The Daily Beast that the aliens we’re most likely to find are single-cell organisms, either living or fossilized.
He points to the so-called “Drake Equation” and other calculations. They “suggest that such life should be far more common than intelligent life,” Varnum said.
NASA agrees. In addition to landing robots and eventually people on Mars, the space agency plans to send a probe to Europa, a moon of Jupiter, in 2025. The $4-billion Europa Clipper is equipped with instruments that can analyze the plumes of water vapor that scientists suspect occasionally jet from Europa’s surface, and which could in theory support microbial life.
If the probe works over Europa, it could form the basis of a later probe that scientists want to send to Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, some time in the late 2020s or 2030s. Enceladus, like Europa, appears to have water. Lots of it. And it shoots it straight into space in the form of enormous geysers, making it fairly straightforward to investigate.
But there’s an even better place to look.
“At some point we should really check out Venus and its lower atmosphere,” Dirk Schulze-Makuch, an astrobiologist at the Technical University Berlin, told The Daily Beast.
Venus, the second planet from the sun, might seem like an unlikely place to look for life. It’s hot. Really hot. “The atmosphere traps the small amount of energy from the sun that reaches the surface along with the heat the planet itself releases,” NASA explained on its website. “This greenhouse effect has made the surface and lower atmosphere of Venus one of the hottest places in the solar system.”
Then there’s the planet’s toxic carbon-dioxide atmosphere and sulfuric-acid clouds. Still, for all its hot poison, Venus could support microbes, Schulze-Makuch explained in a 2004 paper he co-wrote with, among others, David Grinspoon from the Arizona-based Planetary Science Institute.
“Having originated in a hot proto-ocean or been brought in by meteorites from Earth (or Mars), early life on Venus could have adapted to a dry, acidic atmospheric niche as the warming planet lost its oceans,” Schulze-Makuch and Grinspoon wrote.
A bunch of NASA researchers got so excited by the prospect of life on Venus a few years back that they concocted a fairly outlandish scheme to deploy giant, manned airships in the planet’s toxic atmosphere.
In truth, there’s no need to send people to investigate Venus and its potential “niche” lifeforms. “There are probes you could send that are orders of magnitude less cost,” Grinspoon told The Daily Beast back in 2018. “Send machines.”
We’re already listening for radio signals and getting ready to scan distant planets, probe Europa and possibly Enceladus, and send alien-hunters to Mars. As humanity enters perhaps the most important phase of its decades-long search for extraterrestrial life, maybe Venus should be on the list, too.
But there’s one big reason it isn’t. Space missions are expensive. And you have to convince politicians to pay for them. “To get the political impetus to [probe Venus] would be much more difficult than for Mars,” Schulze-Makuch explained. “One reason is because Mars is also a potential site for a human mission and settlement, while Venus is clearly not.”