back to article The search for alien life

The parachutes deploy perfectly, and gradually, swinging gently through the tenuous atmosphere, the little probe falls to the ground. Minutes later it jerks slightly as it unfurls its solar panels. Like a butterfly newly emerged from a chrysalis, it soaks in the rays of the sun. Now its sensors switch on and start to take in …


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  1. Nathan Free

    If we can't find it then we should make it...

    We should consider seeding these environments that are most suitable for life with the most suitable bacteria here on earth. It would obviously take an extreme amount of time, but eventually we might see something grow that has been influenced by the local environment.

  2. andy gibson

    Recommended Reading...

    If this article has interested anyone, I can highly recommend the novel TROJAN by James Follett.

  3. Alastair McKinstry

    Non-Darwinian life

    Jokes are never funny when explained, but anyway ...

    Theres an unexpected 'double entendre' when talking of looking for 'non-Darwinian life' : there is a planned space mission

    Darwin ( thats probably

    our best hope of finding extraterrestrial life in the near future.

    Its looking for the signature of life on terrestrial planets similar to our own:

    oxygen for example being a biomarker (gas, in the presence of

    e.g. methane, unlikely to be present without life). So the Darwin mission

    is looking for Darwinian life ...

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    That's life you are stepping on.

    This assumes that life works at a pace that is detectable. There are bacteria on earth which have very slow metabolism and live Kilometres below the surface. In fact I heard somewhere there is more life under the surface of the earth than on it.

    What is difficult is that life not base on what we know may be possible but the conditions and rate of change might not be noticeable from visual clues. The only way I can think of to get around this problem is to work backwards and see if the condition and environment on the planet today could have been caused from thousands of years of slow forming life. The chemical make up of the observed features could show a method of energy release (proved by chemical by products in the area) no matter slow the reaction is. This could then be tested to determine if it could be a form of biochemical metabolism.

    However what we really need is the life detector which you seen on various sci-fi. Especially the one from Star Trek, which could lead to a lucky scientist to use the immortal line. "It's life Jim, but not as we know it."

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Looing for bacteria

    The problem with these searches on other worlds is that were searching for bacteria and germs. On mars we haven't even dig a hole of our own looking for worms (a basic bug/insect). Even if all we find is remains at least we then know there was life there. Until we can land an automated JCB on a planet, we're a little stuffed.

  6. Douglas

    So if you can't hit your target...

    You just throw the dart, then paint the bullseye around it.

    You gotta love it when the "scientific" community goes nuts about underwater ice, dried up rivers etc on Mars, and then, just when a mission is about to collect actual samples and test them, suddenly publish a survey which says that "life may not need water after all" (my paraphrase).

    I especially love the quote from the University of Washington: "Our investigation made clear that life is possible in forms different than those on Earth..."

    Fascinating - when do we get to see it? Or are we, as usual, talking about some fudging with mathematical formulae and theoretical models?

  7. Hate2Register

    Humans are useless, crappy forms of life

    The absence of intelligent life on earth should temper your earnest, though naive, quest to find recognisable life on Mars or elsewhere. Intelligence can be defined as the ability to think about how great one is. Ego and intelligence (in our crappy human sense) go hand in hand. Excuse my cynicism, we don't even know what life exists at the bottom of the oceans, but here you go getting all excited about life in space.

    David Bowie wrote:

    "Sailors fighting in the dance hall

    Oh man! Look at those cavemen go

    It's the freakiest show

    Take a look at the Lawman

    Beating up the wrong guy

    Oh man! Wonder if he'll ever know

    He's in the best selling show

    Is there life on Mars?"

    Hope you're getting paid as much as Bowie to write your prose.

  8. Chris Goodchild

    Take me to your leader

    When and if America does find life on Mars, Titan or anywhere else it is going to be force fed democracy, checked out thoroughly for potential terrorist suspects and then have a suitably right wing government that is freindly to the U.S. `encouraged´ . And god help them if they have a source of cheap energy that will power gas guzzling cars AKA American national scerity

  9. Andy Bright

    re: If we can't find it then we should make it...

    I fully agree that searching just isn't worth it considering the space amoeba these fools are trying to pass off as life after spending billions just to fly somewhere as close as Mars or Titan.

    But instead of making boring plants and bacteria, surely we have a sufficient handle on DNA now to make proper aliens? We could start off by messing with some test tube babies - growing antenna and the like, or maybe some extra limbs. Then we can start on colour and shapes.

    If we piled all that money into fucking with embryos surely we could have something half decent before the decade is out?

    Then all we need to do is pack a bunch of weird shit we've made into one of those multi-billion dollar probes, maybe throw in some of those glowing pigs, and send it all off to whatever planet seems promising.

    The best part is because everything would have to be hush hush to avoid the whining of nancy do-gooders, we wouldn't even have to tell anyone what we've done. Then the probe reaches planet-X complete with camera and all kinds of weird stuff to photograph - and hey presto, result. It would be a great joke to play on the creationists if nothing else.

    Also it saves on the embarrassment of sending a camera on a trillion dollar mission to photograph aliens that aren't visible on a light spectrum viewable by humans (or cameras).

  10. Kamal Hashmi

    non-Darwinian life ....

    Erm ... as all that Darwin postulated was the theory of evolution then surely all evolved life would be "Darwinian" - whether or not it was carbon-based.

    The only non-Darwinian life forms would be artificially created life (like the Cylons) - could be machine AI or biologically based or whatever (electromagnetic plasma entities?).


  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Kamal beat me to it...

    I've been wondering about the phrase "darwinian" for a while now in the context of exobiology... what the hell is a non-darwinian life form? One that was ready-made? Chemicals combine, the temperature hits a certain spectrum, and POP! a full-formed organism, hair, teeth, eyeballs and all?

  12. DZ-Jay

    RE: non-Darwinian life ....

    I believe that when they say "Darwinian" life, they actually mean carbon-based. The reasoning is pretty straightforward: Evolution does not cause organic changes nilly-willy, but depends on genetic mutations, i.e. alterations of the DNA sequence. This DNA in turn is composed of proteins arranged in particular combinations; and these proteins are by necessity (at least for our current definition of organic life) based on carbon molecules.

    As you correctly alluded in your comment, Darwin's postulates did not really include any of these bio-chemical intricacies; however, through observation and empirical data, it has become the natural extension of the Theory of Evolution. Ergo, it seems appropriate to refer to carbon-based lifeforms as "Darwinian", meaning that they are subject to the evolutionary process.



  13. Kamal Hashmi

    RE: non-Darwinian life ....

    Interesting argument dZ.

    However, you are progressing from the general (evolution) to the specific (evolution on Earth depends on DNA which is carbon based) and then relabelling the specific with the general label (Darwinian evolution).

    The organic (carbon-based) biochemical intricacies are pretty much how evolution is implemented here on Earth, it may be implemented - or rather expressed (better than implemented) - differently elsewhere.


  14. Graham Dawson Silver badge

    "methane, unlikely to be present without life"

    If methane is unlikely to exist without life, how come it's one of the most prevalent compounds in the outer solar system? I mean, Titan has an entire atmosphere of the stuff...

    What I think you mean is that methane is unlikely to exist in a reducing atmosphere, like ours. Methane quickly decays to CO2 in the presence of oxygen and water. I know this might appear pedantic, but when you're dealing in science you have to get very specific about terms otherwise people will be confused.

  15. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    @Andy Bright

    I was incensed by your comment right up to the point where you said "It would be a great joke to play on the creationists". Now I agree totally with you. So, where do I sign up ?

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