Life Beyond Earth
Rebecca Douglas examines the search for life beyond this world.
Astrobiology is interested in the origin and evolution of life and whether or not it could develop on other worlds. Although once the hobbyhorse of conspiracy theorists and science fiction fans, progressively more credence is now being given to the search for aliens. Edinburgh University has recently opened a new UK Center for Astrobiology, which will be leading the charge in the UK’s search for little green men 1. Among other things this centre aims to answer the questions “is there life elsewhere in the universe?” and “can we establish a permanent human presence beyond the Earth?”
Meanwhile, the much longer established SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute is still going strong, in spite of NASA cutting its funding in 1995 (it is now funded by private donors). The Institute, which is most famous for searching radio frequencies for signs of life beyond Earth (and analysing the data by borrowing spare CPU cycles from volunteers with home computers 2), has been mounting expeditions to Antarctica to study the life that exists there 3. The idea is to understand better how life can adapt and thrive in such harsh environments and hence how it could do so in seemingly extreme environments on other planets.