New Study Says We Could Be Alone in the Universe

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satellite
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There's a good chance that humans are the only intelligent life in the galaxy, according to a new study submitted to the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society of London A. As Quartz reports, researchers at Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute applied existing knowledge of biology, chemistry, and cosmology to the Drake equation (below). It was created by astronomer Frank Drake in 1961 as an attempt to calculate the number of intelligent civilizations that could be in our galaxy. He included factors like the average rate of star formation and the average lifespan of intelligent civilizations.

Image showing text of the Drake equation and explaining what each variable means
Equation: University of Rochester; Image: Hannah McDonald

They estimate there’s a 53 to 99.6 percent chance we’re alone in the galaxy, and a 39 to 85 percent chance we’re the only intelligent life to be found in the entire universe.

“Where are they?” the researchers ask, referring to the classic Fermi Paradox, which asserts that intelligent extraterrestrial beings exist and that they should have visited Earth by now. “Probably extremely far away, and quite possibly beyond the cosmological horizon and forever unreachable.”

Seth Shostak doesn’t buy it. Shostak is senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, a research organization that analyzes radio signals for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. Part of the challenge with mathematical modeling like this, Shostak says, is that the data are limited; scientists just haven’t looked at very many star systems.

“I could walk outside here in Mountain View, California and not see too many hippos strolling the streets,” he tells Mental Floss. “But it would be incorrect for me to say on that rather limited basis that there’s probably no hippos anywhere. It’s a big conclusion to make on the basis of a local observation.”

Moreover, they may not even know what to look for in the solar systems they have reviewed. The SETI Institute examines radio communications and light signals, but there’s always the possibility that an intelligent civilization has attempted to contact us using means we may not have developed or even considered yet.

The Fermi Paradox itself may be naïve in its understanding of the universe, Shostak says. “You could have said the same thing about Antarctica in the 1700s. A lot of people wondered, ‘Is there a continent down there?’ On the one hand, you could argue there was [a continent], and on the other hand, you could say, ‘Look, there’s an awful lot of water in the Pacific and the Atlantic, and there’s no continents there, so why should there be one at the bottom of the ocean?’”

In other words, any conclusions about the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence are likely to be presumptive, made before any solid data is released or discovered. The truth may be out there, Shostak says. We just haven’t found it yet.

[h/t Quartz]

The Northern Lights Could Be Visible Over Parts of the U.S. This Week

iStock.com/Marc_Hilton
iStock.com/Marc_Hilton

Residents in the northern U.S. could be treated to a rare meteorological spectacle this week. As USA Today reports, the northern lights will likely be visible over certain states from May 15 to May 17, including Maine, Michigan, and Montana.

An aurora borealis, an event caused by solar particles colliding with atoms in Earth's atmosphere, is normally limited to countries at higher latitudes like Iceland. On rare occasions, increased activity from the Sun results in stronger and more widespread auroras on our planet.

Following a significant release of plasma and magnetic energy from the Sun's corona, the Space Weather Prediction Center announced a geomagnetic storm watch for this week. The Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) are expected to reach Earth on Wednesday, May 15, and persist through Friday. During that time, the prediction center says the northern lights may appear over parts of the contiguous United States. Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, New York, and most of New England all fall within the projected aurora zone.

The solar storm will peak at a G2 (moderate) level on May 16—which makes Thursday night and Friday morning the best times to catch the light show. As is the case with stars and meteor showers, people in major cities will have trouble seeing the event. Their best bet is to find a high vantage point with little light pollution.

[h/t USA Today]

Mark Your Calendars: An Enormous Asteroid Will Fly Past Earth on April 13, 2029

An image of a different asteroid, called Lutetia
An image of a different asteroid, called Lutetia
ESA 2010 MPS for OSIRIS Team via Getty Images

An asteroid that’s roughly the size of three football fields is on track to whiz past Earth on April 13, 2029. Fortunately for us, it isn’t in danger of hitting our humble planet, according to Space.com.

The asteroid, which was discovered in 2004, is named Apophis after the Egyptian spirit of evil and destruction. Scientists previously suggested that there was a 2.7 percent chance of it striking Earth, but the odds were later reduced to “less than one in a million,” Don Yeomans, a retired planetary scientist for NASA, said in 2013.

Indeed, if it were ever to collide with Earth, “it would cause major damage to our planet and likely to our civilization as well,” according to a statement issued for the 2019 International Academy of Astronautics's Planetary Defense Conference [PDF].

On the bright side, the asteroid is expected to put on quite the show. Because it will come within 19,000 miles of Earth—which is pretty close by celestial standards—it will be visible to the naked eye. NASA says Apophis will soar over Australia before heading across the Indian Ocean, Africa, the Atlantic Ocean, and finally the United States. It will be visible in the eastern U.S. by mid-morning, but its closest approach will be just before 6 p.m. EDT. “By 7 p.m. EDT, the asteroid will have crossed over the United States,” NASA wrote in a statement.

Here’s what its path will look like:

Huge hunks of space rock hurtling toward Earth are not only great fodder for action-packed blockbuster films; they’re also a great way for scientists to learn more about these heavenly bodies. Although small asteroids measuring 5 to 10 meters across sometimes fly by Earth, it’s rare to get a close-up look at asteroids the size of Apophis.

“The Apophis close approach in 2029 will be an incredible opportunity for science,” Marina Brozović, a radar scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement. “We’ll observe the asteroid with both optical and radar telescopes. With radar observations, we might be able to see surface details that are only a few meters in size.”

[h/t Space.com]

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