Vatican: It’s OK for Catholics to Believe in Aliens

VATICAN CITY — There could be alien life forms and believing they exist isn’t contradictory to having faith in God, the top astronomer at the Vatican said in an interview published Tuesday.

In the Vatican newspaper piece, titled “The Extraterrestrial Is My Brother,” the Rev. Jose Gabriel Funes said the expansiveness of the universe means there could be life on planets other than Earth.

“In my opinion this possibility exists,” Funes, the director of the Vatican Observatory, told L’Osservatore Romano. “Astronomers believe the universe is made up of 100 billion galaxies, each of which consists of 100 billion stars. … Life forms could exist in theory even without oxygen or hydrogen.”

Funes said that there might even be other intelligent life out there, but believing in its existence doesn’t pose a problem for those of the Catholic faith.

“It is possible. So far we have no proof. But certainly in a universe so big we can not exclude this hypothesis,” he told the paper.

“As there is a multiplicity of creatures on earth, so there may be other beings, intelligent, created by God. This does not conflict with our faith, because we cannot put limits on the creative freedom of God.”
He said human beings could even consider another life form an “extraterrestrial brother” because it, too, would be one of God’s creatures.

“How can we rule out that life may have developed elsewhere?” Funes said. “Just as we consider earthly creatures as ‘a brother,’ and ‘sister,’ why should we not talk about an ‘extraterrestrial brother’? It would still be part of creation.”

The interview covered a variety of topics, including the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and science, and the theological implications of the existence of alien life.

Funes said science, especially astronomy, does not contradict religion, touching on a theme of Pope Benedict XVI, who has made exploring the relationship between faith and reason a key aspect of his papacy.

The Bible “is not a science book,” Funes said, adding that he believes the Big Bang theory is the most “reasonable” explanation for the creation of the universe. The theory says the universe began billions of years ago in the explosion of a single, super-dense point that contained all matter.

But he said he continues to believe that “God is the creator of the universe and that we are not the result of chance.”

Funes urged the church and the scientific community to leave behind divisions caused by Galileo’s persecution 400 years ago, saying the incident has “caused wounds.”

In 1633 the astronomer was tried as a heretic and forced to recant his theory that the Earth revolved around the sun. Church teaching at the time placed Earth at the center of the universe.

The church has somehow recognized its mistakes,” he said. “Maybe it could have done it better, but now it’s time to heal those wounds and this can be done through calm dialogue and collaboration.”

Pope John Paul declared in 1992 that the ruling against Galileo was an error resulting from “tragic mutual incomprehension.”

The Vatican Observatory has been at the forefront of efforts to bridge the gap between religion and science. Its scientist-clerics have generated top-notch research and its meteorite collection is considered one of the world’s best.

The observatory, founded by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, is based in Castel Gandolfo, a lakeside town in the hills outside Rome where the pope has a summer residence. It also conducts research at an observatory at the University of Arizona, in Tucson.

Atomic Extremeophiles Thrive Where the Life-Giving Energy of the Sun Never Reaches

“Life finds a way.”

Thanks to a research time involving Princeton, Indiana University, and others, that isn’t just a sappy Disney quote – it’s an incredible fact.  They found extremophile bacteria buried over two miles into solid rock, where the life-giving energy of the sun never reaches – the energy every other species on Earth depends on.  Instead they found their own power source – radiation!

The hardy organisms have a unique biology with a very refined palate, consuming the by-products of radioactive breakdown to stay alive. Uranium decay cracks water molecules apart, recombining into peroxide (which you might know as bleach).  This combines with fool’s gold (pyrite) to release ions, which the cells’ specialized metabolism can derive energy from.  To summarize: these things sit on uranium, drink bleach and eat solid rock, thereby making every single “Iron Stomach” contest in human history look like a day at the buffet.  Hell, these things make Batman look like a daycare attendant.

Don’t worry though: monster movies may have taught us that atomic-animals immediately grow to fifty times their normal size and begin eating humans, but these bacteria barely grow to regular size. Their nuclear processes aren’t the fountains of energy that our nuclear reactors are, and the subterranean cells grow and divide over a hundred thousand times slower than their surface-borne cousins, dividing only once every three hundred years.  It’s a pure and simple testament to the power of life, the ability to hang on by the very atomic skin of figurative fingernails for no better reason than just “to be”, that they exist at all.  Think about that next time you feel hungry.

The discovery of organisms like this has wider implications beyond sheer awesomeness: in the search for extraterrestrial life, is increases the number of possible locations for lifeforms, as well as reminding us not to assume that they’ll need what we need.  Because if life can exist in perpetually-disinfected nuclear pile, it can exist anywhere.

Planet-hunters set for big bounty


Rocky planets, possibly with conditions suitable for life, may be more common than previously thought in our galaxy, a study has found. New evidence suggests more than half the Sun-like stars in the Milky Way could have similar planetary systems.

There may also be hundreds of undiscovered worlds in outer parts of our Solar System, astronomers believe.

Future studies of such worlds will radically alter our understanding of how planets are formed, they say.

New findings about planets were presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston.

Nasa telescope

Michael Meyer, an astronomer from the University of Arizona, said he believed Earth-like planets were probably very common around Sun-like stars.

I expect that we will find a very large number of planets
Alan Stern, Nasa

“Our observations suggest that between 20% and 60% of Sun-like stars have evidence for the formation of rocky planets not unlike the processes we think led to planet Earth,” he said. “That is very exciting.”

Mr Meyer’s team used the US space agency’s Spitzer space telescope to look at groups of stars with masses similar to the Sun.

They detected discs of cosmic dust around stars in some of the youngest groups surveyed.

The dust is believed to be a by-product of rocky debris colliding and merging to form planets.

Nasa’s Kepler mission to search for Earth-sized and smaller planets, due to be launched next year, is expected to reveal more clues about these distant undiscovered worlds.

Frozen worlds

Some astronomers believe there may be hundreds of small rocky bodies in the outer edges of our own Solar System, and perhaps even a handful of frozen Earth-sized worlds.

We have to find the right mass planet and it has to be at the right distance from the star
Debra Fischer, San Francisco State University

Speaking at the AAAS meeting, Nasa’s Alan Stern said he thought only the tip of the iceberg had been found in terms of planets within our own Solar System.

More than a thousand objects had already been discovered in the Kuiper belt alone, he said, many rivalling the planet Pluto in size.

“Our old view, that the Solar System had nine planets will be supplanted by a view that there are hundreds if not thousands of planets in our Solar System,” he told BBC News.

He said many of these planets would be icy, some would be rocky, and there might even be objects with the same mass as Earth.

“It could be that there are objects of Earth-mass in the Oort cloud (a band of debris surrounding our planetary system) but they would be frozen at these distances,” Dr Stern added.

“They would look like a frozen Earth.”

Goldilocks zone

Excitement about finding other Earth-like planets is driven by the idea that some might contain life or perhaps, centuries from now, allow human colonies to be set up on them.

The key to this search, said Debra Fischer of San Francisco State University, California, was the “Goldilocks zone”.

This refers to an area of space in which a planet is “just the right distance” from its parent star so that its surface is not-too-hot or not-too-cold to support liquid water.

“To my mind there are two things we have to go after: we have to find the right mass planet and it has to be at the right distance from the star,” she said.

The AAAS meeting concludes on Monday.

Scientists Urge Broadening Search for Extraterrestrial Life


Scientists from around the world are discussing how to improve the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program after 50 years of “The Great Silence” at The Sound of Silence conference, being held at Arizona State University

“Have we been looking in the wrong place, at the wrong time, in the wrong way?” ASU astrophysicist Paul Davies told the New Scientist. “SETI’s big mistake is that it’s relying on ET to do all the heavy lifting,” Princeton University astrophysicist Richard Gott said. According to Gott, if the aliens have the same attitude as us, “we’ll all just be sitting round listening”.

Australian astrophysicist Paul Davies said the approach currently being undertaken by SETI researchers is too narrow, assuming aliens communicate the same way we do here on Earth. “We’re making a lot of assumptions about aliens based on human 20th century western society,” he told New Scientist.

So far, we have no evidence we are not alone in the universe, and yet the odds that not one single other planet has evolved intelligent life would appear, from a statistical standpoint, to be quite small. There are an estimated 250 billion (2.5 x 1011) stars in the Milky Way alone, and over 70 sextillion (7 x 1022) in the visible universe, and many of them are surrounded by multiple planets. The shear size of the known universe is staggeringly and inconceivably vast.

The odds of there being only one single planet that evolved life among all that unfathomable vastness seems so incredible, that it is all but completely irrational to believe. But then “where are they?” asked physicist Enrico Fermi while having lunch with his colleagues in 1950.

Fermi questioned, if there are other advanced extraterrestrial civilizations, then why is there no evidence of such, like spacecraft or probes floating around the Milky Way. His question became famously known as the Fermi Paradox. The paradox is the contradiction between the high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and yet the lack of evidence for, or contact with, any such civilizations.

Given the extreme age of the universe, and its vast number of stars, if planets like Earth are at all typical, then there should be many advanced extraterrestrial civilizations out there, and at least a few in our own Milky Way. Another closely related question is the Great Silence, which poses the question: Even if space travel is too difficult, if life is out there, why don’t we at least detect some sign of civilization like radio transmissions?

Milan Cirkovic of the Astronomical Observatory in Belgrade, points out that the median age of terrestrial planets in the Milky Way is about 1.8 gigayears (one billion years) greater than the age of the Earth and the Solar System, which means that the median age of technological civilizations should be greater than the age of human civilization by the same amount. The vastness of this interval indicates that one or more processes must suppress observability of extraterrestrial communities.

Since at this point, there is no direct and/or widely apparent evidence that extraterrestrial life exists, it likely means one of the following:

We are (A) the first intelligent beings ever to become capable of making our presence known, and leaving our planet. At this point, there are no other life forms out there as advanced as us. Or perhaps extraterrestrial life does exists, but for some reason extraterrestrial life is so very rare and so very far away we’ll never make contact anyway—making extraterrestrial life nonexistent in a practical sense at least.

Or is it (B) that many advanced civilizations have existed before us, but without exception, they have for some unknown reason, existed and/or expanded in such a way that they are completely undetectable by our instruments.

Or is it (C) There have been others, but they have all run into some sort of “cosmic roadblock” that eventually destroys them, or at least prevents their expansion beyond a small area.

Then ancients once believed that Earth was the center of the universe. We now know that Earth isn’t even at the center of the Solar System. The Solar System is not at the center of our galaxy, and our galaxy is not in any special position in contrast to the rest of the known universe. From a scientific viewpoint, there is no apparent reason to believe that Earth enjoys some privileged status.

Since Earth’s placement in space and time appears to be unremarkably random, proposition “A” seems fairly unlikely. Assuming humans evolved like other forms of life into our present state due to natural selection, then there’s really nothing all that mystical, special or remarkable about our development as a species either. Due to the shear numbers, there are almost certainly other planets capable of supporting at least some form of life. If that is so, then for Earthlings to be the very first species ever to make a noticeable mark on the universe, from a statistical perspective, is incredibly unlikely.

For proposition “B” to be correct would defy all logic. If potentially thousands, or even millions of advanced extraterrestrial civilizations exist in the known universe, then why would all of them, without exception, choose to expand or exist in such a way that they are completely undetectable? It’s conceivable that some might, or perhaps even the majority, but for all of them to be completely undetectable civilizations does not seem likely either.

Proposition C in some ways, appears to be more likely than A or B. If “survival of the fittest” follows similar pathways on other worlds, then our own “civilized” nature could be somewhat typical of extraterrestrial civilizations that have, or do, exist. Somehow, we all get to the point where we end up killing ourselves in a natural course of technological development and thereby self-inflict our own “cosmic roadblock”.

“Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Fermi Paradox is what it suggests for the future of our human civilization. Namely, that we have no future beyond earthly confinement and, quite possibly, extinction. Could advanced nanotechnology play a role in preventing that extinction? Or, more darkly, is it destined to be instrumental in carrying out humanity’s unavoidable death sentence?” wonders Mike Treder, executive director of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN).

Treder believes that some of the little understood new technologies now being developed such as nanotech, and others, could well be either our salvation or just as likely end up causing our ultimate destruction.

“Whatever civilizations have come before us have been unable to surpass the cosmic roadblock. They are either destroyed or limited in such a way that absolutely precludes their expansion into the visible universe. If that is indeed the case—and it would seem to be the most logical explanation for Fermi’s Paradox—then there is some immutable law that we too must expect to encounter at some point. We are, effectively, sentenced to death or, at best, life in the prison of a near-space bubble,” suggests Treder. “Atomically-precise exponential manufacturing could enable such concentrations of unprecedented power as to result in either terminal warfare or permanent enslavement of the human race. Of course, that sounds terribly apocalyptic, but it is worth considering that the warnings we heard at the start of the nuclear arms race, and the very real risks we faced in the height of the Cold War, were but precursors to a much greater threat posed by an arms race involving nano-built weaponry and its accompanying tools of surveillance and control.”

When we consider the chronological history of life on Earth, humans have only existed for a small fragment of time and our existence has always been precarious. The entire time we’ve existed, we been banding into various groups and attempting to kill each other—or at least are constantly in the process of developing more effective ways of killing each other—just in case. The US government, for example, spends on “Defense” (including “preemptive” warfare) and Homeland Security, 8 times what it spends on educating the next generation. There is enough nuclear weaponry in storage around the world to kill every living creature on the planet several times over. Clearly, we’re a species with poor odds of surviving indefinitely.

Our self-destructive natures aside, curiosity may end up killing more than the cats. The faster technology is advancing, the more our “leap now, look later” nature appears to grow as well. If evolution on Earth serves as a somewhat typical template for evolution of other life forms, then becoming a truly advanced civilization must be a very daunting task indeed and a very rare, if not impossible, achievement.

In fact, Sir Martin Rees, Great Britain’s Astronomer Royal and respected professor of astrophysics at Cambridge University has estimated that humans have only a 50-50 shot of making it through the 21st century. If Rees is right, and our standing on the planet is as precarious as he and others believe it is, then we may be alone due to a built-in evolutionary self-destruct button. Others have come before and others will exist after, but the cosmic roadblock may be an innate, finite nature, which only allows sentient life forms to exist for a very small window of time—windows of life which may be too small for our civilization to match up with the small windows of other civilizations that have been before or will come after.

In a contrary point of view, Milan Cirkovic believes that highly efficient city-state type of advanced technological civilizations could easily pass unnoticed even by much more advanced SETI equipment, especially if located near the Milky Way rim or other remote locations.

In spring of 2007, the SETI Institute switched on the first of 42 dishes that will make up the Allen Telescope Array, a facility in the California Sierras dedicated to searching for extraterrestrial signals.

“In the next two years we will have collected and analysed more new data than we have over the past 50 years,” Dr Seth Shostack of SETI said. By 2028, the project will have surveyed more than one million star systems. “If it remains silent after that, then that will be the time to rethink.”

Ping from space? We hear you!


KTVU-TV, Channel 2 in San Francisco Bay area, reported yesterday: “Across the globe, researchers searching for signs of life in space were abuzz this week with word that a mystery signal has been picked up by a giant radio-telescope in Puerto Rico. Now the dilemma is — how do you answer it? Dan Wertheimer of the UC Berkeley SETI Project, said the dilemma is compounded by the fact that the signal may never be completely decoded.
‘We probably won\’t be able to decode it,’ he said. ‘We\’ll know something\’s out there, but we won\’t know much about their civilization.’”

Back on November 16, 1974, the Arecibo radio telescope was used to send humanity\’s first message into outer space, which contained basic information about Earth\’s fundamental chemicals of life, the formula for DNA, a crude diagram of our solar system, simple pictures of male and female human beings and the diameter of the Arecibo dish. See: KTVU-TV.

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The U.S. Senate is about to vote on the NASA funding for next year. They may also consider an amendment by Senators Mikulski and Hutchison adding $1 billion to the NASA budget, allowing for full support of missions of science and exploration. This is your chance to take a stand in support of a space exploration program that brought us the Mars Rovers, Cassini-Huygens, New Horizons, and other exciting missions. Write your Senators today! Ask them to support the NASA budget and vote for the Mikulski-Hutchison amendment.

Scientists found life on Mars back in the 70s


The soil on Mars may indeed be teeming with microbes, according to a new interpretation of data first collected more than 30 years ago.


The search for life on Mars appeared to hit a dead end in 1976 when Viking landers touched down on the red planet and failed to detect biological activity.

There was another flurry of excitement a decade later, when Nasa thought it had found evidence of life in a Mars meteorite but doubts have since been cast on that finding.

Today, Joop Houtkooper from Justus-Liebig-University in Giessen, Germany, will claim the Viking spacecraft may in fact have encountered signs of a weird life form based on hydrogen peroxide on the subfreezing, arid Martian surface.

His analysis of one of the experiments carried out by the Viking spacecraft with a geophysicist, Dirk Schulze-Makuch of Washington State University, Pullman, suggests that 0.1 percent of the Martian soil could be of biological origin, he will tell the European Planetary Science Congress in Potsdam, Germany.

That is roughly comparable to biomass levels found in some Antarctic permafrost, home to a range of hardy bacteria and lichen. “It is interesting because one part per thousand is not a small amount,” Houtkooper said yesterday.

“We will have to find confirmatory evidence and see what kind of microbes these are and whether they are related to terrestrial microbes. It is a possibility that life has been transported from Earth to Mars or vice versa a long time ago.”

The discovery of microbes on Earth that can exist in environments previously thought too hostile has fuelled debate over extraterrestrial life.

Houtkooper believes Mars could be home to just such “extremophiles” – in this case, microbes whose cells are filled with a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and water.

Such a mixture would provide at least three clear benefits to organisms in the cold, dry Martian environment.

Its freezing point is as low as -56.5 C (depending on the concentration of peroxide); below that temperature it becomes firm but does not form cell-destroying crystals, as water ice does; and hydrogen peroxide is hygroscopic, which means it attracts water vapour from the atmosphere – a valuable trait on a planet where liquid water is rare.

Houtkooper believes their presence would account for unexplained rises in oxygen and carbon dioxide when NASA’s Viking landers incubated Martian soil.

He bases his calculation of the biomass of Martian soil on the assumption that these gases were produced during the breakdown of organic material.

Hydrogen peroxide is also a powerful oxidant. When released from dying cells, it would sharply lower the amount of organic material in their surroundings.

This would help explain why Viking’s gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer detected no organic compounds on the surface of Mars.

This result has also been questioned recently by Rafael Navarro-Gonzalez from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico in Mexico City University of Mexico, who reported that similar instruments and methodology are unable to detect organic compounds in places on Earth, such as Antarctic dry valleys, where we know soil microorganisms exist.

The twin spacecraft, Viking 1 and Viking II, landed on the Red Planet in 1976. They were equipped with detectors designed to test the Martian soil for evidence of life.

The main instrument, called the TV-GC-MS assay, rapidly heated and vaporised soil for analysis by a spectrometer.

Dr Navarro-Gonzales concluded: “The fact that no organic molecules were released .. during the analysis of the Mars soils does not demonstrate that there were no organic materials on the surface of Mars..”

“We suggest that the design of future organic instruments for Mars should include other methods to be able to detect extinct and or extant life.”