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Extraterrestrial Life Evidence in Ten Years
When the inquisition condemned Galileo for writing that the earth might not be the center of the solar system, the Roman Catholic Church was supporting the philosophy and science of the Greco-Roman world because it seemed to support the religious idea that the earth, life in general and human life in particular, should be the center of God’s world. Today very few religious people think that if the earth revolves around the sun, it makes humans less important to God.
So too, when by the end of this decade, astronomical evidence of stars with earth-like planets, at the right distance from their star to have liquid water, and an atmosphere with oxygen, is found, there will be no need to deny the evidence and condemn the scientists as anti-religious. Religious people need to know that the Torah and the Qur’an clearly teach that the Living God created the whole universe to be conducive to the universal evolution of life. The Zabur of David says, “Your kingdom is a kingdom of all worlds; and Your dominion is for all generations.” (Zabur-Psalms 145:13); and the Qur’an says, “We have not sent you but as a blessing for all the worlds.” (Al-Anbiya 107). Muslim commentators say this refers to the 18.000 worlds created by Allah. Our world is one of them. (Mir’at-e-Kainat, vol.1, p.77)
How close are we to discovering an earth size extra-solar planet with an atmosphere containing water vapor and oxygen? It might happen just a few years after 2018 when the James Webb Space Telescope should be launched by NASA, according to materials provided by American Friends of Tel Aviv University. Prof. Dan Maoz of Tel Aviv University and Prof. Avi Loeb of Harvard University have shown that the Webb Space Telescope will be capable of detecting oxygen and water in the atmosphere of an Earth-like planet orbiting a white dwarf star, after only a few hours of observation, much more easily than for an Earth-like planet orbiting a sun-like star. A white dwarf is a star that has run out of fuel. It will eventually cool down and fade away. But for many millions of years white dwarfs can still support life on habitable planets.
Their study, published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, says the first stars we study should be white dwarfs because an abundance of heavy elements already observed on the surface of white dwarfs, suggest rocky planets orbit a significant fraction of them. The researchers estimate that a survey of 500 of the closest white dwarfs could spot one or more habitable planets.
The unique characteristics of white dwarfs would make these planets easier to spot than planets orbiting normal stars. Their atmospheres can be detected and analyzed when an orbiting planet crosses in front of a star. But when an Earth-like planet orbits a normal star, its signal is hidden in the glare of the ‘parent’ star. “The novelty of our idea is that, if the parent star is a white dwarf, whose size is comparable to that of an Earth-sized planet, that glare is greatly reduced, and we can now realistically contemplate seeing the oxygen biomarker.”
The presence of oxygen biomarkers are the most critical signal of the presence of life on extraterrestrial planets. Earth’s atmosphere, for example, is 21 percent oxygen, all of it produced by our planet’s plant life as a result of photosynthesis. Without the existence of plants, an atmosphere would be entirely devoid of oxygen. So, find oxygen; find life!
Prof. Geoff Marcy of U.C. Berkeley, who was the first to discover extra-solar planets, has just received a million dollar grant to design and build a ‘Habitable Worlds Spectrometer’ to examine the fifty nearest solar systems with one or more rocky planets in the zone where liquid water could be detected as water vapor in the atmosphere. The spectrometer should be completed by the end of 2014.
I think that the discovery of an atmosphere containing oxygen will occur within a decade because I believe that more and more evidence is accumulating that nature has been formed to create life. Not only is “The whole earth filled with God’s glory”; but also “The heavens declare the glory of God. The universe proclaims God’s handiwork.” ( Zabur of David-Psalms 19:2) We all have a good chance to see the first evidence for extraterrestrial life. Only the religiously medieval minded will object to this wonderful evidence of the Elohim Hayim– living God who loves life.
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Rabbi Allen S. Maller is the Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Akiba in Culver City, California. His website is: www.rabbimaller.com.
The views expressed by Rabbi Maller are his own and not necessarily those of the Blogmaster. They are published in order to promote this blog’s mission to provide information and foster discussion about matters of faith and science. The Blogmaster thanks Rabbi Maller for his contribution to this forum.