20 Light years sounds like a long way. However in galactic terms Gliese 581c is our next door neighbor. A relatively small amount of human effort has been put into searching for planets like our own or conceiving how we may actually get there. Sure people dream about it, but few think this is an actual possibility. Just over 100 years ago at the turn of the century it was impossible to fly. 14 years later... it was impossible to shoot down the Red Baron in a world conflict that used airplanes as a part of everyday life. 50 years down the road it was impossible to reach the moon. It took a country 9 years to go from no space program to landing on the moon. 15 years ago I did not own a computer, nor did I think of spending hours on the Internet perusing the vastness of all human knowledge, yet here I sit.
We ask ourselves could Gliese 581 C support some recognizable form of earth-like life? There is life at the bottom of the ocean near volcanic vents so deep it never gets a single ray of sunlight, a place science would dictate no life could exist, yet it does. Taking this into account one could come to the conclusion that life is not a random event that just happened to pop up once here on Earth but rather the natural state of the universe. As we begin in our baby steps of exploration into space and other planets I believe a new mantra will come to be the norm, Where life can exist, it does exist.
Now I'm thinking about what people say about life on other planets. It's not long ago people had doubts many other stars had planets at all. Astronomers have now found hundreds of planets just by looking at stars that have been looked at for decades with the same instruments. They were just looked at in a different way and poof...there they are, plants, all sorts of them. Astronomers have been finding planets, even earth sized ones already and they don't even have anything specifically designed to look for them. Next year work will begin on the Terrestrial Planet Finder a space based radio telescope and the number of plants found will explode. The T.P.F. will also allow astronomers to look far more closley at planets they already know about such as Glise 581c.
When we look at the history of 'impossible' things it becomes clear that we may be just around the corner from another great shift in human history. The evidence of of earth-like life in another solar system would have a far reaching effect across the borders science and religion here on Earth. Like Copernicus, Galileo or Darwin, a discovery of this nature would force changes upon people and how we see ourselves and our place in the Universe.
Gliese 581 C may be 20 light years away but it has something in common with the invention of the airplane and mans landing on the moon. It is a goal, and if mankind puts all its effort behind achieving a goal it usually does.
What I really want to know is how long has the life on Gliese 581 C been looking at us?