Since Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, and a truly gentle soul Giordano Bruno first envisioned the notion of other inhabited worlds in the sixteenth century, subsequent to Copernicus’s geocentric revelation and new human perspectives of the universe, humans have awaited the discovery of the first Earth-like exoplanet where intelligent life may also have evolved. Were such a profound discovery as extra-terrestrial intelligent life ever to be made, it’s implications for humanity might well eclipse any other revelation to date. But just finding an Earth-like exoplanet out there where life may have evolved has proved to be an arduous quest. Stars, of course, are as plentiful in the night sky as grains of sand upon a beach, but discovering planetary orbs encircling these distant specs of light has become a challenge of the highest technical difficulty.
For even the most sensitive telescopes, the closest stars remain but a small spec of light; but the light of a star is so bright, in comparison to any possible surrounding planets, they can not be optically resolved. By the 1990’s, however, two methods of exoplanet discovery had been forged. One method used successive periodic optical observations to detect small movements (a wobble effect) in a stars own position, caused by the gravitational pull of planets orbiting it. A later discovery measured the base intensity and dimming of a candidate stars brilliance when planets transit it (pass in front of the star from Earth’s perspective). While these methods proved successful, betokening the discovery of the very first extra-solar system planets, they were only effective in predicting Jupiter and larger sized planetary orbs. Discovery of smaller Earth-like exoplanets would prove a greater challenge.
NASA scientists theorized a space based super-sensitive photometric telescope, used in conjunction with the planetary transit dimming method, might be able to detect smaller planets orbiting closer to a star. To do the job they devised the Kepler Space Telescope platform and mission to observe stars in one small region of the galaxy for 3.5 years. The spacecraft was launched on March 6, 2009, and just a few days after it went operational the Kepler spacecraft was discovering smaller Earth-sized planets around stars in its field of view.
Perhaps the most intriguing of Kepler mission discoveries to date, is a planet dubbed Kepler 22b. It’s about 2.4 times the size of Earth and orbiting within the habitable zone. Kepler scientists were quick in relaying to the public their own optimistic deductions this planet could exhibit oceans of liquid water and support life, but such notions are strong on speculation and conjecture and extremely week on empirical evidence. Nevertheless, what if Kepler 22b or any of the possible 207 Earth-sized planetary candidates the Kepler mission has identified since, in fact, do support the possibility of life? And what if, in the relatively near future, newer technologies provide the capability to analyze these planets atmospheres and material composition verifying Kepler mission scientists speculations? What if we find that the possibility of life on Kepler 22b or some other exoplanet looms large, what will that mean to the human species on Earth?
Having now located so many exoplanets, the novelty of the discovery has diminished and as with mans odyssey with lunar exploration four decades ago, the general public is losing interest. When, however, the possibility of potentially intelligent life forms on exoplanets breaches the realm of speculation and conjecture, entering the domain of empirically quantifiable certainty, the impact of the realization on the human psyche can be expected to be profoundly ardent. To find that we are not alone in the vast cosmos will undoubtedly have substantial impact on human cultural, socio-religious, and intellectual paradigms.
It’s safe to predict, such a discovery might have the greatest impact on human perspectives since ancient humans first experienced the cognitive foundations of logical thought and reason. Beyond the discovery of exoplanet environmental conditions conducive to life, however, it will take some pretty exotic technological developments before we humans can make first contact to confirm the existence of extra terrestrial intelligent life. But in just the past 400 years we have come a long way, for as the 17th century got underway, the mere suggestion the Earth was not positioned flat and immobile at the center of the cosmic reality, where the creator had beset it, would be deemed lunacy. And worse, the prognosticator of such heretical utterance would have been tortured, bound naked and upside down to a stake in the village square, his tongue tied in a gag to forever quiet his blasphemy, then roasted over hot coals, still alive. And so was the fate of one brilliant aforementioned gentle soul who first deduced the possibility of life beyond Earth.
But while we have come far in our secular understanding of the universe we find ourselves in and of the anatomical and physiological paradigm that is life on Earth, we have yet to overcome the ignorance of of socioreligious superstitions and beliefs which continue to threaten the survival of the human race. It’s true Giordano Burno was the last person burned at the stake for heresy, but more human souls, in this day an age, continue to be irreverently sacrificed in the name of theosophical doctrinal differences, than for any other premeditated reason. The question, then, is whether humans will be around on planet Earth long enough to some day converse with life forms on some more distant Earth-like exoplanet, for that will be a day memorialized beyond any before it in the chronicling of human history.