There’s no doubt about it, although the shuttle program has ended and the space program is in jeopardy, we’re living through a Renaissance of Out-of-This-World discoveries and exploration of the universe.
Earlier this year, here on Earth, the Higgs boson was found—a theory since the 1960s, the Higgs is the carrying particle of the field that gives mass to everything in the universe, and one of the most basic mechanisms that allows for us to exist. Big news? For physicists it was monumental. And for about thirty seconds the world was interested, but the vast majority of reactions tend towards Higgs-what? followed by ambivalence. It’s disappointing, because the discovery was made on the largest (and most expensive) scientific instrument ever built, which was only possible with international co-operation at a time when world politics are precarious.
This fall, astronomers detected a nearby “rogue” planet: a planetary body that has no parent stars and travels through space, unbound to a solar system or star. This rogue planet is a mere 100 light years from Earth and is 4–7 times the size of Jupiter. It’s not the first such object detected; over the past couple of years astronomers have found many such bodies and now believe that rogue planets may even outnumber those bound to star systems. The current theory goes that most rogue planets were gravitationally ejected from existing solar systems, however, the recent discovery is most remarkable because of the size of the planet—the larger the object, the more difficult it is to eject it from orbit in a solar system.
Last week, NASA announced a new discovery made by the Hubble and Spitzer telescopes: they have found the most distant galaxy ever detected in the known universe. It is only 600 light years across (compared with the Milky Way’s 150 thousand light years across) and the telescopes were looking at an object that formed just 450 million years after the Big Bang (viewing light that left that galaxy 13.3 million years ago); it may also be the smallest galaxy ever detected, and may in fact be in the process of forming a much larger galaxy. A planet was also recently discovered orbiting our closest neighbour star, Alpha Centauri.
But the biggest discovery of all may be just around the corner.
Scientists on the Mars Curiosity Rover project are excited, according to a brief interview with NPR. In the story published on Nov. 20, John Grotzinger, the principle investigator for the Curiosity mission, told NPR that Curiosity’s miniature chemistry lab, SAM, has made an “earthshaking” discovery in a soil sample. We won’t know what that is for a few weeks as the on-board lab is running tests to re-check the results—no one wants a premature announcement only to culminate in disappointment—but this early excitement is promising.
This winter break, will we find out that Earth is not the only planetary body that contains the ingredients for life? I sure hope so. Such a discovery will profoundly affect how we view the universe and our place within it. It will cause us to redefine ourselves, contemplate other possibilities, and expand our imaginations. After all, if life is there, it’s probably everywhere.
If this is the case, 2012 will be marked as one of the greatest years of scientific discovery of all time: but it’s about a lot more than that. Just as people had to rethink the world we live in after Newton theorized gravity, and Copernicus’s model of Earth revolving around the Sun, we will have to recontextualize all of human existence! And whether NASA comes up with the big life announcement this winter or not, that’s still something worth thinking about. This is the sort of opportunity that does not come around every generation. Neil Armstrong walking on the moon wasn’t as big as this, and even the discovery of DNA might not be able to compete. We’re in Darwin and Einstein realms of discovery here.
I don’t expect that discovering life elsewhere in the universe (as in the Star Trek ideal) will automatically stop us from fighting amongst ourselves—a look at major headlines around the world these days is depressing (is it ever not?)—but it should make us stop and think about who we are and what we are doing to our planet. This is still a precious, unique place because the building blocks of life on Mars didn’t have the same chance that we have with our combination of liquid water, atmosphere, magnetic field, and goldilocks-zone temperatures. So we should think again, long and hard before we squander that; so we should save it, and commit resources to going out there and seeing what else we can find.
Here’s to hoping that when we come back in January, we’ll be in the process of redefining ourselves; and venturing forward in a new chapter of human history.