Dr. Silvano P. Colombano has what might appear to be some eccentric theories about alien life having visited Earth. Yet he isn’t just some crackpot pseudoscientist; indeed, he actually works for NASA. And in a recent report, the researcher has suggested that extraterrestrial beings may have once been here on our planet.
Colombano is, of course, far from the only scientist to have pointed towards the existence of alien life. In fact, there is even an equation that was formulated to encourage discussion surrounding the search for such life. Known as the Drake equation, it’s applied to approximate the number of potential alien civilizations in our galaxy, the Milky Way.
The Drake equation was thought up in the early 1960s by a U.S. astronomer named Frank Drake. The mathematical statement is not, however, intended to calculate the actual quantity of alien civilizations in the galaxy. Rather, it brings into focus other factors that should be considered within more stringent efforts to search for alien life.
The Drake equation has proven valuable in encouraging scientists to consider the prospect of extraterrestrial life. Its estimates regarding the number civilizations in the Milky Way vary widely, though, and they are also consistently challenged. Initially, Drake’s equation indicated at anywhere between 1,000 and 100 million alien civilizations existing within the galaxy, and yet subsequent results have suggested that we could be alone.
The true value of the Drake equation doesn’t, however, necessarily relate to the numbers that it throws up. Instead, it’s argued that the statement is important thanks to its capacity to stimulate speculative thought within astronomy. It helps those within the field to break down one enormous question into smaller and more manageable lines of enquiry.
The search for the existence of aliens – dependent as it is on advanced technology – is a relatively recent human endeavor. It began in the middle of the 20th century and continues to this day, with efforts having taken the form of both direct and indirect searches.
Given its physical similarities and relatively close location to Earth, Mars has provided the focus of many of these searches. Indeed, over the past few decades, the Red Planet has been a major source of astronomical enthusiasm. Examples of missions to our nearest planetary neighbor have, for instance, included NASA’s Viking program and the Mars Science Laboratory.
NASA launched the Mars Science Laboratory in November 2011. Then in August the following year, the mission placed the Curiosity rover on the surface of the planet. Naturally, too, there were a number of goals that the project hoped to achieve, including gaining a clearer understanding of Mars’ ability to sustain life.
And amazingly, since the Curiosity rover has been ranging over Mars’ surface, it has uncovered evidence that is suggestive of life having existed there. For one thing, it has collected samples of oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, carbon and phosphorus – all elements associated with organic activity. It has also found indications that molecules necessary for the beginnings of life were once present on the planet.
And while these molecules don’t automatically prove that life has ever existed on Mars, they do at least suggest that it’s a possibility. Similar molecules have been found in meteorites that have crashed into Earth as well. Indeed, after examining a meteorite in 2011, NASA proposed that certain ingredients of DNA can be created far beyond the reaches of Earth.
These discoveries and theories have, it’s worth noting, been the result of direct searches for alien life. Yet indirect searches also take place – such as the various projects together known as the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). And one case of an indirect search is the scouring of the galaxy for potential attempts made by aliens to communicate.
There’s no way yet of knowing, though, whether signals from aliens would actually be identified as such by humans. And even if SETI’s efforts were successful, the time that it would have taken for transmissions to reach Earth would mean that those who sent them belong to a faraway past. Given such uncertainties, SETI projects have, then, sometimes been the subject of criticism from within the scientific community.
The majority of searches for aliens, both direct and indirect, have also thus far been rooted in a human understanding of life. The search has generally been focused, for instance, on planets with similarities to Earth. And yet there have been recent suggestions that this is perhaps too narrow an approach.
Given the wealth of developments within the fields of astronomy and astrobiology, NASA recently requested that the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) reevaluate its approach to exploring space. And following its own investigations, NASEM proposed that a change is indeed needed to increase the likelihood of discovering alien lifeforms. It therefore suggested that planets known to be unsuitable for supporting life as humans presently understand it should also be investigated.
This proposition is rooted in the notion that life might be found in environments unlike any present on Earth. And there are some cases in point quite close to home. Recent detections of, respectively, a lake under the surface of Mars and – potentially – seas beneath the surfaces of the moons of Saturn and Jupiter call for this idea to be further explored. Indeed, NASEM advises the use of astrobiology in an attempt to understand life beyond the parameters of how it forms on Earth.
“The more that we can integrate the astrobiology lens and astrobiology thinking from the beginning of missions, the more that we can capitalize on the fantastic discoveries that are going on with missions that are out there now,” Barbara Sherwood Lollar, the chair of NASEM, told Astronomy in October 2018. “But by embedding the astrobiology thinking early in the process, we may be able to do even more.”
Presently, missions searching for alien life tend to look out for what are known as biosignatures – that is, signs of life left by organisms. These might include certain types of molecules or gases, for instance. But NASEM is now suggesting that the presumption that alien lifeforms would leave biosignatures similar to those of Earth-dwelling organisms is unnecessarily restrictive.
NASEM proposes that should alien lifeforms actually exist, then they might well produce what it terms “agnostic” biosignatures. This description simply refers to biosignatures that may differ from those left by Earth’s organisms. So to find alien life, this line of thinking suggests, one must look to zones that were previously considered uninhabitable.
“We need to make sure that our toolbox of biosignatures is universal enough that it encompasses both our ability to recognize life as we know it but also our ability to recognize life as we don’t know it,” Lollar explained. Taking this approach, NASEM advises, could raise the odds of someday discovering alien life.
Dr. Silvano P. Colombano is one individual considering the possibility of alien life from a new perspective. Colombano has spent the best part of his professional life at NASA and has written or contributed to some 80 scientific papers. He’s therefore clearly a highly qualified scientist, and yet a recent paper of his concerning extraterrestrial life has caused quite a bit of a stir.
In the paper, entitled New Assumptions to Guide SETI Research, Colombano suggests that alien lifeforms could well be totally different to how we might envisage them. And by extension, this means that they may have been on Earth already – but we just wouldn’t have known it. For example, if they weren’t carbon-based – and were therefore unlike all organisms from Earth – then our ability to identify them would be hindered.
“I simply want to point out the fact that the intelligence we might find and that might choose to find us (if it hasn’t already) might not at all be produced by carbon-based organisms like us,” Colombano wrote in the paper. And given these alternative conditions for life, he continued, “The size of the [alien lifeform] might be that of an extremely tiny super-intelligent entity.”
Colombano also proposes the notion that extraterrestrial technology could be beyond human comprehension. Thus, scientific presumptions regarding, say, interstellar journeys might turn out to be false. Presently, the general consensus surrounding interstellar travel is that it would be extremely difficult to achieve.
Yet the presumption that interstellar travel is very unlikely to ever occur is, Colombano suggests, rather limiting. Indeed, it has led some scientists to dismiss outright the notion that Earth might be visited by UFOs. But while UFO visits could be unlikely, Colombano believes that reports of such occurrences should not be ignored.
“In the very large amount of ‘noise’ in UFO reporting, there may be ‘signals,’ however small, that indicate some phenomena that cannot be explained or denied,” Colombano wrote in his paper. “If we adopt a new set of assumptions about what forms of higher intelligence and technology we might find, some of those phenomena might fit specific hypotheses, and we could start some serious enquiry.”
Colombano points towards discoveries from the recently retired Kepler spacecraft as providing encouragement for the quest to find alien life. Kepler launched in 2009 and was operational for almost a decade. Eventually, though, the observatory exhausted its fuel, and NASA announced the end to its mission in October 2018.
Kepler’s mission was to examine one section of the Milky Way in a search for planets orbiting stars other than our Sun. It was hoped that this would provide a good approximation of how many stars in our galaxy may support Earth-like planets. And in its active years, Kepler identified more than half a million such stars and in excess of 2,500 planets.
Colombano, for his part, believes that Kepler’s discoveries are promising – but that alternative expectations are still required in the search for alien technologies. “I feel we need to become more flexible in our assumptions,” he wrote. “The reason is that, while it is still reasonable and conservative to assume that life is most likely to have originated in conditions similar to ours, the vast time differences in potential evolutions render the likelihood of ‘matching’ technologies very slim.”
Colombano’s suggestions are rooted in his long career at NASA. And while his claims might initially appear somewhat outlandish, this is a scientist who’s an expert in his field. He certainly doesn’t write flippantly on the subject of extraterrestrial life. Yet even so, his words are sure to bolster the ideas of ufologists and conspiracy theorists.
Ufology – that is, the reviewing of evidence regarding unidentified flying objects – dates as far back as the 1890s. During this time, you see, reports of “mystery airships” being sighted began to emerge across the United States. And some of the accounts about these so-called airships even claimed that they were crewed by Martians.
Later, during the Second World War, a number of pilots then claimed to have spotted what were dubbed “foo fighters.” Typically described as bright, colorful bodies that would follow aircraft, foo fighters were oftentimes suspected to be enemy weapons. Yet while numerous sightings were recorded across the globe during the war, there has been no unified explanation for the phenomena.
Then, in 1947, an American pilot named Kenneth Arnold alleged that he had seen nine UFOs in the sky above him near Mount Rainier. Furthermore, the manner in which he described the UFOs led the media to come up with the term “flying saucer” – which of course remains in use to this day. Arnold’s report is considered to be the first of the more contemporary widely known claims about UFO sightings.
In the wake of Arnold’s claims, meanwhile, public interest in UFOs grew. The number of claimed sightings began to rise, too, and UFOs remained of increased interest during the Cold War. The phenomena didn’t just draw the attention of the public and press, either. The U.S. military itself grew concerned that the Soviet Union was producing flying weapons and so took UFO reports seriously.
That said, U.S. government and military concern with UFOs started to wane in the early ’50s. After years of research into the subject area, no solid conclusions had been reached. And as a result, it was decided that far fewer resources should be devoted to the area, and numerous programs were shut down.
In spite of the lack of official interest, however, some people continued to think that extraterrestrial UFOs were visiting Earth. And of course, such beliefs remain common to this day. Area 51, for example, still attracts attention and has become something of a magnet for ufologists.
Area 51 is a United States Air Force facility located in Nevada, just over 80 miles from Las Vegas. And while the precise function of the facility is not presently known, it is perhaps partly this sense of mystery that has inspired such fervent speculation from ufologists. Some conspiracists believe that a wrecked extraterrestrial aircraft is stored there and even that the base has hosted alien meetings.
In any case, Area 51 has long captured people’s imaginations, with the base having maintained its allure for UFO fanatics to this day. The nearby town of Rachel has certainly taken advantage of the interest, becoming something of a tourist hotspot. And meanwhile, beyond Area 51, new UFO sightings continue to be reported across the globe.
Within the scientific community, UFO sightings are quite often brushed off into the category of pseudoscience. However, those who believe the reports will no doubt be heartened by Colombano’s suggestion that not all of the sightings can be explained. One would assume, too, that ufologists are pleased by the scientist’s seeming openness to the idea of intelligent extraterrestrial life in general.
As Colombano wrote in his report, “Considering… [the fact] that technological development in our civilization started only about 10,000 years ago and has seen the rise of scientific methodologies only in the past 500 years, we can surmise that we might have a real problem in predicting technological evolution even for the next thousand years, let alone 6 million times that amount! In light of these numbers, I think we need to re-visit even our most cherished assumptions.”
Colombano wants his peers within the scientific community to approach the search for extraterrestrial life without prejudice. But this, he suggests, calls for people of science to shed existing preconceptions – which isn’t necessarily an easy ask. And yet it may just be the key to discovering that we are not, in fact, alone in our galaxy.