DEPEND ON CURIOSITY
August 12, 2012
Mars rover called Curiosity landed safely on the Red Planet last week, heralding
a major success for NASA and hope for human enlightenment about life beyond Earth.
In the late 20th century, scientific curiosity about life on other planets led
to a new field of science known as astrobiology. An astrobiologist asks questions
such as, can life be created from chemical compounds, and what are the processes
involved? Can life travel from one planet to another and, if so, how? Today's
technology brings us closer to the answers to such mysteries of the universe.
field of astrobiology involves a conglomerate of already established scientific
disciplines such as oceanography, chemistry, and microbiology. Geneticists, ecologists,
and geologists will also be involved in addressing the questions that will eventually
arise. One age-old question now referred to the field of astrobiology is how did
life on Earth begin? With the advent of space travel, a modern extension of that
question--can we find evidence that similar conditions once existed on other planets
in our own solar system or elsewhere in the galaxy--is now seemingly answerable.
Scientists no long consider extreme environmental conditions an insurmountable
obstacle to life on another planet. Even in our own world creatures live at sea
depths far beyond the sun's light and at unimaginable pressures. Fish and worms
are known to exist around deep ocean thermal vents of volcanic origin, where sulfides
serve as a chemical energy source. Life in the form of bacteria is found in toxic
waste dumps, and even larger organisms live beneath the Antarctic ice. Hostile
environmental conditions on another planet are no longer considered a sign that
life cannot exist there.
Beyond a few space shuttle trips around the world and to the moon, astrobiologists
have not left the planet Earth to do any research at this point. Although today's
astrobiologists keep their feet on the ground, their children and grandchildren
may well have theirs on other planets. Space shuttles have already reached Mars,
and manned missions in the not so distant future are in the minds of some scientists.
Imagine landing on another world, like Mars, where water is known to occur and
from which life has even been reported.
Astroecology, a subset of astrobiology, has great potential as a field of science.
If living organisms are found outside our own world, the questions to be asked
would be limitless: what do they eat or use as a source of energy; how do they
reproduce; how did they get there? These are, of course, the same questions ecologists
ask about life on Earth. And we have not yet answered those questions for most
of the plants and animals that share this world with us. Nonetheless, looking
for the answers on other worlds has great appeal.
Sociologists and researchers into the human psyche will also contribute to the
field of astrobiology as colonists and researchers leave for other planets. How
long can four, six, or a dozen people live compatibly in a tin can hurtling through
outer space? How many people does it take to successfully colonize another world?
The answer to those and similar questions is it depends on who's going, which
sociologists and others will help determine.
Eventually we will need to consider other aspects of space travel and the potential
discovery of life on other planets. Will we want scientists to return to Earth
after searching for life on Mars or another planet? Will they bring back life
with them, intentionally or not, in the form of microorganisms that could spell
doom for the human race? Would we prefer they simply televise their findings for
us and then enjoy their stay?
With the development of space travel, we will be confronted with new ethical dilemmas
such as those we now face with transgenic vegetables, cloning, and test-tube babies.
Questions posed by such dilemmas are as boundless as the universe, but if we are
to live in it, we must continue to seek the answers.
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