Does ET pray? Deep questions of faith and astrobiology
March 13th, 2013
By Valerie Schmalz
Is there life in our solar system? In our universe? Beyond?
“The question of whether we are alone in the universe – however you care to frame that – is one of the most profound questions science can ask, and, I think, will answer in our lifetimes,” University of Arizona astronomy professor Chris Impey told a Vatican Observatory seminar on astrobiology Feb. 23 in San Francisco.
Human beings have imagined other civilizations inhabiting the night skies nearly from the beginning of time, but, with rapid advances in the ability to remotely probe space 10,000 light years away, that imagining is now fodder for mainstream scientific theorizing.
The National Space and Aeronautics Administration launched the Kepler Mission March 9, 2009, a solar-powered space telescope that trails Earth’s orbit around the sun. It is the first space mission to search for Earth-size and smaller planets in the habitable zone of other stars, as part of its mission to explore the structure and diversity of planetary systems in the galaxy.
Already, the Kepler space telescope has found about 3,000 planets in other solar systems, over 300 of which are Earth-sized or smaller. He estimates that this number projects to several hundred million sites in the Milky Way where some form of life is likely.
Water, commonly believed necessary to life, has been found on Jupiter’s moon Europa, and is likely present on many planets and moons, including others in our solar system, he said.
“Most people think there is life out there,” said Margaret Race, a SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute ecologist with NASA in Mountain View. But, because other solar systems are light years away, contact with extraterrestrial life is unlikely in our lifetimes, she said.
Race was one of several speakers at a seminar in San Francisco Feb. 23, sponsored by the Vatican Observatory, “Astrobiology: Why is the Vatican interested in the search for life in the universe?”
The Kepler space telescope is designed and located so it has an unobstructed view of a small corner of the Milky Way –a region in the Cygnus and Lyra constellations – so it can track the miniscule drop in the light intensity of stars as orbiting planets pass in front of them.
“About 17 percent of stars have an Earth-sized planet in an orbit closer than Mercury. Since the Milky Way has about 100 billion stars, there are at least 17 billion Earth-sized worlds out there,” according to an extrapolation of Kepler data presented by a Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics team in January. “It looks like practically all Sun-like stars have planets,” the team said at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Long Beach.
“One key question for philosophy is, what is life?” said Jesuit Father William R. Stoeger, staff scientist at the Vatican Observatory Research Group at the University of Arizona.
The Observatory, founded by Pope Leo XIII in 1891 in Vatican City, began a close collaboration with the University of Arizona in 1980 when it established the Vatican Observatory Group, hosted by Steward Observatory. Pope John Paul II dedicated the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope on Mount Graham, Ariz., in 1993.
Discovery of microbial life is the most likely scenario, Impey said. If conscious life is discovered, Impey said, “The disconnect is likely to be so profound that communication is an extraordinarily unlikely premise. That’s less comfortable.”
“If we do find intelligent life, even if we can’t really connect with it, that’s going to be extremely significant in a different way,” said Father Stoeger. “Another intelligent civilization in our galaxy indicates that there are two civilizations in a very small region in our galaxy. That statistically means a lot more.”
Then, Father Stoeger asked, would they be “capable of prayer? Then it would be just like evangelizing another culture.”
“Revelation applies to whoever we meet in space,” said Jesuit Father Jose Gabriel Funes, who Pope Benedict XVI appointed director of the Vatican Observatory in 2006. Jesus became man once for all time at a specific time and place as a Jew in Bethlehem, and that includes any intelligent life that might exist in our galaxy or beyond, he said.
“From our faith, we know we are children of God,” said Father Funes, who is an ex-officio member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. If we find spiritual beings in outer space, “These people would also be beings created by God,” Father Funes said, and they may “help us understand God better.”
From March 15, 2013 issue of Catholic San Francisco.