Things were not looking so good for alien life in 1976, after the Viking I spacecraft landed on Mars, stretched out its robotic arm, and gathered up a fist-size pile of red dirt for chemical testing. Results from the probe’s built-in lab were anything but encouraging. There were no clear signs of biological activity, and the pictures Viking beamed back showed a bleak, frozen desert world, backing up that grim assessment. It appeared that our best hope for finding life on another planet had blown away like dust in a Martian windstorm.
What a difference 33 years makes. Back then, Mars seemed the only remotely plausible place beyond Earth where biology could have taken root. Today our conception of life in the universe is being turned on its head as scientists are finding a whole lot of inviting real estate out there. As a result, they are beginning to think not in terms of single places to look for life but in terms of “habitable zones”—maps of the myriad places where living things could conceivably thrive beyond Earth. Such abodes of life may lie on other planets and moons throughout our galaxy, throughout the universe, and even beyond.
The pace of progress is staggering. Just last November new studies of Saturn’s moon Enceladus strengthened the case for a reservoir of warm water buried beneath its craggy surface. Nobody had ever thought of this roughly 300-mile-wide icy satellite as anything special—until the Cassini spacecraft witnessed geysers of water vapor blowing out from its surface. Now Enceladus joins Jupiter’s moon Europa on the growing list of unlikely solar system locales that seem to harbor liquid water and, in principle, the ingredients for life.
Astronomers are also closing in on a possibly huge number of Earth-like worlds around other stars. Since the mid-1990s they have already identified roughly 340 extrasolar planets. Most of these are massive gaseous bodies, but the latest searches are turning up ever-smaller worlds. Two months ago the European satellite Corot spotted an extrasolar planet less than twice the diameter of Earth (see “The Inspiring Boom in Super-Earths”), and NASA’s new Kepler probe is poised to start searching for genuine analogues of Earth later this year. Meanwhile, recent discoveries show that microorganisms are much hardier than we thought, meaning that even planets that are not terribly Earth-like might still be suited to biology.
Together, these findings indicate that Mars was only the first step of the search, not the last. The habitable zones of the cosmos are vast, it seems, and they may be teeming with life.