This is a quick heads-up for US television viewers with access to the Discovery Channel – airing tomorrow night, Thursday July 16th at 9 pm ET/PT is a programme in honour of the Apollo Moon landings, the first of which took place no less than 40 years ago this week. The focus of this programme ‘Are We Alone?’ is described thus by Discovery:universeandman

The 2-hour program seeks answers to the profound age-old question of whether alien life exists within our universe.

The program is narrated by Gentry Lee, the chief engineer of the Solar System Exploration Directorate at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. As you undoubtedly know, Lee managed the extremely challenging but successful NASA Mars rover programs.  He was also involved in the Viking and Galileo space missions, co-authored science fiction works with Arthur Clarke, and collaborated with his friend Carl Sagan on the award-winning public television series, Cosmos.

Surprisingly, the answer revealed by ARE WE ALONE? is there are several planets that could already harbor alien life, such as Mars, and those that possess conditions similar to ancient Earth that could evolve biological life forms similar to those on our 4-billion year old planet.  We know this both from several unmanned space missions, the Hubble Telescope, and also revolutionary advances in our scientific understanding of the universe – and our own planet – that occurred after the Apollo 11 mission.

For a sneak preview, just visit this link to a 2-minute video clip, where we encounter NASA astrobiologist Chris McKay in California’s Death Valley, as he searches for clues in the dessicated landscape as to what type of lifeforms might be able to survive in such a harsh environment, where not a drop of water is available. Comparison is made with the current environment on Mars, where water ice has been detected, and with every indication that that the Red Planet may once have had oceans, lakes and rivers on its surface, prerequisites for complex life as we know it. Meanwhile, new research just published, indicates that the planet Venus, described as Earth’s evil twin, may too have harboured water, a surprising observation indeed when we consider its greater proximity to the Sun – whether this means there could also have been life on Venus is probably too early to say.

But the putative presence of water on at least 3 major planets  – and quite possibly on one or more moons  – in our own solar system offers the possibility that the habitable zones around stars may be greater than thought, although of course there is still no way of predicting whether life at the microbial level is more likely to occur than more complex, sentient life that exists here on Earth.

I can’t offer a review of the programme itself as I haven’t seen it, although I might be able to add a review later this week or next, but if the video clip with Chris McKay is a yardstick, this should be very well worth watching – McKay is a renowned astrobiologist, and this interview in September 2008 provides an insight into his past research and current thinking – here’s a brief snippet from the introduction:

McKay is now a planetary scientist at Ames researching the evolution of the solar system as well as the origin of life. He’s been involved in planning Mars missions including the 2009 Mars Science Lander. He’s an authority on Titan (Saturn’s moon) and was co-investigator on the Titan Huygen 2005 probe. McKay is also Program Scientist for NASA’s Robotic Lunar Exploration Program.  He says he does his best thinking in extreme Mars-type environments –the Arctic, Antarctic, Siberia and Chilean desert. In 1994, The Planetary Society honored him with the Thomas O. Paine Memorial Award for the Advancement of Human Exploration of Mars.

McKay now serves on the board of directors of The Planetary Society and on the editorial boards of Astrobiology journal as well as Planetary and Space Science journal. He studied physics and astrophyics as an undergraduate and has a Ph.D. in AstroGeophysics from the University of Colorado.  Chris McKay is author / editor of several books, among these: Case for Mars II, Comets and the Origin and Evolution of Life, Earth’s Climate, From Antarctica to Outer Space: Life in Isolation and Confinement.

Exploration of our planet is a behaviour that has defined human culture and technology for at least the last 2 million years, as our archaic ancestors  Homo erectus gradually began to spread out across Africa and Eurasia, and although it might be argued that these early migrations were mitigated solely by the hunt for food and shelter, I think that an element of exploratory curiosity on the part of our forebears may on occasion have motivated people since at least the Lower Palaeolithic.

With the exception of the Apollo lunar landings between 1969 and 1972, humankind’s exploration of space, stars and other worlds has been largely confined to robotic and observational means, and if we do detect alien life, it seems more likely that our machines rather than our physical selves will be the first to establish contact. But knowing where to look for signs of life is a very important step along the way to detection, and I imagine that ‘Are We Alone’ will provide viewers with a very good idea of exactly how that search will be conducted in coming years and decades.

Another topically related video, shown in the UK a few years back, that can be found online is “What We Still Don’t Know: “Are We Real?”, which I’ve discussed previously and elsewhere, and is certainly worth watching if you’re unable to catch the Discovery Channel in the US on Thursday night.

Of further interest might be the ‘Are We Alone Podcast’ hosted weekly by Seth Shostak of the Seti Institute.

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