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Scanning the skies for intelligent life

Sorry, folks: you probably won’t be picking up an extraterrestrial pen pal before you die.

Sorry, folks: you probably won’t be picking up an extraterrestrial pen pal before you die.

But way before that, we’ll know where the planets are that could support life, says Saint Mary’s University astronomy and physics professor Rob Thacker.

“By the time the 30-year-olds of today are 50, we’ll know a good deal about life on other planets,” Thacker said.

“Someone was saying to me, ‘Do you think they’ll be able to join us on Facebook?’ But if they’re that intelligent, they’ve probably moved on to the next thing past it.”

Currently, we don’t know how many Earth-sized planets there are, because the telescopes we have can’t see them. We can see larger planets, but anything the size of Jupiter or Saturn is too big to support life — they don’t have solid ground or atmosphere.

By 2015, there’ll be a new telescope — appropriately named the Extremely Large Telescope, or ELT — that will be able to detect Earth-sized planets. By 2025, we’ll be able to train our new terrestrial planet-finder on those to see which ones have oxygen.

If there’s oxygen, there may be life. But that could be something as small as a single-cell amoeba. And if there’s a more evolved species that wants to keep to itself, we’ll never know.

“I’ll be surprised if we find any basic life forms within 100 to 150 light years,” Thacker said.

So, could it turn out the species that brought you Paris Hilton and Sarah Palin is the only intelligent life in the universe?

“It’s a real possibility. If that’s the case, then we have a real responsibility to preserve intelligent life in the galaxy.”

Thacker and McMaster University professor Doug Welch will be talking about this issue Friday Saturday night, from 7-9 p.m., at the Uncommon Grounds coffee shop on South Park Street.

 
 
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