Brian Cox explores the origins of life on other planets

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A major NASA-sponsored report said the search for alien life will be the top priority of astronomers in the next decade. The report, issued last week by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, said humanity needs to continue the hunt for other life forms. It stated: “Life on Earth may be the result of a common process, or it may require such an unusual set of circumstances that we are the only living beings within our part of the galaxy, or even in the universe. Either answer is profound. The coming decades will set humanity down a path to determine whether we are alone.”

NASA has been urged to create a telescope much bigger than the Hubble Space Telescope, which would be able to spot planets 10 billion times fainter than their stars.

But, at the same time, the report emphasised the need for smaller, more modest missions.

Professor Brian Cox looked to investigate whether we are alone in the universe in the BBC series ‘Universe’.

The Kepler space telescope, which launched in March 2009 until it ran out of fuel in October 2018, covered 94 million miles of space until it arrived in a steady orbit around the sun.

In its nine years, more than 2,500 new planets were discovered.

Prof Cox said that, because the laws of nature are universal, we can transfer the knowledge we have of life here on earth to planets elsewhere in the universe.

He said: “So the laws of physics and chemistry that underpin biology here on this planet will apply to every planet out there in the universe, whether we’ve discovered it or not.”

The one requirement for life on other planets, Prof Cox explained, is liquid water. 

He said: “There is a catchphrase in the astrobiological community, which is ‘if you want to search for life, follow the water’.”

The Kepler telescope found a planet orbiting comfortably within the habitable zone of its star in 2015.

Named K2-18b, Prof Cox explained that at more than eight times the mass of the earth, it is a “giant with a powerful gravitational pull”.

The Hubble, more powerful than the Kepler, examined K2-18b and detected “what may be a faint signature of water vapour”.

Prof Cox said: “124 light-years from Earth, we may have at last found the evidence of water on an alien world.”

He added: “Now admittedly, measurement of the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere is pretty wide — it’s somewhere between 0.01 percent and 50 percent.

“But, for comparison, our planet has a few percent water vapour in its atmosphere. So that observation is important for a number of reasons.

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“One is it’s not zero — there is water vapour in the atmosphere. But secondly, if the measurement is at the lower end, a few percent of water vapour in the atmosphere, then that is consistent with this world being a planet with oceans on its surface.”

A new telescope, called the James Webb Space Telescope, which launches next month, has the capability to view planets that are light years away from Earth.

Information can be gathered within just 60 hours, and will include scans of their atmosphere for life-sustaining gases.

K2-18b will be among the six specific exoplanets to be explored upon its launch next month.

The nature of K2-18b remains “the nature of intense scientific debate”, Prof Cox said.

It could be like a mini-Neptune — dark, cold and very windy.

However, Prof Cox said: “It is possible to dream of a rocky alien world with skies full of clouds where water droplets collect and eventually fall, feeding vast oceans that cover the surface of a massive planet.”

He added: “We estimate that there may be around 20 billion potentially Earth-like worlds, that’s rocky planets in the habitable zone around a star that may support liquid water on the surface in our galaxy.

“That is 20 billion potential homes for life.”

He explained that while we do not know the probability of life beginning on another planet, provided the conditions for it are right, we do know that life began on earth almost as soon as it could.

From this, Prof Cox said: “So that might suggest that whilst there isn’t a sense of inevitability about the origin of life, given the right conditions, it might at least be reasonably probable.

“So I think there is at least a chance that life may have begun on some, perhaps many, of those 20 billion earth-like worlds out there in our galaxy.”

He did, however, admit that we may never know if we are alone in our galaxy, let alone in the universe.

Prof Cox finished: “I think we become a little bit more human with every world that we explore because that ability to lay the foundations, ask questions for which we may never answer in our lifetime, questions for our children or our grandchildren to answer, is a fundamental part of what it means to be human. 

“It’s a fundamental part of what makes us here, looking up at the stars, in this little world, whether we’re alone or not.”

‘Universe’ airs on Wednesday nights at 9pm on BBC Two. Previous episodes are available on BBC iPlayer.

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