Are we alone?
Our interstellar experts tackle the big questions
By Parshati Patel, MSc’12, PhD’16 (Astronomy and Planetary Science)
For thousands of years, humans have looked to the sky. From hunting and farming to exploring and learning, stars have propelled the course of human evolution. Yet, one constant question remains central to human curiosity: Are we alone?
It’s a singular question potentially considered in various ways: Are we unique? What makes Earth an ideal place for life? What would life be like on other planets? How would we even know if there’s life out there?
To start probing such questions, Western University has assembled an interstellar team of all-star astronomers, explorers, scientists and engineers to do just that.
Officially launched this year, the Institute for Earth and Space Exploration at Western – known as Western Space – builds on the university’s decade-long track record as Canada’s leader for space research, technology development and student training. The Institute brings together 61 researchers from 18 different depart-ments across campus to answer big questions for government, industry and everyday Canadians, including ours: Are we alone?
We have one single data point when it comes to life – that’s life on Earth. The more we know about the origins of life on the Pale Blue Dot, the more we can blueprint beyond our atmosphere as to what, and more importantly how, to look for in extraterrestrial life.
To use the single data point, a strong understanding of biodiversity is essential. Earth sits in a habitable zone, a zone around a star that has a warm enough temperature for liquid water to exist. In addition to water, or some kind of solvent, a nutrient source and an energy source are also required.
Water was never a problem for Earth. The question remains, however, if we always have the nutrients and the energy required to actually bring life into being or not.
While many theories exist of how life on Earth first came to be, the theory that microorganisms may have traveled to Earth aboard meteorites or comets is one of the most intriguing. These microorganisms would have carried the essential nutrients; the energy released as the result of the meteorite impact would have pro-vided more than enough energy to start the process. We know the universe is full of nutrients we can find here on Earth. What we don’t know for sure is if they were brought here or they were already here.
As far back as he can remember, Western Space Director Gordon ‘Oz’ Osinski has looked to the stars in awe wondering ‘What is out there?’ And his research today into impact craters continues to look for his answer.
“Hydrothermal systems within craters, in general, are incredibly exciting for astrobiology as these are the en-vironments where we think life began on Earth,” said the Earth Sciences professor. “It’s also where life may have begun on other planets such as Mars.”
Impact events also transform the rocks in other ways to create unique habitats that provide a shield for the intense radiation that would have existed in the early history of Earth. This continues to exist today on the surface of Mars. Recognized as one of the world’s eminent planetary geologists, Osinski studies these craters from the Canadian Arctic to the Australian Outback. Close to 200 craters have been found on Earth and there are countless thousands of others on solid celestial bodies throughout the Solar System.
“We’re still just at the early stages of learning about the beneficial effects of meteorite impacts, but based on what we know so far, such events could have played a fundamental role in the origin of life here on Earth and elsewhere in the universe,” Osinski explained.
While asteroid and comet impacts provide ideal conditions and a safe haven for life, meteorites (the leftover material of asteroids and comets found at the impacts) hold highly complex molecules.
According to Western Space Associate Director Jan Cami, “Some meteorites are known to contain more than 70 kinds of amino acids, while all life on Earth require only 20 kinds of amino acids.”
An astrochemist, inspired since childhood by the comic adventure series Tintin’s Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon, Cami studies chemistry in the universe. The Physics and Astronomy professor spends much of his time researching complex molecules in regions between stars and the surroundings of dying stars to understand how they originate, evolve and thrive in such environments.
Amino acids are complex organic compounds that combine to form proteins, which in turn, become the building blocks of life. What’s exciting for researchers like Cami is amino acids have been found in space.
‘Buckyballs’ – soccer-ball-shaped carbon molecules – can be found there, too. Cami discovered their existence in 2010, an exciting finding as they have unique properties, making make them important players for a myriad of physical and chemical processes. If those processes can happen in space, it’s not difficult to connect the dots – or stars – to conclude that the asteroids and comets that bombarded Earth in its early history may have brought the necessary water and other organic molecules home to terra ferma to spark life.
“It’s all chemistry,” Cami said. “When the ingredients are present and the conditions are right, the reaction will occur. The ingredients required for life are widespread in the universe.”
Are we alone? The potential is certainly there for life to originate in space. In our Solar System, Mars, Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus, and Jupiter’s moon Europa are excellent possibilities. Geysers of water have been detected on Enceladus; scientists believe there is an ocean under the sheet of ice on Europa. The hunt for an ideal location for life in our system continues with a number of new missions underway to explore these potentially habitable celestial objects.
To date, more than 4,000 exoplanets have also been discovered. Exoplanets, or extrasolar planets, are planets orbiting other stars. Just as stars have a habitable zone, galaxies also have a similar zone, which would be away from any supernovae and massive black holes. They’d also require the chemical ingredients necessary to form planets. This sweet spot – the galactic habitable zone – would harbor ideal conditions for stars to host hospitable planets.
Physics and Astronomy professor Sarah Gallagher, the first-ever Science Advisor to the President of the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), studies black holes. These majestic objects, which many believe are created in the death throes of the most massive stars, are regions of space where gravity is so extreme that it prevents the escape of everything – even light. Supermassive black holes, like the ones Gallagher examines, are found at the centres of large galaxies.
“Winds from black holes affect the immediate vicinity of black holes, making the area not-so-habitable for planets, and for life on such planets,” Gallagher said. “Studying the properties of the winds, as well as the ex-tent of their effects on stars and gas, allows us to gauge the start of a habitable zone.”
Black hole winds could help trigger star formation and sometimes blowing the material away actually shuts down the birth of stars. The amount of elements (that are heavier than hydrogen and helium) in these scenarios has huge implications on the types of the planets that form around the stars. The winds from the black holes also push higher amounts of metals away from its core and into the galactic habitable zone.
While Gallagher studies black holes – some of the most mysterious objects in the universe – she also ponders the philosophical side of the universe as an adjunct professor in Western’s Rotman Institute of Philosophy.
“Scientific experiments are also philosophical as they’re based on assumptions that are philosophical choices that we make,” Gallagher said. “The question ‘Are we alone?’ leads to other questions about the formation of the universe and even the existence of multiple universes. If there is only one universe, is it a fluke? Or would we have wound up with this universe no matter how it started exactly?”
To understand when and where life could thrive in the universe, the need to build sensitive instruments to detect such life becomes vital. Western Space Associate Director Jayshri Sabarinathan builds multispectral cameras, which have a number of applications beyond space including agriculture, resource mapping and remote sensing. These cameras take snapshots at various wavelength bands including visible, ultraviolet and near infrared. When these images are combined together, they form data cubes, which present a wealth of information for scientists studying Earth and space.
For example, to look for water on other planets, data is required at multiple different wavelengths. It is important for engineers like Sabarinathan to know what scientists are looking for specifically in order to design and customize the instruments to meet those requirements.
She recalls being interested in space early on. “As a kid, I spent hours on our apartment terrace trying to ob-serve Haley’s comet with a telescope my parents bought me. I’d discuss space topics with my dad all the time. All through my undergraduate and graduate education, Ive always stayed interested in all things space”.
An expert in photonic instrumentation and sensor development, the Electrical and Computer Engineering professor is building new camera technologies for space at Western that are not only small in size, but also retain the high quality and strength required for proper imaging in harsh environments, in addition to meeting the low-mass and low-power usage requirements essential in space applications.
Sabarinathan is also the principal investigator for the Western University – Nunavut Arctic College CubeSat project, which is one of 15 CubeSats across Canada funded by the CSA and scheduled to be launched from the International Space Station in 2022. This project offers a unique opportunity for Western and Nunavut Arctic students to take part in a real space mission by designing, building, and operating their own miniature satellite. This student-driven project allows current and future Earth and space explorers a unique opportunity to conduct a flight test with an imaging system that provides an out-of-this-world virtual reality experience.
We are just now scratching the surface of the sky. New technologies. New ideas. New vantage points. All that combines at Western to create a new outlook on the universe. But in the end, Western Space researchers un-derstand that at the heart of questions about life ‘out there’ are questions about life ‘down here.’
“Perhaps it is ironic in that the farther out we can see, the more personal the questions become about ourselves, our origins and our place in the cosmos,” Osinski said. “We deal in such huge distances, sizes, even time scales that the awe-inspiring vastness of space itself often distracts from why we are looking up and out in the first place.
“It is important to remember the biggest questions we are seeking answers to have the most personal possible answers. ‘Are we alone?’ Think what a definitive answer to that would mean to you.”
Western’s new Institute for Earth and Space Exploration (Western Space) is a veritable culmination of more than a decade of research and training excellence.
Western hosts Canada’s only graduate program in planetary science and also offers a minor at the undergraduate level. Several national networking and collaborative initiatives are also led by Western faculty, most notably the Canadian Lunar Research Network – a member of the NASA Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute.
Here are just a few of Western’s all-star space faculty making a major difference in Canada and beyond:
- Utilizing optical instruments such as the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope, as well as advanced computer data-mining techniques, Western astrophysicist Pauline Barmby investigates how stars, gas, dust and black holes affect one another.
- Peter Brown, Canada Research Chair in Planetary Small Bodies and an internationally recognized authority on meteors, asteroids and comets, works with NASA to target, track, monitor and measure meteoroids in the Earth’s atmosphere to better understand the very beginnings of the solar system.
- Isha DeCoito from Western’s Faculty of Education is developing a new graduate program for space professionals. She also co-leads the Space Matters initiative, which raises awareness of the importance of space to Canadians and how it touches on nearly every aspect of their daily lives.
- Ken McIsaac, chair of Western’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Western Space (acting) Associate Director for Training, is involved in several projects examining machine learning and autonomous activities for space and planetary science applications.
- Catherine Neish, a Western planetary geologist, is the only Canadian researcher involved with the Dragonfly project, NASA’s $850-million drone mission set to explore Saturn’s massive moon Titan.
- Kevin Shoemaker, Canada Research Chair in Integrative Physiology of Exercise and Health, examines how the lack of gravity affects normal circulation and distribution of blood inside the body and the problems it can cause astronauts when they return to Earth. Some of his findings could prevent falls among frail elderly people.
Photography for story by Frank Neufeld
This article appeared in the Fall 2019 edition of Alumni Gazette