Science & Technology

Distinguishing science from sci-fi in the search for extraterrestrials

Astrobiology, the scientific study of life beyond Earth, was born in 1959 and pioneered by NASA’s Ames Research Center. Along with scientific research, public imagination of extraterrestrial life was broadening. In 1969, when Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins successfully landed on the moon, it reached new heights.

Since 1947, when in Roswell, New Mexico, witnesses reported sighting a UFO, the world was captivated by the possibility of aliens landing on Earth. During the 1950s, the science fiction genre exploded in comics, television series, and films. Given the tense political climate of the Cold War-era, it is no wonder that the alien was a poignant monster; it represented foreignness, hostility, and the threat of technological superiority as the crux of its horror.

On Oct. 19 2017, for the first time ever, astronomers identified a rock from another solar system flying past Earth. It seems today, humans are more excited about an unknown visitor than fearful.

At McGill, Lyle Whyte, a professor in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences and a member of the McGill Space Institute, is at the forefront of the search for extraterrestrial life. However, the potential extraterrestrials Whyte researches are a little humbler than those of retro sci-fi.

“What we do is research into microbial ecosystems that live on the coldest places on this planet [and] try to understand how they survive in these extreme environments,” Whyte explained. “[We] try to develop […] methods [that] could potentially be used [to detect signs of life] on future robotic expeditions to Mars, Europa, and Enceladus [moons of Jupiter and Saturn, respectively].”  

Whyte has participated in several astrobiological projects. Most recently, he has been involved with the ExoMars 2020 mission, a robotic exploration mission led by the European Space Agency.

“The one thing that is very special about ExoMars is [that we] can drill a metre or two […] into the subsurface [of Mars],” Whyte explained. “[The robot can] take a sample from the depth and pull it out and look for biosignatures of ancient or extant life. I’m on a group called the Landing Site Selection Working Group, which has about 15 scientists that basically are saying ‘We should land here.’”

Whyte supervised a recent study spearheaded by PhD candidate Jacqueline Goordial, which suggested the temperature limits of bugs that live in permafrost at the poles of the Earth. Although Whyte is personally doubtful about the viability of life on Mars, based on this research, he is still excited to look. He is also especially curious about Enceladus, an icy moon of Saturn.

“Cassini [Spacecraft] went to Saturn [from 1997-2017] and discovered these geysers [from Enceladus] shooting out into space,” Whyte said. “The spacecraft […] was able to collect some of the molecules in that water, and what we know in 2017 is that that water is salty, it contains organic carbon, it contains nitrogen and methane. If I had some of that water put in a flask in my lab and I took some soil from the Arctic, I could get things to grow in it.”

Whyte values sci-fi depictions of aliens, mainly as thought exercises for a future where human-alien contact is possible. Whyte believes that a good story inspires the imagination.

“I find sci-fi films like [The Martian and Arrival] to be very creative and inspiring,” Whyte said. “Imagination has to play a big role. The bottom line is we’re looking at these things for the first time, mostly the first time ever, and you have to keep your mind very open to what you’re actually seeing.”

When asked what advice he would give to those who are deeply curious about extraterrestrial life, Whyte emphasized the importance of expressing interest through the appropriate channels.

“Go with your passion,” Whyte said. “If you’re really interested in planetary exploration or exoplanets, you’re going to have to become an engineer or a scientist. [… I’m] good at studying polar microbiology, and that becomes useful to understand life on Mars.”

The current scientific stance toward extraterrestrial life is limited, but discoveries of extraterrestrial objects like the rock found earlier this year allow us to stretch the bounds of what we even thought to be possible. While we may not find little green martians, on the hunt for life beyond our planet, or even beyond our solar system, all we can do is flex our imagination and keep an open mind.

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