BRIAN SCHULTZ (ALIEN); INIGO CIA/FLICKR/GETTY IMAGES (BACKGROUND)
VOCABULARY extraterrestrial: from outer space solar system: the sun and everything that moves around it, including the planets orbit: travel around the sun, a planet, or something else zone: area galaxy: a very large group of stars
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EXIST For the first time in history, top scientists are saying it’s very likely that other living things exist in the universe. Experts are using high-tech tools to search faraway planets for signs of life. They think we could find it in your lifetime. BY LAUREN TARSHIS
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ust after 8 p.m. on October 30, 1938, a
terrifying news bulletin interrupted the music that had been playing on radios across America. A reporter said that aliens from Mars were attacking New York City! His voice cracked with terror as he described the fearsome, bloodthirsty aliens, while listeners heard screams and explosions in the background. Many people panicked—parents grabbed their children and prepared to flee, while others called the police for help. What was happening? Had aliens really landed on Earth? The answer, of course, was no—it was part of a science-fiction radio play based on H.G. Wells’s classic novel, The War of the Worlds. Orson Welles, who produced the broadcast, never intended to trick people; in fact, at the beginning of the show, an announcer informed the audience that the story was fictional. But some listeners missed the first few minutes and grew confused—and scared. In the show’s aftermath, newspapers questioned how so many people could have been deceived; although no one knows the answer for sure, it’s clear that the concept of life in outer space is
Top: A newspaper from October 31, 1938; Above: Orson Welles performing on the radio
So Many Stars The idea of aliens has always gripped us—we
Our sun is a star that sits motionless at the center of our solar system; Earth and other
wonder what extraterrestrial life might be like
planets circle, or orbit, it, absorbing the heat
and where we might find it.
and light that are necessary ingredients for the
But the universe is gargantuan; in fact, scientists
existence of life.
say that there are more than 300 sextillion stars—
But the sun is not unique—numerous stars
that’s the number 3 followed by 23 zeros, a number
have planets orbiting them. While scientists are
larger than the total of every grain of sand on every
investigating some of these, locating a planet where
beach and in every desert on Earth.
life could exist is a formidable task.
How do we search for other life in such an
To support life as we know it, a planet probably
enormous place? Earth is the only planet we know
can’t be too big; giant planets like Jupiter are
of that has living things. So it’s a good place to start.
comprised of gas and don’t have solid surfaces.
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NY DAILY NEWS VIA GETTY IMAGES (PAPER); POPPERFOTO/GETTY IMAGES (WELLES)
fascinating. Were people just ready to believe?
WHAT MIGHT AN ALIEN LOOK LIKE?
Science-fiction writers have created some dazzling aliens for books and movies. Who doesn’t love the Ewoks from Star Wars? (above)
COURTESY OF NOVA (LAND WHALE); LUCASFILM/20TH CENTURY FOX/THE KOBAL COLLECTION (EWOK)
This illustration was created by scientists who were trying to imagine a creature that might exist on a very dry and windy planet. The “land whale” would survive by filtering food from the air, just like a real whale filters tiny shellfish from ocean water.
Most scientists also believe that life can’t exist without liquid water, a requirement that rules out
The Hunt for Distant Planets Until about 100 years ago, there was only one
planets that orbit close to their stars—those planets
way to locate celestial objects: you stood on the
are too hot, so water would boil away. Likewise,
ground and peered through a telescope.
planets that orbit far from their stars are too cold, so water could freeze. Planets where life might exist are neither
But today, scientists utilize incredible tools; the most thrilling discoveries in recent years have come from an unmanned spacecraft called Kepler,
too close nor too far from their stars—scientists
which searches our galaxy for planets. Orbiting
say they’re in the “Goldilocks zone,” because
the sun 40 million miles from Earth, Kepler
conditions there are “just right.”
takes pictures of space and transmits them back
Scientists know the type of planet they’re seeking; the hard part is finding one.
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The results have been astounding—Kepler
soon; for example, Kevin Hand, a scientist at
has helped scientists discover more than 1,000
NASA, the government agency that runs the
planets to date.
American space program, says, “I think in
both its size and its distance from its star. Kepler has found a smattering of planets in the
the next 20 years, we will find out we are not alone in the universe.” Think about what he’s saying—there’s a very
Goldilocks zone, including Kepler-452b, which was
good chance that scientists will find life on other
identified in July 2015; dubbed “Earth’s bigger, older
planets during your lifetime.
cousin” by scientists, it is more similar to Earth than any planet previously discovered.
Tiniest Speck of Life Could any of the planets discovered by Kepler
No one knows what that life might look like: scientists say that alien life might be unicellular; on the other hand, aliens could be fantastic creatures that surpass all of our imaginations. But finding even a tiny speck of life somewhere
support life, and if so, what might extraterrestrial
else in the universe would be among the most
life-forms look like?
important human achievements in history.
Experts believe we will answer those questions
One day soon, experts say, it will happen. •
SEARCHING FOR PLANETS
The Kepler spacecraft (above) has photographed more than a thousand planets.
The planet at left, Kepler-10b, is so hot that it could have an ocean of lava larger than the Pacific Ocean. Life as we know it couldn’t survive there.
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PAGE 8: COURTESY OF NOVA (PLANET); COURTESY OF WENDY STENZE/KEPLER MISSION/NASA (KEPLER SPACECRAFT) PAGE 9: STOCKTREK/GETTY IMAGES