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Why Scientists Think Life Exists On Other Planets

From: Diana Cammack <cammack.nul>
Date: Tue, 26 Oct 2010 08:28:44 +0200
Archived: Tue, 26 Oct 2010 08:01:06 -0400
Subject: Why Scientists Think Life Exists On Other Planets

Source: The San Francisco Chronicle


October 15, 2010

Why scientists think life exists on other planets

David Perlman
Chronicle Science Editor

It's only a small planet very much like Earth, and it flies in
orbit around a small star much like the sun. It's 120 trillion
miles away as most of us count - but only 20 light-years as
astronomers see it.

After 11 years studying that planet's path in space through the
eyes of the world's largest telescope, astronomers could
announce recently that they had finally discovered the very
first "exoplanet" whose orbit around its own sun places it
clearly inside that distant solar system's "habitable zone",
where gravity and temperatures make water plus an atmosphere -
and life - clearly possible.

It defies imagination to recognize that if life is at least
possible beyond our Earth and our life-giving sun, it could be
ubiquitous on some planets everywhere in the galaxy - in some
form or other, whether recognizable to us or not.

The news of the planet called Gliese581g came from Steven Vogt
of UC Santa Cruz and Paul Butler of the Carnegie Institution in
Washington, two veteran searchers for planets far beyond our
solar system, and although Butler wouldn't speculate, Vogt said
forthrightly that he puts the odds at "100 percent" that some
form of life must exist on that planet right now.

Why was Vogt so certain? The best answer is that life on Earth
exists literally everywhere, in wildly varied forms and in every
conceivable environment, so why not in other environments

Microbes, after all, are even now chewing on hydrocarbons from
the disastrous BP oil spill that persists at the bottom of the
Gulf of Mexico 2 miles down, where it's perpetually dark and

Even more advanced forms of life, like giant clams, crabs,
shrimp and strange tube worms, are now thriving in near-boiling
water at the mouths of volcanoes deep undersea. Such life was
discovered more than 20 years ago 8,000 feet down in the
Galapagos Rift Zone, where giant plates of the Earth's crust are
slowly splitting apart and sulfur-eating bacteria have evolved
in the airless total darkness to provide nourishing energy for
the higher life-forms around them.

The highly radioactive wastewater and toxic sludge left over
from the Hanford plutonium reactors in the state of Washington
would kill any animal or human instantly. But bacteria called
Deinococcus radiodurans have been discovered multiplying there
and withstanding radiation a thousand times the levels deadly to

In the sulfurous gases of a deep, dark South African gold mine,
where oxygen is nonexistent and temperatures run higher than 140
degrees, there's a thriving bacterium with a whip-like tail
called Desulforudis audaxviator. That creature gets its energy
from the decay products of uranium, creates its oxygen from
saltwater circulating in the rocks around it, and nourishes
itself with organic molecules from water, carbon and the ammonia
in the rocks of its happy habitat.

Hardy microbes thrive in the boiling fumaroles and geysers of
Mount Lassen and Yellowstone, while others have evolved to
colonize the polar ice caps of the Arctic and the frigid
glaciers of Antarctica.

All these organisms are known as "extremophiles", and there's no
extreme environment on Earth today that isn't home to one or
more of them - some with genetic lineages millions of years old.

In fact, every ecological niche on Earth is occupied today by
the living creatures that have evolved to fit in there. And, as
Vogt said, in Earth's early days our planet must have been
bombarded again and again by giant asteroids that destroyed all
life here, and each time the sterilized Earth recovered, and
life emerged and evolved again and again.

So why not on a planet like Gliese 581g? - or not on that
planet, perhaps, but on any one of the hundreds of other
"habitable zones" in solar systems throughout the galaxy that
are yet to be discovered as the new science of "exoplanet"
research continues.

E-mail David Perlman at


This article appeared on page A - 16 of the San Francisco

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