In a chat with a friend the other day we were discussing whether or not Christians need to grapple with the issue of alien life (intelligent or otherwise). Broad opinion was that it was necessary now more than ever as our technology is reaching the point of making the detection of such life an answerable possibility.
My original thinking was with regard to the detection of exoplanets (more being discovered all the time) and specifically to the first successful attempts to analyse the chemical spectra of the atmospheres of these alien worlds (water and methane have been detected for instance). Given that the form life takes on our world gives out key chemical signatures that would be detectable with the next generation or two of telescopes what would our reaction be if those signatures where to be discovered?
During the talk with my friend I realised (somewhat belatedly) that there is a more immediate possibility to consider - the Mars Phoenix mission that this week landed on Mars.
It is the most sophisticated laboratory that we have sent to another world and its primary mission is to examine whether or not Mars has an environment permissible to biological life. Clearly Mars cannot support large organic forms such as ourselves, but microbes are another matter entirely as they are highly adaptable to a wide range of environments.
Next week the lander will start digging beneath the surface of Mars to get at water ice located beneath the surface. It will run a battery of experiments on collected samples to see if it is possible that some form of life could be sustained in it. As a by-product it might also detect some form of living or ancient life.
Already the probe has uncovered what may be water ice directly beneath it so it will be quite exciting to see what the results of next weeks experiments will be.
Based on orbital scans from earlier probes Phoenix itself was sent to a specific region on Mars with a particular mission in mind. It is not a generic explorer like many other probes have been. Whether or not Phoenix itself finds anything conclusive it (along with the earlier orbiters that lead to its mission profile) demonstrates our physical and technical capacity to perhaps answer some questions of alien life and our own planet's uniqueness.
The same technology that is allowing us to land on other worlds and/or characterise distant worlds around other stars also allows us the real possibility of communication with intelligent alien life should it also be out there. In fact we have had that technology for decades now in the form of radio technology.
The same development of our technology for detection will also lead to increased capacity for communication. Our communications infrastructure and technology can be turned towards interstellar communications of one sort or the other should the need arise. Indeed, if the the need arises it will probably act as a driver for technological development into that field which would have knock on effects for the wider world just as the development of the jet engine at the close of WWII did for passenger aircraft and how NASA's Apollo programme spawned a load of spin-out technologies for the average consumer on Earth.
It strikes me that there has been only limited debate and awareness on these issues amongst academic circles in the Church and even less so at a more popular level. This probably reflects across society as a whole, but for Christians (although it shouldn't) it would probably rock many of us to our cores.
Given how this sort of thing could literally crop up 'next week' for example my concern is that we are unprepared for a confirming result. If such a result comes in we will be forced to confront and deal with the profound philosophical and theological implications such a discovery would throw up.
And at the moment, once again, the Christian community will be caught on the back foot.
December 6, 2013
9 hours ago