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This article was published on October 6, 2021

Can AI help NASA find aliens on starless rogue planets?

Fermi's Paradox may have finally met its match

Can AI help NASA find aliens on starless rogue planets?

The millennia-old search for extraterrestrial life has, so far, yielded little in the way of scientifically useful results. As far as humanity can prove, ET is purely hypothetical.

Yet there are more believers than skeptics. Even in the scientific community. It seems like the generally accepted belief on alien life can be boiled down to: the universe is very big and it would be silly to think that we’re all alone in it.

But famed Italian physicist Enrico Fermi took a different perspective. Fermi was best known in his time for being one of the architects of the first atomic bomb. These days, they’re more often referred to in research papers discussing what’s come to be known as the Fermi Paradox.

In essence, Fermi asked a simple question: if aliens exist, where are they? The point of his query was to shine a logical perspective on this idea that “the universe is so big.”

A paradox for everyone

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The pro-ET side tends to submit that there are, potentially, trillions of galaxies out there. And in each one there are trillions of stars that could be surrounded by planets. The sheer number of possibilities makes it obvious, to them, that alien life must exist.

But Fermi’s query cut to the heart of this assertion. They weren’t just asking why we can’t see aliens, they were asking why the “size” of the universe mattered when considering the propagation of life.

If we should believe there’s life on other planets because there are so many planets, then it follows that we’re either the oldest life forms in the universe or the smartest.

Otherwise, the evidence continues to support a ground-truth where we’re alone. Unless we change the calculus.

Enter NASA

People don’t like to consider the grim possibility that humanity is unique in all the universe, because it means that once we’re gone: poof, it’s all over. Luckily for us, NASA’s planning a mission to Mars towards the end of the 2020s that could change everything.

Fermi’s paradox makes us wonder why we haven’t found aliens in a universe that’s literally as old as time, or why they haven’t found us. But what if both our species and our closest intelligent neighbors are simply looking in the wrong places?

When the Mars mission launches, NASA is sending the Nancy Grace Roman space telescope along for the ride. Once it reaches the red planet it’ll navigate to a spot where it can achieve its own orbit around the Sun.

The hope for the Roman telescope is that it can use this unique position to get a glance at some of the dimmer parts of our galaxy where scientists believe free-floating planets may be hiding.

Rogue planet

Free-floating planets, or rogue planets, are planets that appear to have formed non-traditionally. Scientists believe the Earth, for example, started off as a swirling eddy of dust and other molecules caught in the Sun’s gravity. It eventually gained mass and became the lovely little fixer-upper we call home.

But rogue planets don’t orbit a star. Scientists aren’t sure whether they’re planets that have been shoved away from their stellar neighborhoods or stunted stars that ended up as planetary bodies.

One thing’s for certain: they’re hard to find and even harder to observe. Without the light of a nearby star radiating off of it or the magnetic pull of a sun’s gravity to dictate its motion, we’re hard-pressed to study anything about these free-floating bodies.

But, when the Roman telescope finally gets to its destination, that could change. Scientists hope that positioning it so far away from Earth will allow us to gain new measurements for objects we believe exist far beyond our own solar system.

By comparing the measurements from a telescope near Mars with ones made from a vantage point closer to Earth, the scientists can gain a much greater understanding of what they’re seeing.

(A)I, researcher

This is possible thanks to modern artificial intelligence. Due to the sheer enormity of the amount of data the mission will require, an AI aboard the satellite on which the telescope resides will take point on the study.

Per a NASA press release:

Eventually, the AI learns what it needs to identify and will only send back important information. In filtering this information … [the system will] overcome an extremely limited data transmission rate.

[The system] will have to watch millions of stars every hour or so, and there’s no way to send all that data to Earth. Therefore, the spacecraft will have to analyze the data on-board and send back only the measurements for sources it detects to be microlensing events.

NASA hopes it’ll find rogue planets out there, and lots of them. Some scientists believe there are trillions of free-floating planets in our galaxy alone.

Dark planets, dark lifeforms?

This beggars the question of what we might find on rogue planets.

Conventional wisdom might lead us to believe that only giant balls of metal and ice could survive the harshness of space long enough to form into planetary bodies without a star or other planets to protect them from infinite asteroids and comets. And who knows what could stunt the growth of a star to the point that it fizzled into a giant, round rock.

But, as it turns out, some of these planets may actually be warm. 

In the case of a rogue planet that would have been pushed away from the star it was created near, we can hypothesize that the chemical makeup of its atmosphere could trap the heat from its origin in the planetary core and sustain it for some period.

And if we imagine a planet that exists as a failed attempt at becoming a star, there are myriad ways by which it could retain the heat of its own creation.

If we posit the right combination of chemicals, a sweet-spot for temperature, and the possible existence of an atmosphere, it becomes just as likely that dark rogue planets could contain life as an exoplanet orbiting a star.

But what impact would existing on a planet so far from the luminescence of a solar body have on carbon-based lifeforms? We have creatures on Earth that have evolved in the dark, but none of them are intelligent. How would a sentient species who’d never examined a sun’s radiation choose to look for extraterrestrial life?

Perhaps we’ll know more once the Roman telescope is in place and we’re able to part the fog surrounding our solar system a tiny bit further.

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