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Life in the Universe


Europe joins the search for life elsewhere in the Universe

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the search for life beyond our planet is getting serious and Europe is playing a full role. Over the next two years, the European Space Agency will be sending two spacecraft (Rosetta and Mars Express) to search for clues to life's origins elsewhere in our Solar System. A third ESA probe, Huygens is already on its way to Titan, a planetary-sized laboratory for pre-biotic chemistry. ESA is also planning a series of spacecraft (Eddington, Gaia and Darwin) to find planets orbiting other stars and even to look for life's signatures on other worlds that look much like our own. These missions are providing scientists from all over Europe with unprecedented opportunities to unravel the origins of life.



Life in the Solar System


(Copyright: Calvin J. Hamilton)
We're pretty sure that we're the only intelligent beings lurking in our Solar System. There's plenty of excitement, though, about finding micro-organisms elsewhere in our neighbourhood. Recent discoveries on Earth suggest that where there's organic (carbon-based) chemistry, water and an energy source, there's life - no matter what the conditions. As these essentials are commonplace in space, there's a good chance that life is too - or so the argument goes.

Living organisms have been found alive and well in environments on Earth so apparently hostile that the presence of life on other Solar System bodies seems quite feasible. Mars, the planet that most closely resembles Earth, and Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, both show evidence of water, past or present, and so are the focus of plans to look for life elsewhere in the Solar System. The possibility that Earth is not the only home for life, however, begs questions.

Did life arise independently on each body? If not, could it have been transferred from one to another? If so, was the common origin a 'seed' planted, perhaps, during collisions with comets, or interstellar dust? Crucial to answering these questions will be greater knowledge about the structure and composition of comets and interstellar dust. Saturn's moon, Titan, also shows promise of revealing the conditions needed for basic organic chemistry to evolve into the chemistry that eventually lead to life.

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Last update: 8 November 2001