There is plenty of evidence that the world’s oldest science thrives in North Carolina. Astronomy is pursued at several colleges and universities, both public and private. Our state is home to the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute, an independent organization near Brevard with five radio telescopes. Enthusiasts have even created a number of astronomy clubs from Asheville to Wilmington.
And cutting-edge astronomical research is performed in Raleigh at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. Jan. 30-31, the museum will be celebrating Astronomy Days. The theme this year is “The search for life beyond Earth” and the event includes a number of presentations based on that theme.
Scientists are searching for any signs of life – from microorganisms to advanced civilizations. Since Earth has the only known example of life in the universe, astronomers and astrobiologists look for environmental conditions elsewhere that are similar to our own. The discovery of various Earth organisms that can thrive in environments that would be hazardous to most other life forms has pushed the boundaries of where we think life can be found. Within our own solar system, there are worlds with some potential to host life. Others places show signs of the possibility of past life. The most noteworthy are the planet Mars, Jupiter’s moon Europa, and Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Titan.
Since 1988, astronomers have discovered more than 2,000 planets orbiting stars far beyond our solar system. Of these, three are thought to have conditions that are potentially favorable for life.
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My own presentation at Astronomy Days will cover a few hypotheses that some astronomers are investigating in hopes of finding intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. This includes looking for evidence of hypothetical mega-structures known as “Dyson spheres” that would enclose a star and capture most of the energy it emits. Another involves the idea that an advanced civilization that colonized different regions of a galaxy and may communicate via a “galactic internet.”
Are we alone? We may not answer this question in our lifetimes. Yet its pursuit stirs the imagination. Whatever the answer, it will have a profound impact on how humanity views its place in the universe.
Patrick Treuthardt is assistant head of the Astronomy & Astrophysics Research Lab at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. Details on Astronomy Days, Jan. 30-31 at the downtown Raleigh museum: www.naturalsciences.org (scroll down to “Museum News and Events”).