space

How easy would it be to cover up alien life?

The surface of TRAPPIST-1f

It’s a godawful small affair

It wasn’t aliens, despite what The Telegraph claimed, but it was cool. TRAPPIST-1 has a whole clutch of planets orbiting, including several rocky Earth sized planets in its habitable zone.

“Well,” the conspiracy theorists are already saying, “of course they wouldn’t announce the discovery of alien life. They’d cover it up.”

But could they? How easy would it be to actually cover up the existence of aliens? Here’s a little follow up to Tuesday’s post. If scientists did discover aliens, how could the government keep it under wraps?

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How would scientists announce the discovery of aliens?

Planets around a red star

An artist’s impression of planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1 (image CC ESA/Hubble)

On Monday 20th January, Nasa announced a sudden press conference on a “discovery beyond our solar system“. Admittedly, Nasa has become a bit notorious for calling press conferences at the drop of a space helmet, but this one has people quite excited.

Included on the panel are Michaël Gillon, who heads the exoplanet detecting project TRAPPIST in Belgium, and at least two experts on exoplanet atmospheres, Nikole Lewis and Sara Seager. Last year TRAPPIST discovered a star called, with all the imagination you’d expect, TRAPPIST-1, orbited by three small planets that it just so happens are perfectly aligned so that we can see them eclipse the central star – and this means that we can watch how the starlight is absorbed by the planet’s atmospheres and calculate what gases they contain.

And the rumours (to repeat, rumours) are that they might have found oxygen which, it’s argued, would be an almost certain sign of life. Oxygen is ridiculously reactive – good news for life, since the reaction between oxygen and sugar is our main source of fuel, but not so good for the metal that tarnishes and wood that burns – and if left on its own, pure oxygen will rapidly disappear as it becomes water, rust, or gases like carbon dioxide. If the atmosphere contains a lot of pure oxygen, something must be putting it there, and that something might be some form of life.

It’s tenuous, I admit. But it’s possible. And it raises an interesting question. What happens if scientists do discover life on other planets? Not intelligent beings, but the sort of life you see in David Attenborough documentaries – things resembling bacteria, plants, animals, or blobs of matter completely alien to our understanding. Surprisingly, it’s not clear.

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