UBC professor Erik Rosolowsky searches for extraterrestrial life

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      While UFO hunters scour the skies for evidence of unexplained aerial phenomena, a UBC astronomer is looking for signs of life in other galaxies.

      In a phone interview from UBC’s Okanagan campus, Erik Rosolowsky told the Georgia Straight that in the next 10 to 20 years, satellites may be able to measure the composition of the atmospheres of planets orbiting other stars.

      This enhances the likelihood of determining whether we’re not alone.

      “I think that life is likely out there in the universe,” Rosolowsky said. “We’re probably in a universe that’s filled with life. There are just too many planets that are being found.”

      Rosolowsky researches the formation of stars, which are created from clouds of gas. He pointed out that each year in the Milky Way, the galaxy that is home to our solar system, approximately one star is completely formed. The development of a single star can take a million years, he said, and that can result in the birth of new planets that may be suitable for life.

      In addition to the Milky Way, there are billions of other galaxies in the universe. Rosolowsky pointed out that life on Earth emerged “almost immediately, in geological terms”, after the planet was bombarded by asteroids over hundreds of millions of years. He said this suggests that it’s fairly easy for life to arise on a planet.

      According to Rosolowsky, one of the telltale signs of life on another planet would be the presence of oxygen in the atmosphere. He emphasized that no chemical process creates oxygen by itself and that on Earth it’s replenished through “photosynthetic life”.

      “You look at the other planets in our solar system”¦and there is nothing,” he said. “But you look at Earth, and there is this big, whopping oxygen signature.”

      Rosolowsky noted that the presence of trace elements of pollutants in the atmosphere of another planet could also indicate the existence of life. “The strongest ones in our atmosphere are the signatures of chlorofluorocarbons,” he said. “CFCs show up in the atmosphere. They have a signature that can be detected”¦That would indicate not just life but probably life that is at an industrial stage.”

      The California-based Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute, otherwise known as SETI, has been looking for extraterrestrial signals broadcast through radio waves between stars. Rosolowsky said that he’s using one of the telescopes upon which the SETI project is piggybacking but he’s not working directly with this group.

      “I’m interested in a lot of the signal-processing that is going on there,” he commented, noting that the SETI project has come across some intriguing broadcasts. However, he added that nothing has been discovered that would pass all of SETI’s tests to prove that life exists anywhere else.

      “We’ve found good evidence for prebiotic molecules throughout the universe,” Rosolowsky stated. “These are the kinds of things that feature prominently in organic chemistry, but they are not themselves life.”

      As an example, he cited recent reports of the existence of an amino acid called glycine on a comet. According to an article in the August 2009 edition of New Scientist: “The discovery confirms that some of the building blocks of life were delivered to the early Earth from space.”

      Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.

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