When we consider the potential development, environment and motivations of extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI), we naturally default to our own, simian selves as a basic model. At this point such caution, however narrow-minded it may seem to some, would appear to be the optimal guide in our speculative excursions as we have no data (at least officially) to anchor us. Even so, for all we know the cosmos could be literally teeming with extraterrestrial life and yet such life, even of the complexity we define as intelligence, could have developed in drastically different conditions.
Most immediate in my mind is the consideration that there may have been not one dominant and intelligent species on an extrasolar planet but, at the very least, two. After all, from as early as two million years ago to as recent as 18 thousand years ago we have coexisted on this planet alongside other lineages of hominin and we were by no means the broad-spectrum superior species. Neanderthals, for instance, were apparently better adapted to frigid climates than us Sapiens and were bigger in terms of both brawn and brains. Had they failed to suffer the fate of extinction in Europe some 40 thousand years ago but had instead survived alongside us into modern times it is well within the realm of possibility that they would be able to cognate and communicate much as we do.
Consider that over the course of human history we have successfully dehumanized other members of the human race due to their sex and the pigmentation of their skin, the nature of their religious faiths and political alliances: how worse might the situation have been if Neanderthals survived? This specific train of speculation might be too narrow, however — “all too human” — for who is to say that two entirely distinct species might not have developed intelligence on the same planet in parallel, such as an intelligent mammal like the modern human and an equally intelligent species of reptile? It would certainly be easier for human beings to “dehumanize” those who were never human to begin with. Slavery might have been a far more powerful force in our history and wars may have been more violent, enduring, and far-reaching.
How rare would this circumstance prove to be given a thorough census of the ETI in the Milky Way galaxy?
Next in line in my mind’s consideration is an ETI that developed on a planet in a multiple star system. One could easily insert here the popular notion that the Gray aliens derive from the Zeta Reticuli star system which resides some 39 light-years (or 12 parsecs) from our earthen sun. This association between the Grays and Zeta derives from the first widely-publicized, modern abduction experience of Betty and Barney Hill — specifically Betty in this instance — as told under hypnosis in the 1960s. In response to her insistence that the creatures tell her where they were from, one of them shows her a three-dimensional, apparently holographic star map mapping trade routes and occasional expeditions with bold and dotted lines. He then asked her where she was from in relation to the map, but she confessed she didn’t know. The creature’s response essentially was this: if you don’t know where you are, how could you possibly understand where I’m from?
Dr. Benjamin Simon gave Betty a posthypnotic suggestion that if she could remember the map accurately, she should draw it. And so she did, and later astronomer Marjorie Fish would make a total of 26 different 3-D models of our local galactic neighborhood in the attempts to find a 3-D pattern to match Betty’s drawn 2-D pattern. Eventually, she found but one pattern that matched, and that was the binary star system of Zeta Reticuli, residing in the constellation of Reticulum (“the net”) positioned in the geocentric southern hemisphere. The large, foreground stars connected by five straight lines on Betty’s map, according to Fish’s research, correspond to Zeta 1 and 2 Reticuli. And of the four straight lines sprouting out from Zeta-2 is our own sun.
Even if we accept the veracity of the map, we do not necessarily have to accept that it accurately depicts the origin of the abductors — it could have very well have been the map of a star system from which they have recently visited and from which they have abducted specimens such as herself. It was brought before her to communicate that she would be unable to wrap her puny, human mind around the answer to her question, after all, not to convey the answer to her. In any case, nuclear physicist and UFO researcher, lecturer and author Stanton Friedman has since made some interesting observations regarding her discovery.
He argues that the relatively close proximity of the star system to our own makes sense, as we should expect the creatures piloting the UFOs and engaging in the abductions to have more likely derived from a relatively nearby star system than some remote corner of our galaxy, and certainly from some other galaxy. “If my car were stolen near my home in Fredericton, New Brunswick,” he writes, “it wouldn’t make much sense to suggest that the thief might be any one of 6 billion Earthlings. It would appear to be much more likely that the thief was one of 725,000 New Brunswick residents or one of only 50,000 Frederictonians. The odds of finding the thief would be greatly enhanced.” If we narrow our search parameters on the likely residences of the UFO culprits, in other words, we find even without the testimony of Betty Hill that Zeta Reticuli should be an area of interest.
Is there any reason to think that this binary star system could host life, however? There is some reason to suspect this, as it turns out. They are the closest pair of “solar analogs” in our neighborhood, with Zeta-2 being the bigger, brighter, hotter of the two and the most similar to our sun. There is an ongoing debate regarding the age of these stars, however, which could be as young as two billion or as old as eight billion years. In other words, the prospect that life could have developed around any planets should they exist — judging from the amount of time life apparently took to develop on the earth — is more or less up in the air at the moment. In any case, it is possible that life on any planets there may have had a head start on us.
Though 39.17 light years away from us, the twins of Reticuli are a mere fraction of a light year distant from one another — far closer than our own closest stellar neighbor, Proxima Centauri, at 4.24 light years away. Light from one star in the binary system would take three weeks to reach its partner, which equals plenty of space for both stars to have their own planetary systems. No planet has yet been found around either of them as of yet, but evidence has been found for a disc of debris around Zeta 2 with asymmetry suggestive of a planet. Given such a satellite planet exists, bears the necessary ingredients and resides within the goldilocks zone around its star, our familiar ol’ conditions for life-as-we-know-it would be met.
Due to the close proximity of the stars of Zeta, however, on any planets around either of them the companion star would be visible
— even in the daytime, assuming the planets in question were not tidally locked — shining some 30 times brighter than geocentric Venus. In addition, the residents of a planet around any one of the stars would be able to directly observe not only the other planets around its own star, but planets around the other as well. A sufficiently advanced planetary civilization would be capable of detecting life on another in the binary system, perhaps before ever leaving their home planet. Friedman has also suggested that given the close proximity of the other star and any planets surrounding it, space travel would have developed far earlier than it has with respect to the human species and then underwent rapid acceleration. The most obvious target would be the closest neighboring star systems, among them our own.
The words of Stanton T. Friedman and the Zeta subject in general drifted into my mind when I finally heard the news from NASA that they had identified seven habitable worlds in a single star system. The news transcends his speculations, as the intimacy of planets in this situation is far more extreme than what we currently know of Zeta Reticuli, though it is roughly the same distance from earth.
Trappist-1a is an ultra-cool red dwarf star home to seven identified planets. Though two of the planets were found by the Belgian-operated Trappist telescope in Chile in 2015 or 2016 (hence the system’s name), NASA’s space-based Spitzer telescope, with the help of ground-based ones, were able to determine the existence of an additional five. These extrasolar planets were discovered and confirmed through a technique known as transit photometry. Transits are essentially eclipses. We find suggestion of a planet when it passes in front of its host star, creating a dip in brightness detectable by our telescopes. By means of this you can detect the size of a planet according to how big the dip is in the light. Each of the seven appear to be earth-sized, terrestrial planets.
In addition, three of them are in the goldilocks zone or habitable zone of the star — not too close that water boils; not so far that it freezes. This zone varies with respect to the type of star we’re dealing with, and it is far closer to this star than is the case with our own sun. All seven may also hold liquid water given the right conditions — among them a suitable atmosphere. NASA’s James Webb Telescope launches in 2018 and could teach us more about this system. Could detect chemical fingerprints of atmosphere and therefore add weight to the evidence of their habitability.
Another reason to suspect they are habitable are the implied tidal forces. The gravitational or tidal effects between the moon and the earth are currently considered to have been a vital factor in the development of earthly life, but the planets of Trappist-1a are so close to one another that the gravitational effects with toss their moons into interstellar space. At first this seems to diminish our hopes that life might have emerged there — until you consider the reason, as their interplanetary intimacy also means that they would have tidal effects on one another: no moons need apply. And if the planets are indeed tidally locked to their star much like the moon is with respect to earth they would have a near side that was searing hot and a really fucking frigid far side. They may have a goldilocks twilight-zone on the ring-like boundary sandwiched between, however, where life could perhaps flourish.
Now imagine that life, even microbial life, formed on just one planet in that system. As a consequence, life would be extremely likely to develop on any of the other planets in the system that had the capacity to nurture that development. Why? Panspermia. When an asteroid hits a planet it can shoot out material from that planet back out the way it came. This material achieves escape velocity and then either slams back down onto the originating planet, wanders in space forever or slams down into another planet. This is not mere swapping spit, either, but potential interplanetary insemination. Microbial life perhaps resided in the material blasted out into space and could survive the relatively short interplanetary journey, which is what makes the snug seven dwarves of Trappist-1 even more intriguing.
Life developing there would live beneath a dim star that would appear some ten times larger than our sun, neighboring planets swinging by appearing as large as Lady Luna. Friedman imagined that space travel would be incredibly more likely when an advancing planetary civilization had neighboring worlds so much closer, let alone worlds that might be habitable themselves.
If we were in this position, imagine what we would have done. What if Mars was closer to us than our own moon? How might that have altered the development of our species? We could imagine in this scenario that Mars had mere microbial life, but let’s go the extra mile and imagine a Martian species that developed alongside our own, only it was just a wee bit ahead of us, at least with respect to technology. We might still have seen them through our telescopes or picked up their radio transmissions. Perhaps the close proximity of Mars might have inspired the development of those technologies to occur even earlier. In any case, it might have been the early mid-1800s when we could detect life there. Some first-contact situation akin to that which was conceived by HG Wells his in War of the Worlds would be far more conceivable in this context.
Having answered the question of ETI so early in their development, first through detection, then contact and eventually conquering or collusion, a civilization around Trappist-1a would certainly be more apt to extend its extra-planetary exploration and engage in interstellar travel.
The Trappist star system is an estimated 500 million years old, however. Our own, Solar star system is a whopping 4.6 billion years old in comparison. Earth developed shortly thereafter (at 4.5 billion years ago) and yes, only a billion years passed before there was evidence of life (at around 3.5 billion years ago), but this only serves to emphasize the fact that Trappist 1a is at best an infant in comparison. Given our current understanding it is a stretch to consider that life would have had the required time to develop there, regardless of how fertile the conditions might otherwise be. And those conditions may not be otherwise so perfect, either, as red dwarves like Trappist 1a are thought to be unstable in their youth and the planets are so close to their star that they may be subject to radiation that would sterilize the planets — unless they had suitable atmospheres to protect them.
Red dwarves like Trappist 1a may may live up to four trillion years, however, so even if life has yet to develop there it has ample time to do so. And given we have surveyed just a small fraction of the sky, could it be that the apparent conditions of the Trappist-1 star system are not at all that unusual?