ET is coming to your living room in "Extraterrestrial," and no one is being abducted. Over the past several months, a top-notch group of American and British scientists teamed up with Blue Wave Productions, Ltd. (for the National Geographic) to imagine what ET is like on other worlds. It's all based upon our scientific understanding of life, stars and planetary systems. When filmed, Dr. Michael Meyer was NASA's astrobiology program scientist, and now serves as NASA Headquarters Mars Program Scientist; Dr. Seth Shostak is a senior astronomer here at the SETI Institute; Dr. Chris McKay is a leading Mars researcher at NASA Ames Research Center, Dr. Laurance Doyle conducts research on animal communication, and planetary systems around binary stars at SETI Institute and is the lead scientists at PlanetQuest, Inc. a new non-profit that will engage the public in finding extrasolar planets. Dr. Simon Conway Morris is a world-leader in evolutionary biology at Cambridge University in England....and the list goes on. These are serious and accomplished scientists--legitimate guys applying everything they know about stars, planetary systems, planetary evolution, and most especially, the evolution of life, to speculate on what life might be like on other worlds.
In a word, the outcome is WILD!
It's science meets science fiction. Scientists are often accused of being too conservative in their predictions about the future, but in this case, these guys expand our understanding of what life might be like on alien worlds. It's not just another simple variation on bilaterally symmetrical humanoids. The questions these scientists ask about life on alien worlds are at the core of the cross-disciplinary science astrobiology, which seeks to understand life here on Earth and to seek life elsewhere in the universe.
"Extraterrestrial" explores worlds that would have been promptly discarded by planetary scientists as unsuitable for life a decade ago. Before the discovery of gas giants orbiting their stars in just a few days, astronomers had concentrated on looking for planetary systems like our own. Systems that featured nice middle-sized, middle-aged stars like the Sun. The cooler stars like red dwarfs and the double stars that about comprise half the stars in the galaxy were thought unsuitable for stable planetary systems. Astronomers are rethinking those judgements.
It's all changed with the discovery of more than 150 planets in orbit about nearby stars. Most of these systems are not anything like ours. Solar system theorists went back to square one, and are busy rebuilding their models to explain the great diversity of planetary systems observed. New theories of planetary system formation and evolution are in the works. But, I'm getting too serious. "Extraterrestrial" is fun television taking on serious science.
"Extraterrestrial" considers life in wild places. First, there's Aurelia, a hot-and cold world that is tidally locked to a red-dwarf sun that forever shines on one side of the planet. The dark side is shrouded in perpetual ice. Such a planet would be a challenging place to live, but scientists think that extraterrestrial life may actually exist in the comfort zone between all sun and all ice--not too hot, not too cold--on such planets. Aurelia's creatures are based upon our knowledge of life, natural selection, stars and planets. Yep, there's predators and prey. I won't spoil the fun and fantasy by describing them, except to say that they have nothing in common with the "grays" that populate modern UFO myths.
"Blue Moon" is the second ET stop over, and it's more amazing. It orbits a giant ringed world that reminds me of Saturn, and in the distance its twin suns shine brightly. Consider the sorts of creatures could fly in a much denser atmosphere. Imagine an ocean of air, and you're starting to get the picture. Again, I won't spoil the fun.
As humans, we're on the leading edge of scientific research and exploration that will discover many more planets and planetary systems over the next few years. Within the decade, the Kepler Discovery Mission should find hundreds of Earth-size planets in habitable zones by observing them as they transit across the faces of their suns. Larger missions are in planning-- the Space Interferometry Mission (SIM), the Terrestrial Planet Finders (TPF-I and TPF-C), and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)--to seek nearby worlds and analyze their atmospheres for indications of life. We already know that planets are plentiful, but is life? We may know the answer in our lifetimes.
"Extraterrestrial" offers an imaginative trip into the future. Don't miss your chance to visit alien worlds from the comfort of your living room couch. "Extraterrestrial" is on the National Geographic Channel Monday, May 30 and Thursday, June 2. Check your local listings, or go to "Extraterrestrial" on the National Geographic web site: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/channel/extraterrestrial/