The Great Encounter

What would it mean for humanity to find life on another planet?

“That,” answered the Princess “is the tamate-bako, and it contains something very precious. You must not open this box, whatever happens! If you open it something dreadful will happen to you! Now promise me that you will never open this box!…”

“…And Urashima promised that he would never, never open the box whatever happened.” — [Selected Stories of Yei Theodora Ozaki — A Japanese Fairy Tale]

From the headquarters of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in Tokyo, Japan, Makoto Yoshikawa commands the Hayabusa2 spacecraft, part of a six-year asteroid sample-return mission targeting an asteroid previously known as 1999 JU3, later named Ryugu by a selection committee.

“This is this is part of why we explore — to see the unexpected and to go ahead and forge ahead and do what we plan to do, return a sample.” — Deborah Domingue,

The craft carries with it multiple payloads for remote sensing, sampling, and several small rovers that are meant to investigate the asteroid’s surface. Two of said rovers, bouncing probes, had already been successfully deployed in October of 2018. The next major phase of the mission is to have the Hayabusa2 craft descend onto the very surface of the asteroid in January of 2019 to collect a sample, a sample that is then scheduled to return to earth sometime in 2020.

“The pictures look as if they are taken flying somewhere above the desert, but these are actually over a small asteroid 300 million km away.” Makoto Yoshikawa, [mission manager]

This is all being done to study the surface and the composition of the Ryugu asteroid; the name for which translates into Dragon Palace, a magical underwater palace as depicted in a Japanese folktale. In the tale, fisherman Urashima Tarō travels to the palace on the back of a turtle, and when he returns, he carries with him a mysterious box that he is told not to open. Upon opening it, a whiff of smoke rapidly ages him and he dies instantly.

It seems quite ominous to transcribe such a tale onto a current mission involving a return sample from an asteroid, to affix such cultural meaning towards a cosmic exploration effort, but it illustrates the seemingly metaphysical reverence shared by Japan in the way they’re pioneering through the black waters of the cosmos.

Japan’s not alone in their endeavours. China has only weeks ago landed a rover onto the dark side of the moon, and Russia has been crash-landing probes onto Venus since the mid-1960s. Currently, NASA has two probes, Insight and Curiosity, roving and digging the surface of Mars.

We as humans have seen 14 probes sent to the red planet throughout our history, and a total of 15 to Venus, which had mostly lasted about an hour or two before losing transmission. With countless other projects in the works, it’s clear to see humanity’s relentless vehemence to explore the farthest reachable corners of space.

“The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever.” — Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

While assessing soil properties or atmospheric pressures, there’s always the underlying hope that a probe will one day come across hints of ancient life while it sifts through other-worldly organic molecular compounds. It can be said that this is part of the crux in our cosmic endeavours, side by side with aspirations to understand our own origin.

It seems increasingly likely that we’ll one day find some hint of life. In 2012, NASA confirmed that water had once existed on Mars, an ancient seabed that suggested a vigorous flow of water running at over 3km/hr and measuring up to a few feet in depth.

“From the size of gravels it carried, we can interpret the water was moving about 3 feet per second, with a depth somewhere between ankle and hip deep,” — William Dietrich

In 2018, Italian researchers discovered what currently appears to be a 20-kilometre wide lake under a layer of Martian ice, stoking the fires of our exploration for hints of ancient or current microbial life.

What responsibilities do we have to extraterrestrial life?

Assuming we find evidence of life, no matter how simplistic or rudimentary it may be, it would mean something tremendous. If this life is eerily similar to our own, it may begin to validate the theory of panspermia — whereby life is merely distributed around the universe and we are but an obscure dandelion that grew out of an even more obscure seed that had sailed through galactic pastures. Or, possibly, that we as a mere dandelion seed had been planted and are being propagated.

On the other hand, if the biology of the organisms we discover is completely different in unimaginably complex ways, then it opens a treasure trove of other hypotheses that entail just as awe-inspiring ramifications.

In other words, to find living organisms off of the earth will be a monumental event for the human epoch to absorb.

Difficult to comprehend

The reverberation from such a discovery will undoubtedly penetrate various social and spiritual structures, ideologies and institutions, shaking them to their very core.

Traditional earthly religious belief will be questioned and may begin to affirm its collapse from the inside. Take, for instance, religions that deify animals or natural sites (i.e. sacred temples) or natural events (i.e. solstices) around the world; the exclusivity of a species or an area may be undermined by the stark realization that there really are other worlds out there, with more forms of life — that our circumstances are not so special after all, that the full meaning of life as we know it is not solely confined to the fundamental context of Earth’s biosphere.

Alternatively, we may experience the widening of any current gaps between new age and traditional religious structures, with conventional religious structures disregarding any discoveries of alien life as it may not fit with a particular dogma. Simultaneously, new age movements may be more than happy to adopt any such discovery as a novel crux to their respective movement. For instance, many believe that humanity originates from the stars, from Pleiades or Sirius, or that humankind had been propagated by cosmic travellers.

Perceptually, confirming alien life would reinforce the continuous zooming-out of humankind. From our heliocentric belief that Earth had been the centre of the solar system, to our understanding that Earth seems to be but an inconspicuous rock hurdling through space at 67,000 miles per hour.

Various forms of spirituality may experience a renaissance, or more than likely, an emergence. While we’re witnessing a sharp rise in atheism (16% of Americans in 2007 compared to 23% in 2013), we’re also seeing a drastic increase in new age spirituality, whereby people identify as spiritual but not religious (19% in 2012 to 27% in 2017). Subsequently, the discovery of other-worldly life may prove an existential point for atheists while simultaneously inspiring a new wave of spiritual belief, whereby theories of a universal energy, cosmic connection, or transcendent consciousness may develop or continue to develop. There will exist some form of reverence for realizing that we are part the cosmic breath of life, the affirmation that we are not alone.

“The whole history of science has been the gradual realization that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect a certain underlying order, which may or may not be divinely inspired” — Stephen Hawking

Socially, such a discovery may garnish a large-scale interest in the sciences, orienting new sets of generations towards the skies, as will be necessary given the future of scientific endeavours in space. There will be a reorientation of our fierce curiosity, a collective endeavour to understand who we are and what part we share in the organization of the universe. From an industrial standpoint, it would be mighty convenient for the future space industry to awaken such a fervent inspiration among future generations.

Psychologically, our collective sense of self-origination would take on a dramatic new form. It would no longer be comprised of an idea that we evolved from bacteria that wandered out of the primordial soup of Earth, but rather, an idea that our elemental ancestors originated from the farthest reaches of our solar system, possibly our galaxy or maybe even beyond. This is, of course, assuming the panspermia theory of origination.

Regardless, we would no longer feel a sense of existential isolation. Though many of us may currently believe that we’re not alone, that we’re not just some lucky organism covering a marble suspended in the darkness of space, we would come to know for sure that there is another life out there. Psychologically, this would entail a tremendous collective transformation in terms of our perception of the universe. It would be a paradigm shift like no other.

Alternatively, we may learn that life is is much more capable and much more likely to propagate than we first thought. That we are not so special, and by far not the centre of the universe. Virtually, would go from being the only fish in the only pond to a mere minnow in an ocean full of countless species that we don’t even know are out there, but we know they’re out there. Though we may already assume this, the confirmation will be felt with a deep impact.

Bringing the focus back to earth, to what extent will earthly history — say, ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia — be cast aside in favour of searching externally upwards and outwards rather than inwards and downwards. In another way to put it, dinosaur bones and scripture may not be as interesting to us anymore as part of this existential shift in our self-identity.

When Carl Sagan gave a lecture underscoring his reflections on the Pale Blue Dot, a record photograph of Earth from 6 billion kilometres away, he had this to say:

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

The takeaway

Whether or not we find life is not necessarily up to us — we’re searching, and will continue to search; what we’ll find is anyone’s guess. Assuming we do cross that threshold, whether or not this life will resemble ours or be drastically different is also something we cannot control. But, what is up to us and what remains in the sphere of our control is how we choose to absorb this potential discovery on our horizon.

“Slowly, very slowly, he untied the red silk cord, slowly and wonderingly he lifted the lid of the precious box. And what did he find? Strange to say only a beautiful little purple cloud rose out of the box in three soft wisps. For an instant it covered his face and wavered over him as if loath to go, and then it floated away like vapor over the sea.” — [Selected Stories of Yei Theodora Ozaki — A Japanese Fairy Tale]

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