|A Hubble photo of interacting galaxies from NASA.gov.
As one looks at the endless fog of stars dotting our galaxy and countless other galaxies, it’s easy to believe that there must be other planets like ours out there. But is a planet like ours astonishingly rare, one that is similar in size and in a reasonable location relative to the star it orbits (not too far or too close), or are there just a handful of lucky candidates out there where we might have hope of finding life some day?
I was excited to see this headline at the BYU news section of BYU’s website this week: “How many Earth-like planets exist in the universe?” Wonderfully, based on a new highly technical study just published by a team of scientists from Penn State with BYU’s own Keir Ashby (Dept. of Physics and Astronomy), the answer has gone from “maybe a handful” to roughly 2.48 zillion. OK, that’s my estimate, based on the actual finding that as many as 10% of stars roughly similar to our sun may have planets roughly similar to ours in terms of having a suitable size for life and suitable distance from their sun. See “Occurrence Rates of Planets orbiting FGK Stars: Combining Kepler DR25, Gaia DR2 and Bayesian Inference” by Danley C. Hsu et al., published July 9, 2019 at https://arxiv.org/pdf/1902.01417.pdf:
For planets with sizes 0.75−1.5 R⊕and orbital periods of 237-500 days, we find a rate of planets per FGK star of <0.27 (84.13th percentile). While the true rate of such planets could be lower by a factor of ∼2 (primarily due to potential contamination of planet candidates by false alarms), the upper limits on the occurrence rate of such planets are robust to ∼10%.
An FGK star, by the way, refers to stars of type F, G, or K, which I think are the classes believed to be suitable for sustaining a planet with life like ours (see “Stellar Classification” at Wikipedia).
In other words, the galaxy and presumably the universe may be teaming
with planets where life could exist. Surely we are not alone. But wait, what about the Fermi Paradox? If there are so many opportunities for life to exist all over the galaxy, why haven’t we heard a single peep from any other intelligent civilization from elsewhere in space? Surely there has been time for advanced civilizations to rise and spread throughout the galaxy — how can there be such silence? A good discussion of this problem is offered by Seth Shostak for NBC News in “If space aliens are out there, why haven’t we found them?” Some attempts at resolving the conundrum are found in the optimistic article, “Why Haven’t We Heard From All The Aliens? Because They’re All Dead!” at UniverseToday.com, which gently tries to remind us what an improbable miracle, or rather, coincidence, our planet is (cautiously avoiding, of course, any hint of intelligence in its remarkably ideal design). The suggestion is made that life might have evolved elsewhere, but rather than “life happened,” it was soon “death happened” due to all the radical changes that can happen in climate, radiation, orbit, etc. Life is fragile, incredibly fragile, and it’s one really awesome, gargantuan coincidence that all the right conditions just kept on happening one after another to keep this planet so ideal for life. So why haven’t we heard from others in the galaxy?
The only possible explanations for this are that either life is far more
rare than we think, or that we aren’t looking in the right places
But there’s another possible explanation, while you’re addressing all possible explanations. I think the perspective that our religion provides, coupled with cosmological speculation, may offer an interesting hypothesis. The unmentionable possibility here is that there is an intelligent species that pervades the cosmos, but chooses to let us live and be tested here on our own. If God is in charge and has many planets of His sons and daughters elsewhere, He may arrange for these planets of mortals to be in relative isolation from each other, and may ask that those who have moved past mortality (e.g., as resurrected beings) leave the mortals alone (with a few angelic exceptions) to protect our agency and keep conditions favorable for His purposes. The cosmos may be teaming with beings like us who are either in their mortal phase or have graduated (resurrected) into their eternal phases, and in both cases, alien contact with the primitives may be prevented.
Now that we can see a mind-boggling large number of planets may have conditions that could support life, I hope that all those opportunities aren’t going to waste, and like the thought that there may be innumerable sites across the heavens where God’s work and glory involving intelligent beings is taking place. I’m willing to bet that cosmos is rich with life with incredible, endless communities of knowledge, love, and wisdom waiting for us to join in their joy and excitement in the eternities ahead, all organized and subservient to the God of Gods and Lord of Lords, our Father and Creator.
In the Book of Moses, chapter 1, Moses saw that there are numerous planets with sons and daughters of God, but was told he would only be given information about our home here. God chooses to keep them veiled from us for now and perhaps visa versa. But how wonderful it will be when the restrictions are lifted one day and we can connect and learn from others who have been through related mortal journeys. The scriptures give us such wonderful things to look forward to, especially when combined with our minuscule but growing knowledge of just what a fabulous cosmos we are part of.