Thanks to the recent privatization of space travel, Earth’s space age has renewed with gusto in the 21st century. In the United States specifically, the doors once gatekept by NASA are wide open, and an influx of new astronomers and scientists now ply their trade, answering questions about what’s outside our earthly orbit.
Aside from perfecting reusable rockets and transitioning NASA into more of a regulatory body over US-based star travel, scientists’ big focus is on finding other planets or species which may exist outside of our own — and this summer, they published a shocking study. But is there any truth to their findings, and if so, how will they affect our knowledge of the universe?
In the midst of a wild and crazy June in 2020, two scientists, Tom Westby and Christopher J. Conselice, published a paper in the Astrophysical Journal that completely rocked the astronomy world, let alone the entire planet.
Their study, titled “The Astrobiological Copernican Weak and Strong Limits for Intelligent Life,” was a discussion of how to properly calculate how many intelligent civilizations were floating around in the Milky Way galaxy.
Through a variety of different calculations, Westby and Conselice arrived at a number that they believe is the most likely number of intelligent, communicating civilizations of life, besides our own, that should exist.
The answer? Thirty-six. As is often the case, the internet got wind of this conjecture and ran with it. How many alien civilizations?! Well, gee, let’s send some ships out there and talk to them! Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple.
It’d be great if 36 alien societies did exist, and we could go take extraterrestrial vacations, but that number 36 was only the most probable number out of a range of numbers Westby and Conselice came up with.
That’s OK!, you may say. That still means there are definitely aliens out there for sure, right? Again, it’s a nice thought, but not so fast. If we crack open the study, we find out some pretty unfortunate news.
Despite the possibilities seemingly opened up here, there’s one big problem. Westby and Conselice’s findings are more of a hypothesis than a conclusion. Their results are an educated guess, based on a method other scientists developed for guessing.
That method of guessing is called the Drake equation. Far from being an actual mathematical equation, it’s more of an argument, based on probability, for estimating how many intelligent civilizations there may be in the Milky Way.
Canadian Space Agency
This argument was written in 1961 by Dr. Frank Drake as a way to open up a dialogue among scientists about all the factors they’d need to consider for intelligent life to be possible on a planet.
Drake’s equation, which is too long to reproduce here, essentially says that the number of communicating civilizations in our galaxy is the product of the average rate of star formation in our galaxy…
…multiplied by the fraction of those stars that may have life-supporting planets…multiplied by the percentage of maybe-life-supporting planets that could actually develop life at some point…multiplied by a few other “maybe” factors.
So, with this equation — or, we should really say, supposition — as its basis, Westby and Conselice’s study already had some pretty tenuous beginnings. However, that wasn’t the only shaky part of its foundation.
The authors also based their math on a few major assumptions — which aren’t backed up with quantitative or concrete evidence, outside of humanity’s singular knowledge of our own intelligent planet.
The main assumption Westby and Conselice made was that since our current civilization only occurred after Earth had been around for what scientists believe is 5 billion years, that must also be the case for native life on all other Milky Way planets.
Westby and Conselice also made other assumptions, which they called the Strong Condition and the Weak Condition. The Strong Condition assumes “intelligent life must form between 4.5 billion and 5.5 billion years after an Earth-like planet forms in an Earth-like orbit around a Sun-like star.”
Meanwhile, the Weak Condition proposes that a planet born under the same conditions as Earth will, once 5 billion years have passed, always develop communicating intelligent life that lasts for at least a century. Again, these are assumptions around which they based their entire study.
There’s also major uncertainty in Westby and Conselice’s numbers. Under the Strong Condition, they are 68% confident that right now, between 4 and 211 alien civilizations exist in our galaxy, which is a pretty wide range to throw out there.
And when they run their math again under the assumption of the Weak Condition, they are 68% confident that anywhere between 110 and 2908 alien civilizations exist. That range is so large that they don’t even consider zero civilizations to be possible, and zero is always a possibility!
So, in reality, are there actually 36 other intelligent civilizations in the Milky Way? Until we find evidence proving their existence, the answer is no. That number 36 is only a guess, pulled out of the air by some very wonky projections.
Forbes contributor, astrophysicist Ethan Siegel, said about the study: “The only problems [with studies like these] are that our conclusions are only as good as our assumptions, which we have no reason to believe are very good.” Still, NASA is used to studying assumptions.
We know NASA best for launching astronauts and satellites into orbit. So would it surprise you to learn that a team of their scientists is studying models of a apocolyptic New York City? This is no side project, either; they’re deadly serious.
The man behind this peculiar mission is Lindley Johnson. A 23-year veteran of the Air Force, he joined NASA’s ranks in 2003. Ever since, his mind has mostly been fixated on the end of the world.
But don’t worry — Lindley is no crackpot. He’s not urging on the apocalypse, but rather approaching it from an analytical standpoint. Lindley serves as NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer, so nobody is better equipped to take on doomsday than he.
While humanity does a pretty good job of endangering itself on a daily basis, Lindley doesn’t worry about terrestrial threats. He’s more concerned with space rocks. Granted, most meteorites that come down to Earth are pretty small, or even microscopic.
However, what if an asteroid — say, one that is multiple football fields in diameter — was hurtling toward our planet? Odds are pretty good that it would land in the middle of the ocean, but Lindley wants more than luck on his side.
That’s why his NASA team investigates (hypothetical) cases of giant asteroids hitting densely urban areas. Thousands of years typically pass between such catastrophic events, but Lindley intends to be ready at any point.
After all, Earth’s geography proves just how destructive a collision can be. NASA certainly doesn’t wish to see Midtown Manhattan turned into a crater, but they are interested in exactly how far that damage would spread.
Route 66 Tours
Lindley’s team continually runs simulations to get a better idea of where asteroids are most likely to strike, plus what kind of damage we can expect. In some cases, a collision may be inevitable. But Earth isn’t totally helpless.
For years, Lindley and his colleagues were operating on a shoestring budget. Fortunately, a 2015 audit convinced Congress just how essential planetary defense could be. They immediately buffed up Lindley’s annual spending power from $5 million to $50 million.
Los Angeles Times
With more resources on his side than he ever imagined, Lindley has led the charge against galactic peril. His NASA team assembled an arsenal of data and cutting-edge technology to keep asteroids at bay.
NASA keeps this fact on the down-low, but they’ve cataloged over 2,000 asteroids in our solar system capable of obliterating an entire continent. Blowing up such a massive rock might cause too much fallout, so Lindley has other tricks up his sleeve.
The most promising method to redirect an asteroid is through the use of kinetic impactors. These unmanned spacecraft would crash into an asteroid at high speed, thus deflecting it away from our planet. Think of it as a game of high-stakes billiards.
With all due respect to fans of Armageddon, Lindley doesn’t believe that landing on an asteroid would be the most effective solution. Still, NASA hasn’t taken that option off the table.
Astronauts have trained for complex asteroid landings, though nobody has ever attempted the feat. NASA foresees this operation more as a way to collect mineral samples, but there’s always the chance they’ll go full Michael Bay in an emergency.
NASA has a selection of hypothetical fixes to choose from, though they’re also ramping up their asteroid prevention in more concrete ways. For instance, they’ve installed more orbital telescopes to monitor any life-threatening space rocks in the solar system.
The capability to spot catastrophe coming could be the most important factor in the end. Most deflection techniques require months or years to mobilize, so a few days notice won’t help at all. The good news is that NASA isn’t alone in this fight.
Lindley’s team ran exercises with FEMA — the Federal Emergency Management Agency — to prepare for collateral damage from a collision. “They are a great way for us to learn how to work together and meet each other’s needs,” Lindley explained.
Twitter / Buzzfeed News
In 2019, Lindley also organized a conference with the European Space Agency and the International Asteroid Warning Network. Working together, they’ll have eyes on the sky all over the world.
While it seems unlikely that we’ll have to deal with an impending apocalypse, civilization is better prepared than ever. That news will only disappoint doomsday preppers, who may very well have stocked up their bunkers for nothing.
In spite of the life-or-death consequences of his job, Lindley says he sleeps just fine at night. It’s just another day at NASA. Besides, Lindley can name plenty of colleagues who have responsibilities that might be even more trying than his own.
Lindley likely couldn’t handle George Aldrich’s job. When George’s teacher told him to “shoot for the stars” as a child, he took that advice pretty literally. Fast forward several decades, and he’s caught way more than just a whiff of success at NASA.
Reddit / inverse
Growing up in New Mexico, George watched his dad fly up the Navy ranks and join the coveted Blue Angels. He always dreamed of reaching such soaring heights, and so he looked for a heroic job as soon as he finished high school.
George started a bit smaller. He volunteered for the local fire department, and his recent chemistry and mathematics experience piqued the interest of the chief. He signed up George for a special task on the force.
While he didn’t extinguish many infernos, George stood out on the department’s odor panel. By training his sense of smell, he could sense problems like gas leaks before they had a chance to ignite. Soon, George realized he was meant for bigger and better things.
In 1974, his chief recommended that George take his talents to the next level. NASA had a firm presence in the area, so perhaps, George figured, he could secure a position there. At the same time, not just anybody could waltz in and apply to be an astronaut.
After the Apollo 1 disaster — in which a technical function aboard a shuttle killed all three crew members aboard — NASA was taking safety seriously. They needed staff who could prevent disasters most people would never see coming.
After sending in his application, George had to take a strenuous exam to see if he was made of the right stuff. Hours later, he set his pencil down and headed home, waiting for a phone call that would make or break his dreams.
Then the good news came in: NASA told George to report to the White Sands Test Facility immediately, where he would begin his new role as a Chemical Specialist. But what exactly did that mean?
Well, if you asked George about his job, he would describe himself as a “Nasalnaut” or the “Chief Sniffer.” That’s because his real responsibilities boil down to smelling anything that NASA sends into space.
Odd as it sounds, George’s role makes sense. Astronauts go into space for long periods of time, stuck in close quarters, breathing in recirculated air. The last thing command wants is any harmful odors or substances traveling along with them, smelling up the shuttle.
NASA / Don Pettit
That’s precisely where George and his team come in. They personally inspect the smell of every piece of cargo and gear to make sure everything is ship-shape. Of course, nobody has been sniffing for longer than George.
He holds the NASA record for the most official sniffs, with his number approaching one thousand. Naturally, George’s system is more nuanced than just judging a scent as good or bad.
The odor panel blindly scrutinizes each object, so their everyday conceptions about the items won’t cloud their judgment. From there, the sniffers rank everything on a scale from 0-4. If something scores higher than 2.5, they suggest leaving it on Earth.
Between tests, George might cleanse his palate, so to speak, using a trick developed by perfumers. He simply resets his nostrils by smelling the back of his own hand, which is sometimes called “going home.” And his work has likely saved lives.
A manned space mission involves so many complex chemical reactions, that NASA cannot risk any toxic materials sneaking aboard. The astronauts themselves may not be able to detect it, so they require an expert nose to do it for them — and more.
Much of the time, the most problematic materials aren’t what you would expect. George has found that old-fashioned camera film, for example, can be surprisingly toxic. Meanwhile, other items can just get downright disgusting.
Something as basic as velcro can stink up an entire space shuttle. George once determined that while separate velcro straps have no real odor, together they can produce an unbearably pungent smell. But not every scent can be swept away.
George says that when it comes down to it, humans really stink, and there’s not much NASA can do about it. Because of basic functions like sweating and going to the bathroom, astronauts need to learn to live with a little odor.
After 44 years, George is still going strong. He estimates that he’s only ever missed two tests — due to sickness — over his entire career. You could say he wrote the book on odor testing, and he’s definitely smelled that book as well.