NASA Kepler Mission Astronomer Warns: "Extraterrestrial Contact Could End Life on Earth"


If technologically-advanced alien civilizations are indeed out there, would they be friendly explorers, or destroyers of worlds? According to prominent astrophysicist Lucianne Walkowicz, who works on NASA's Kepler mission, making contact could be catastrophic for the human race: "There's a possibility that if we actively message, with the intention of getting the attention of an intelligent civilization that the civilization we contact would not necessarily have our best interests in mind."

Now, thanks both to space-based projects like NASA's Kepler Mission, as well as research teams searching with Earth-bound telescopes (such as the one that recently discovered a planet orbiting our neighbor star, Proxima Centauri)," Walkowicz, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago who studies stellar magnetic activity and its influence on planetary habitability using data from NASA's Kepler Mission.

Walkowicz wrote in the Scientific American blog, “We know that the Galaxy is awash in planets. There are literally so many planets, in fact, that when you gaze into the night sky, each star is likely the sun of another world. By and large, these planets are worlds roughly the size of Earth-- a tantalizing hint that, while we have yet to find life elsewhere, the potential real estate abounds."

About the recently discover planet Proxima b orbiting our closest neighboring star, she writes: "We have an example of the kind of environment that might be typical: one lit mostly by soft, infrared light, but also zapped frequently by high energy radiation. Let me tell you: if you ever want to make a room full of Department of Defense employees laugh nervously, tell them the nearest life to Earth might be radiation-hardened aliens who have naturally evolved infrared heat vision."

The Kepler astronomer's favorite thought experiment is to "consider the implications of challenging planetary environments on our chances for recognizing— or communicating with— intelligent life beyond our own world. I imagine a universe filled with rocky planets around little red stars, and on days I'm feeling optimistic, I imagine the atmospheres of these worlds have survived. Global oceans protect surface life from the vagaries of stellar irradiation, and intelligent (even technologically advanced) life might be more akin to the dolphins of our own planet. What would the relationship of this underwater life be to the sky, and to its place in space?"


Walkowicz learned to love the dark stellar denizens of our galaxy, the red dwarfs, which became the topic of her PhD dissertation at University of Washington. 

Today, she works on NASA’s Kepler mission, studying starspots and the tempestuous tantrums of stellar flares to understand stellar magnetic fields. She is particularly interested in how the high energy radiation from stars influences the habitability of planets around alien suns. Lucianne is also a leader in the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, a new project that will scan the sky every night for 10 years to create a huge cosmic movie of our Universe.

"It could be something that ends life on Earth, Walkowitz concludes, "and it might be something that accelerates the ability to live quality lives on Earth. We have no way of knowing." But our current searches for intelligent life have pressed onward with only limited time and funding, searching for a relatively conscribed set of specific signals.

"While scientists are often loathe to say that we live in a special time," she observed, "in some sense we do: we stand at the dawn of knowing that the universe teems with worlds, but not yet knowing if we are alone. At this moment, we must be keenly cognizant of how far we have to go. Otherwise, our assumptions about the completeness of our search, the universality (or not) of the values we hold, and our inability to communicate even with species we share the same swimming space with, will blind us to the possibilities— and limitations— of what we might come to know about life in the universe."

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