Astronomy Photos ByAcian


Finding Aliens

59 紙皮


Ancient people were fascinated by the dark sky, most of them wanted to understand the meaning or the mystery of the universe. Apart from that, they also wanted to find other lives which were similar to human. “What is it like out there?”, asked the ancient people when they looked at the starry sky. It was perhaps a simple question like such that ignited the very first desire for astronomical research in the human history. Among various subtopics like the form of existence of the universe, the possibly surviving outer space creatures have also been grabbing much attention. Specialised studies on such a topic using scientific approaches are known among astronomers as Search of Extra-Terrestrial Intelliengece (SETI).

Drake Equation

In 1960, a young radio astronomer Frank Drake performed the first SETI experiment. He conducted the world’s first microwave radio search, aiming for receiving signals from other planetary systems. Drake used an 85-feet West Virginia antenna to point to the direction of stars Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani, which are in the constellations Cetus (Whale) and Eridanus (River) respectively. These two stars were chosen because they were relatively close to the Sun. Although he was not able to detect any reply, this experiment still aroused others’ interest among the astronomical community. This experiment was later named “Drake’s Project Ozma”.

Figure 1:  The antenna used in the first SETI experiment, pointing to the direction of stars Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani

In 1961, Drake asked, “what do we need to know about to discover life in space?” This question helped him to set the “Drake equation”. According to the web page of SETI Institute, the annotations of the unknowns in the equation are as below.
N = The number of civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy whose electromagnetic emissions are detectable
R∗ = The rate of formation of stars suitable for the development of intelligent life
fp = The fraction of those stars with planetary systems
ne = The number of planets, per solar system, with an environment suitable for life
fl = The fraction of suitable planets on which life actually appears
fi = The fraction of life bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges
fc = The fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L = The length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space

Figure 2: Drake Equation

Applying the equation given the estimated parameters, we could roughly get the estimation of the number of intelligent lives. Due to limitations in technology, the value N might not be as reliable as at that time, N was estimated to be 50000! However, the equation undoubtedly involves many factors which are difficult to be measured precisely. For instance, the first three variables might be affected by different research in astronomy, organic chemistry and evolutionary biology. Also, the latter variables related to the lifespan of civilization involve many uncertainties, such as the extent on economic, political and even social developments within the civilization. Although this equation consists of many uncertain factors and the estimation of number N is not rigorous, which might be very small, astronomers still believe that extra-terrestrial lives exist in outer space.

If N is as large as 50000 aforementioned, why can we not detect any signal from aliens? Some arguments describing this question were suggested If the Drake equation is true, the Earth should have already been visited by extra-terrestrial aliens. Two main hypotheses trying to explain this the question: Intelligent extra-terrestrial life is extremely rare and those civilizations have not contacted or visited the Earth.

Intelligent extra-terrestrial life is extremely rare

Biological evolution is rare or even unique to Earth. No other intelligence or life can be formed in other planets. The biological evolution requires different factors, such as whether a planetary system has those certain properties. For instance, if a right sized terrestrial planet exists in a circumstellar habitable zone,  simple life might evolve. Although it is possible that complex life is evolved from simple life, the probability of successful evolution to complexity is extremely low. Even if they are intelligent, they may not have advanced technologies to communicate with human beings.Along with non-intelligent life, those civilizations are therefore difficult for us to detect. Moreover, in extreme cases, if their technology is advanced, it is the nature of intelligence to destroy themselves or others, by using their technology to harm themselves or others. They might have declared wars, contaminated the environment or even created poor artificial intelligence to destroy the planets. Also, new life, no matter it is intelligent or not, will normally die out in the course of time. The species may die out due to the dynamic and varying planetary environments They may suffer from their planet’s catastrophes such as massive volcanic eruption or astronomical disaster like gamma-ray burst. The above arguments could possibly explain the reasons why no signal are received so far.

Intelligent civilizations have not contacted or visited the Earth

The other way to resolve the Fermi paradox is by stating that ET intelligence does exist but they have never contacted or visited us. Star may be too far away for meaningful two-way communication to be made. Right now, the furthest signal sent by the human has only travelled 50 light-years and no reply is received yet. This may imply that two intelligent civilizations are too far away that our signals have not reached them or they have not sent their reply. If the two civilizations are that far, say several thousand light years, the human might be possible to detect their existence but it might be less possible to communicate with them because of the far distance. A renowned speculation by astronomers Sagan and Newman suggests that if other civilizations exist, and keep transmitting signals to explore other civilizations, their signals and probes simply have not arrived yet. Another possible reason is that transmitting signals throughout the galaxy physically maybe very expensive. The recent scientific knowledge (special relativity) tells us that nothing can be accelerated beyond the speed of light in vacuum. The cost of materials and energy for interstellar ventures may be so high that it is unlikely to be affordable to any civilization. Even if their technology is feasible for communication, other civilizations may only receive but not understand the signal. Receiving the signal is easy but the solving the riddles it carries is difficult. Apart from that, “What should we say?”, “Who is going to speak for the Earth?” would be the most concerned. Because of these, consultations on different countries and transmission among different planets take time and a civilization may just become extinct in the process. Due to these factors, intelligent civilizations might not contact or visit the Earth.


Although astronomers currently have not detected any signals from aliens yet, their studies will continue. In fact, we have done some experiments on searching aliens. The electromagnetic waves to search for signals is mainly used in some famous experiments including sending Arecibo Message and directly observing the planet. A careful search for non-natural radio emissions from space may allow us to detect possible alien civilizations successfully. In the future, we might detect some “useful” signals and aliens might actually be in contact with us.

1.Drake, F. (1961). The Drake Equation. Retrieved from
2.Ward, P. D.; Brownlee, D. (2000). Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe (1st ed.). Springer
3.Webb, S. (2015). If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens ... WHERE IS EVERYBODY? Springer
4.Zaitzev, A. (2006). The SETI Paradox. Retrieved from



59 Matthew




關於火星的適居性,科學家普遍認為太陽系中有一個適合生命生存的範圍,稱為適居帶。而被納入這範圍的條件包括它能否保存液態水、它的表面溫度等。一直以來,科學家不斷嘗試界定適居帶的範圍,邁克爾·H·哈特(Michael H. Hart)1978年認為適居帶的內邊緣距離太陽0.95AU(1),外邊緣是1.01AU。其後在1992年,詹姆斯·坎斯特(James Kasting)得出不同的結果:他把內邊緣定在距離太陽0.850.95 AU之間,而外邊緣則定在1.371.67 AU之間。在內邊緣以內,行星中的液態水會因高溫而蒸發;相反在外邊緣以外,低溫把行星表面的水凝結成冰層,令生物缺乏液水的供應。


圖一是科學家認為的太陽系適居帶。火星距離太陽大概有1.5 AU,是位處適居帶的外邊緣,理論上只是僅僅有存在生命的可能,因此有關火星適不適合生命生存其實仍有爭議。大氣層在孕育生命上擔當了一個重要角色,它能形成溫室效應,將來自太陽的熱力保存,這些熱力會轉化成為能量供給生命和讓水能保持在液態,為生命提供液態水。然而,火星的大氣層極其稀薄,原因是火星的體積太小,引力不夠,以及缺少了磁場(有科學家指是39億年前受巨型小行星撞擊,破壞了火星產生磁場的鐵芯的熱流),所以不能阻止空氣被剝離到太空當中。但這又是否代表火星不適合生命居住呢?卻又未必。因為在擁有液態水及微薄大氣層的環境裏,微生物仍然有機會生存。況且,這適居帶的範圍並不是永遠保持不變的,它會隨著太陽的變化而移動。在往後的日子裡,太陽會變得更熱且更快地燒掉它餘下的氫供給,每11億年就會光亮10%,而且其體積會變得越來越大,適居帶因此而外移,火星亦會變得更適合生命居住。


早於17世紀,荷蘭天文學家克里斯蒂安·惠更斯(Christiaan Huygens)撰寫了一本名為《Cosmotheoros》的著作,他認為宇宙中充滿著外星生命,亦指出了一些其他星球存在外星生物的要素,例如必須要有液態水,而且水在不同星球會有不同的性質,以保持液態。但這似乎都只是他的猜想,因為他並無提出任何不同星球的水的具體性質。而他在火星的表面上觀測到陰影和亮點,都是他認為火星有水並且存有生物的證據。他又嘗試從宗教角度推論,認為既然上帝創造其他行星的原因就是為了孕育生命,而且外星生命沒被聖經否認,所以猜測其他星球有生命的存在。他的理論在當時是屬於異數。
18世紀,英國天文學家威廉·赫歇爾(Frederick William Herschel)對火星做了一些研究,再與地球作比較。他發現火星無論是一日的長度、旋轉軸傾斜的角度,以及擁有季節變化這些特徵都與地球十分相似。種種有趣的比較,令赫歇爾產生了火星有生命的想法。
到了19世紀,義大利天文學家斯基帕雷利(Schiaparelli ,Giovanni Virginio)仔細觀察火星,他在火星表面上隱約看到了一些筆直的線條,連接著陰暗的地區,就像地球上的河流連接著大海,且線條如此直令他聯想到是人工的產物。由於1869年蘇伊士運河完工(當時的工程奇蹟),他的發現被認為是火星上大規模的人工結構。有趣的是,他把這些線條稱為“canali”,即義大利文的水道,但這字傳播開來的時候,被誤譯為“canal”,即英語的運河,故他的發現被後世稱為火星運河。這發現令火星有生命的猜測傳得更激烈。這些猜測於1913年終於被推翻,人們發現這些運河其實只是因為當時望遠鏡質素欠佳而造成的觀測錯誤。



2011年,佐治亞理工學院研究生露捷德拉·歐嘉(Lujendra Ojha)和研究人員在火星照片中發現了一些沿著隕石坑,峽谷和山脈的斜坡下降的黑條紋。條紋會在温暖的季節裏變深,在冷凍的季節裏變淺,最後消失,然後在翌年再次出現,他們把這些條紋命名為季節性斜坡紋線(Recurring slope lineae,簡稱RSL)。其後NASA透過火星勘測軌道飛行器(Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter,簡稱 MRO)上的成像光譜儀來研究這些RSL的光譜,他們發現當條紋褪色時,水合鹽的跡象亦隨之消失。因此他們認為這是火星上有流動液態水的證據。

為了更深入了解火星的氣候、地質等,以研究其「可居住性」,NASA派出的「好奇號」於201286日降落火星,展開探索。蓋爾撞擊坑(Gale Crater)是好奇號的主要探索範圍,該撞擊坑是方圓數千公里內的最低點,科學家認為水曾經匯集到坑內,也滲入地下。他們認為,即使地表水乾了,地下水也可能持續存在,令生命得以長期維持。好奇號也在火星上首次檢測到元素硼(Boron)。在地球,硼(或它的其他形態)是核糖核酸(RNA)(2)形成的一個組成部分,通常發現在乾旱的地方與蒸發的水。若火星存在硼,而當時的地下水的溫度及酸鹼值合適,火星便有可能存在生命。

現時火星的大氣層是以稀薄的二氧化碳為主,但好奇號在火星岩石中發現的化學物質卻證明了過往這星球上曾有更多的氧氣。好奇號在火星上一個叫作“Windjana”的地方檢測到含有高濃度氧化錳礦物的岩石,而氧化錳是需要有充足水份及氧化條件才能形成,這證明了很多年前的火星是有充足的液態水及氧氣。新墨西哥州洛斯阿拉莫斯國家實驗室的行星科學家尼娜·蘭扎(Nina Lanza)對火星氧氣的形成作了推測,她估計42億年前火星的水在磁場消失時分解。沒有保護磁場來屏蔽表面,電離輻射開始將水分子分裂成氫和氧。由於火星的表面重力相對較低,不能留著較輕的氫原子,因此剩下較重的氧原子留在火星表面,其後不斷累積,形成當時充滿氧氣的大氣層。

pyramid with circle.jpg

spheres with circle.jpg




1. AU(Astronomical unit,天文單位)1AU=149,597,870,700米。
2. 核糖核酸(RNA,即Ribonucleic Acid),存在於生物細胞以及部分病毒、類病毒中的遺傳信息載體。

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