Life on Earth is based on the presence of a key unit known as an organic molecule, a molecule that contains carbon, especially complex hydrocarbons. Our solar system formed about 5 billion years ago from a cloud of gas and dust enriched by several generations of heavier element production in stars. Life is made up of chemical combinations of these elements made by stars. The Copernican principle, which suggests that there is nothing special about our place in the universe, implies that if life could develop on Earth, it should be able to develop in other places as well. The Fermi paradox asks why, if life is common, more advanced life-forms have not contacted us.
The study of life in the universe, including its origin on Earth, is called astrobiology. Life as we know it requires water, certain elemental raw materials (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur), energy, and an environment in which the complex chemistry of life is stable. Carbon-based (or organic) molecules are abundant in space and may also have been produced by processes on Earth. Life appears to have spread around our planet within 400 million years after the end of heavy bombardment, if not sooner. The actual origin of life—the processes leading from chemistry to biology—is not completely understood. Once life took hold, it evolved to use many energy sources, including first a range of different chemistries and later light, and diversified across a range of environmental conditions that humans consider “extreme.” This proliferation of life into so many environmental niches, so relatively soon after our planet became habitable, has served to make many scientists optimistic about the chances that life could exist elsewhere.
The search for life beyond Earth offers several intriguing targets. Mars appears to have been more similar to Earth during its early history than it is now, with evidence for liquid water on its ancient surface and perhaps even now below ground. The accessibility of the martian surface to our spacecraft offers the exciting potential to directly examine ancient and modern samples for evidence of life. In the outer solar system, the moons Europa and Enceladus likely host vast sub-ice oceans that may directly contact the underlying rocks—a good start in providing habitable conditions—while Titan offers a fascinating laboratory for understanding the sorts of organic chemistry that might ultimately provide materials for life. And the last decade of research on exoplanets leads us to believe that there may be billions of habitable planets in the Milky Way Galaxy. Study of these worlds offers the potential to find biomarkers indicating the presence of life.
Some astronomers are engaged in the search for extraterrestrial intelligent life (SETI). Because other planetary systems are so far away, traveling to the stars is either very slow or extremely expensive (in terms of energy required). Despite many UFO reports and tremendous media publicity, there is no evidence that any of these are related to extraterrestrial visits. Scientists have determined that the best way to communicate with any intelligent civilizations out there is by using electromagnetic waves, and radio waves seem best suited to the task. So far, they have only begun to comb the many different possible stars, frequencies, signal types, and other factors that make up what we call the cosmic haystack problem. Some astronomers are also undertaking searches for brief, bright pulses of visible light and infrared signatures of huge construction projects by advanced civilizations. If we do find a signal someday, deciding whether to answer and what to answer may be two of the greatest challenges humanity will face.