Life on other planets? Look to the moons

Is there life on other planets? Dr Douglas Van Belle from Victoria University of Wellington’s School of English, Film, Theatre, and Media Studies says probably, but suggests if we’re going to find it we might need to start thinking about extra-terrestrial life in a completely different way.

Van Belle says most current research into extra-terrestrial life looks at whether certain planets would be habitable and if those planets could support life over the billions of years it takes to develop intelligent life. He says most research then assumes this intelligent life would develop space travel the way humanity has. 

“Humanity developed space travel because of a specific set of environmental and social factors,” says Van Belle. “However, it is highly likely planets with completely different environments will lead to societies developing knowledge and related technologies in completely different ways. Many of them may never develop the ability to travel into space or communicate with other societies.”

In his recent research, Van Belle argues that factors like higher gravity or planets that did not rotate would inhibit space travel in societies that lived on such planets. Higher gravity would make it difficult to launch rockets, and planets that did not rotate would exist in permanent daylight, restricting what inhabitants could see from the surface and thus inhibiting their desire to travel into space. 

By taking these factors into consideration, Van Belle argues that the best place to look for extra-terrestrial life would be on habitable exo-moons. These moons can support life, have the low gravity necessary for space travel, and have a close view of surrounding planets, making space travel easy and desirable. 

“Just like humans, these societies would be able to reach orbit, and what they see in the sky would drive an interest in discovering what is out there,” says Van Belle.

He says his background in the humanities and his work in media studies allowed him to take this unique approach to the topic.

“In the study of the humanities, we are constantly asking how what we already know can blind us to learning more about a topic. I was able to apply this to the search for extra-terrestrial life to help me come up with a different perspective on it.”

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