Water – And Life? On Ceres

NASA scientists have announced they have definitively detected water vapor on Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt. This is the first time that water has been detected on anything in the belt and is a significant, but not perhaps too unexpected, discovery.

I remember seeing the episode of the new Battlestar Galactica where they lost their water supply and had to search long and hard to find more. There were lots of scenes of people sweating away (apparently lack of water raises the temperature and makes you sweat a lot – at least in Hollywood and TV land!) and much discussion about where they would find water to replace what they’d lost. I remember having a good rant at the time about how ridiculous the idea was.

You see, the simple fact is that water isn’t that rare in space.

Imagine you have the technology displayed on Galactica – routine space travel, faster than light propulsion, power sources that are obviously far ahead of anything that we have currently and advanced sensor systems. Now imagine you need water.

So, hop over to the nearest comet-field, snag a comet or two and you’re done! Most comets are large sources of water, so it wouldn’t be too hard to refill the supplies. Sure, you might need to do some filtering and separation of contaminants but hey, you’ve got a whole Battlestar of technology. How hard can it be? (This was just one of the ridiculous aspects of Galactica that made me shake my head and wonder if the makers had ever been to a science lesson in their lives.)

So far, astronomers have found traces of water almost everywhere they’ve looked. It’s been detected in interstellar clouds, in the atmospheres of many of the planets in our solar system, comets and in atmospheres around planets circling other stars. It’s probably one of the more plentiful compounds in the Universe and highly unlikely to be the cause of those poor Galacticers having to lose even a single drop of perspiration.

The fact that water is so relatively common also has a big impact on another much discussed issue – the search for extraterrestrial life and ultimately intelligence. The chemistry of life (as far as we know) is heavily dependent on water availability, so the fact that we detect it in a lot of places increases the possibility of life being “out there.”

Just this week Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute made the prediction that we will detect signs of intelligent life within twenty years with current technologies along with currently in-progress projects such as the James Webb Space Telescope. Given the number of exo-planets we have already discovered (over 1000 confirmed) it seems virtually certain that there are habitable planets out there: which means that statistically life exists within other solar systems and with that the chance of intelligent life approaches certainty too.

The idea that I might see such a truly momentous discovery could occur within my life is truly amazing. And don’t forget, you can become a Citizen Scientist and help out with the search!

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