Space travel in pop culture, and in reality



Over the many decades since astronomers began to understand the composition of the solar system and universe there have been many notions about the nature of our world and its neighbors.

Once we figured out that Mars was a planet similar to our own world, we began to imagine life inhabiting the place. Remember when we thought Mars had canals? Canals would mean water. So, if there were people on Mars, would they be cruising down those canals on boats?

And then there was Venus—a planet only slightly smaller than our Earth. It was covered in clouds, but under those clouds could there be continents and oceans and cities? And way out in space, past the orbit of Pluto (which used to be a planet) there was suspected to be another planet— named Planet X. (Remember the sci fi movie “The Man from Planet X?”) Astronomers pretty much knew how big space is. We knew there were trillions of miles between us and the stars— light years. The nearest star—Proxima Centauri—is 4.243 light years distant. Remember, light travels at 186,000 miles per second. How many miles does light travel in a year? (Never mind—let’s just say it’s pretty far.)

Many people, including scientists, thought there might be life on other planets.

We know more today: Mars is very earth-like, but smaller with a lower gravitational pull, without as much atmosphere as our planet. Any water would be below the surface. Life as we know it needs a breathable atmosphere and some source of food. We can’t absolutely rule out Mars, but there seems little evidence of life on the Red Planet, and certainly it isn’t home to the creatures envisioned by H.G. Wells in “War of the Worlds.”

We can rule out Venus. Too hot, its atmosphere is extremely hostile to any known form of life. Most of the planets just aren’t right for life—but some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn could have the right chemistry.

If there is intelligent life “out there” it would have to come from outside our Solar System, meaning trillions of miles distant. So, UFOs could be real, but they would have had a long journey to our world.

But regardless, it’s a lot of fun to imagine intergalactic life, and we probably aren’t alone.

WARREN DOMKE is a columnist for the Pleasanton Express.

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