NASA today announced the discovery of new exoplanets, totaling seven orbiting a dim red dwarf star, TRAPPIST-1, some 40 light years away. Note the headlines, which you could probably write yourself based on previous experience with these types of articles (emphasis added):
“Seven Alien ‘Earths’ Found Orbiting Nearby Star” (National Geographic)
By “Seven Alien ‘Earths'” they mean planets that are Earth-sized, admitting that the exoplanets have problems that Earth doesn’t have. For one, because the orbits are small, they’re likely tidally locked, meaning one half of the planet faces the star, perpetually irradiating it, while the other is in unending dark. No one knows if any of the seven has an atmosphere, or if so, what kind. NASA offers an artist’s rendering of the worlds (above) that makes a couple look pleasant and inviting, just like Earth. Care to take a refreshing dip in the ocean? We’ll have a fresh-caught seafood dinner afterward.
But obviously that is total speculation. NASA itself conceded earlier this month that red dwarf stars have their own issues:
The search for life beyond Earth starts in habitable zones, the regions around stars where conditions could potentially allow liquid water — which is essential for life as we know it — to pool on a planet’s surface. New NASA research suggests some of these zones might not actually be able to support life due to frequent stellar eruptions — which spew huge amounts of stellar material and radiation out into space — from young red dwarf stars.
Still, excitement runs high and even the faintest possibility of life circling this faint star is enough to send the media off to the races.
The New York Times notes the longevity of dwarf planets:
“If you’re looking for complex biology, intelligent aliens that might take a long time to evolve from pond scum, older could be better,” said Seth Shostak, an astronomer at the Seti Institute in Mountain View, Calif. “It seems a good bet that the majority of clever beings populating the universe look up to see a dim, reddish sun hanging in their sky. And at least they wouldn’t have to worry about sun block.”
“I think we’ve made a crucial step towards finding if there is life out there,” said Amaury Triaud, one of the study authors and an astronomer at the University of Cambridge. “I don’t think any time before we had the right planets to discover and find out if there was (life). Here, if life managed to thrive and releases gases similar to what we have on Earth, we will know.”
Life may begin and evolve differently on other planets, so finding the gases that indicate life is key, the researchers added.
The research is published in Nature (“Seven temperate terrestrial planets around the nearby ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1“). In an accompanying commentary article, Ignas A. G. Snellen concludes:
Could any of the planets harbour life? We simply do not know. But one thing is certain: in a few billion years, when the Sun has run out of fuel and the Solar System has ceased to exist, TRAPPIST-1 will still be only an infant star. It burns hydrogen so slowly that it will live for another 10 trillion years (ref. 10) — more than 700 times longer than the Universe has existed so far, which is arguably enough time for life to evolve.
So we “simply do not know” whether any of these planets could or does host an alien biology. Life could have, may have, evolved. But there’s always time to do so in the future, or anyway “arguably” so, “700 times longer than the Universe has existed so far.” Could be. Might be. However, everything else we do know indicates that life can’t and won’t originate and evolve without intelligent design.
Alien evolution remains about the most speculative science subject possible. That is, except for the multiverse, which serves the same purpose. Materialist science must have alien life, to show that earthly life isn’t special, and it must have a way to explain away the appearance of cosmic fine-tuning.
None of this puts a damper on breathless coverage from the popular science media. But the actual science of evolution is itself speculative and unfalsifiable. “There is hardly any possibility of testing a theory as feeble as this,” Karl Popper wrote, a view he never recanted, as Tom Bethell reports in his new book, Darwin’s House of Cards. So to be fair, why hold media coverage to a standard higher than the science itself meets?
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.