Are we alone in the universe? On the hunt for alien life

Written by James O’Toole, CNN London

Over the next few days, stargazers will flock to Chile’s remote Atacama Desert to take part in the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) Astronomy Getaway – an invite-only astronomy conference. This event is one of the largest and most exclusive in the world.

Six hundred astronomers from 60 countries are taking part in this year’s event. Each will converge on the Atacama in southern Chile in search of alien life and dark energy.

It’s a passion for astronomer Colin Peake, who’s been learning about the wonders of the universe since he was six years old. He explains he “got sucked into the idea of the universe.”

“I started thinking about it,” he says. “When you start thinking like that, you think ‘I wonder, what’s the universe like?’ And that really turns you on.”

Exploring one of the most isolated desert environments on Earth, these scientists will work to find evidence of galactic activity, in the hopes of understanding dark energy and how our universe is expanding.

But they’ll also experiment with previously discovered life forms to see if they exist in the dark. These are the very beginnings of space science – in fact, the very beginning of any scientific endeavour.

“We want to test whether there is actually intelligent life in the universe, just to see how big this mystery is,” Peake explains. “But we’re also keen to find out what the environment looks like and we have this vision that we can discover new plants and new animals there.”

Going back to the future

In the desert, Peake and his fellow astronomers will attempt to replicate conditions that existed more than 400 million years ago. During those times, the “Golden Era” of space exploration, when ships roamed the solar system, giant celestial objects emitted low-energy radiation that could be picked up by our technology at the time.

“It’s a very immersive exploration,” he explains. “We’ll be going through some of the oldest sand dunes in the world, down into the atlas sediments, trying to see if there’s actually life there.”

Matt Vallin is an IADBA President and Astronomer Royal. He explains how he became obsessed with astronomy while he was on honeymoon in the Atacama in 2009.

“It was the biggest spectacle I had ever seen and I felt quite starstruck by it,” he remembers. “But what really hit me was being totally alone in a dark atmosphere, watching nature and the stars converge.”

“For a weekend, I was the only human being there,” he continues. “And I just felt so alive and completely myself. I wanted to do that again.”

Prior to joining the IADBA, Vallin was a regular commute to London for the Dark Sky Park in south east England. It’s been his job to keep everybody in London (including himself) safe in the harsh night skies.

“It’s hard to describe. When you’re away from city lights, especially for short periods of time, it’s like sitting in a bubble,” he says. “You feel a really deep satisfaction.”

How to be the next groupie

In the Atacama Desert, Vallin is preparing to fly to Europe for two weeks of meetings. After that, he’ll take off again in his “black box”, a sophisticated cherry red bus so far away from the throngs of tourists it almost feels like it’s completely “other.”

The bus is filled with lights, lights for his workshop to use, lights to display on the roof. It can even act as a viewing platform.

“They’re exactly the same, but depending on the situation, people will lean out and look at the darkness for as long as they can,” he explains.

In the background, Quetzalcoatl, Vallin’s pet vulture, cocks his head and looks at the sky. Though his piercing blue eyes may well peer out at the planet where he lives, he seems more excited to see Quetzalcoatl, who is only on his fourth visit to the Golden Age.

“One thing that you learn here is the importance of being a groupie, to try and connect to people,” he says. “When I was on honeymoon, I went all over the world to look for contact with people. If you don’t do that, there’s no way to help the UFO community or the dark sky community. And yet, it takes a lot of patience and commitment to connect with people.”

‘Are we alone in the universe?’

“The reality is that these are just mysterious phenomena,” Vallin concludes. “We may never really know the answer to this.”

Vallin puts the odds of whether or not any other life exists

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