Are Frozen Oceans Hindering Alien Contact?

The final image taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft (Photo courtesy of NASA)

The final image taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft (Photo courtesy of NASA)

By Emma Gruner, Staff Writer

The possibility of extraterrestrial life in our universe is one that has always enthralled scientists and non-scientists alike.

Yet this question is a difficult one to investigate; space is vast, and our knowledge of otherworldly life forms limited.

Still, despite the odds being in the aliens’ favor, many hold the belief that if another intelligent, technologically advanced civilization existed, they should have contacted Earth by now – a quandary often dubbed the Fermi paradox.

However, according to Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, CO, the reason for this extraterrestrial silence may be nothing more than an environmental hurdle.

Stern postulates that there could potentially be many intelligent civilizations in our galactic vicinity, lurking just beneath our notice in icy, ocean habitats.

While the Stern’s hypothesis is not based on any recent, groundbreaking discoveries, his work is the first to draw a direct connection between the prevalence of frozen oceans and the lack of alien contact. He unveiled his findings at this year’s American Astronomy Division for Planetary Sciences meeting in Provo, Utah.

The frequency of frozen oceans has only recently come to the attention of modern astronomers.

Even in our own solar system, oceans have been found on the moons of Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune, as well as on Pluto. While these bodies mostly manifest themselves as icy canyons and mountains on the surface, they do melt into liquid water at lower depths.

Hydrothermal vents could potentially pump nutrients into these subterranean environments, like they do in similar ecosystems on Earth.

Being shielded from the elements by a thick, icy crust, an underwater “civilization” could be very productive – perhaps even more than our own.

Furthermore, Stern suggests that any intelligent ocean races probably would not have much knowledge of or interest in the night sky – perhaps their equivalent of the “space program” would be to explore further into the depths of their own planet.

Of course, this is still just a theory. Douglas Vakoch, president of Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence in San Francisco, thinks we should not jump to conclusions or to invoke the Fermi paradox.

He emphasizes the difficulty of detecting biochemical life signals from a great distance, and believes that we probably have not developed the proper technology yet. Nonetheless, Stern’s work is a fascinating example of the complexities of otherworldly life that we often do not consider.

If enough people think outside the box like Stern, we may one day find the extraterrestrial soulmate that we have all been looking for.

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Author: Emma Gruner

Emma Gruner '20 is a Money, Science, and Technology writer for The Gettysburgian. She is a Chemistry and Mathematics double major and comes from Glen Rock, Pennsylvania. Emma currently works as a grader for Linear Algebra, and she plays viola in the Gettysburg College Orchestra. Emma enjoys knitting, Harry Potter, and crossword puzzles. She can be found on Facebook.

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